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Every Picture Tells a Story

STARS IN MY EYES By Don Bachardy; University of Wisconsin Press: 184 pp., $34.95

October 01, 2000|DAVID THOMSON | David Thomson is the author of "In Nevada: The Land, the People, God, and Chance" and "Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts."

When Alec Guinness agreed to sit for Don Bachardy in 1975, he let the artist know that he was doing it just as "a friend of Christopher." Fair enough, and it was then a measure of Bachardy's insight and kindness that, when he and Guinness had lunch after the drawing session, Bachardy got Chris to come, too--Christopher Isherwood, Bachardy's companion from 1953 until the writer's death in 1986. There are David Hockney paintings and photo-collages of Isherwood and Bachardy at home, in which Bachardy is slightly less favored in the composition, or a shade more passive (as if listening). Fair enough again: Isherwood was the star and Bachardy the friend. So it's one pleasure of this unusual and entertaining book to discover how keenly the bystander was attending and learning.

At its heart, "Stars in My Eyes" is an album of straight-on black-and-white portrait drawings of celebrities, done in pencil, in ink, and even--as in the fatiguing ordeal with Jerry Brown (the former governor seemed incapable of relaxing)--a painting. There's a rich batch of classic old-timers: Bette Davis, Louise Brooks, Joan Fontaine, Olivia de Havilland, Myrna Loy, Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell and Ginger Rogers. There are far fewer from younger show biz generations: Maggie Smith, Linda Ronstadt, Jack Nicholson, Mia Farrow and Jill St. John. And then there are a few from other worlds: Aaron Copland, Robert Mapplethorpe, Allen Ginsberg and Helmut Newton. But what really gives the book its fascination is the development of Bachardy's diary notes made at the time of each sitting into a full essay on the encounter. It doesn't diminish his skill as a draftsman to say that this commentary is often the sharpest part of the book.

Bachardy is candid about his own method and his feelings as he works: He prefers to work from life, in something like a two-hour session, in which the subject sits as still as possible (fidgets are the worst); he would rather have no talk with the subject, though that is often impossible, and when silence does prevail--as with Maggie Smith--Bachardy can feel disappointed or ignored. Further, out of a childhood love of the movies, he is drawn to film people: "I believe that non-movie star sitters are not linked to their youthful images in the same way that movie stars are. Early photographs of non-movie stars do not make as indelible an imprint on our minds as the moving images of actors in their early movies do. And we can still see these early movies whenever we want to."

I'm not sure how far to accept all of that. There are some fine drawings of Bette Davis, done in 1973 with precise but tender descriptions of her at home, that show the famous way Davis' looks declined, how a saucy and saucer-eyed prettiness in the early 1930s turned into a gargoyle in horror films. Davis was brave and honest enough to recognize what had happened. She looked at Bachardy's drawing of herself--and, naturally enough, he is always fearful of this moment--and announced, "Yup, that's the old bag."

But with many of the veterans, a certain glassiness intervenes. This can be an alliance of cosmetics, surgery, vanity and reluctance to let go of the younger face. Myrna Loy in photographs is more interesting than Bachardy has made her. Alice Faye and Ruby Keeler feel like porcelain figurines, cut off from character. It's a way of drawing that makes Bachardy the natural illustrator for a new startling Dorian Gray.

Then there is Ginger Rogers. In 1975, still living with her mother, she was an unsettling survivor, the firecracker who had kept up with Fred Astaire. She had put on weight. She had dyed her hair and adopted several other protective schemes. Yet in Bachardy's portrait of her, she looks like the old Ginger imprisoned within a slowly inflating balloon. She scolded and coaxed Bachardy at his failure to make her a millimeter exact. She was in her mid-60s, yet she did not--and does not in the drawings--look like a person of that age or experience.

Bachardy's skill, and his evident curiosity about people, may deserve more interesting subjects than film people. The line drawing is a form that seeks inner character; it can look surgical or prim without iron in the subject's soul. Bachardy says in his introduction that he likes to draw everyone he meets. This collection might have been a lot stronger with portraits of people we don't recognize. Still, even when the material is most vacant, Bachardy excels as a writer. Take Jill St. John. She was only in her early 40s when he drew her, though she was blase about her "career." She still looked, he observed, like a pretty starlet. Then he adds this, which is not kind but is worth the price of admission (and enough to take the saint out of St. John):

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