As a child, Don Bachardy taught himself to draw by copying portraits of movie actors. “I thought I could bring something special to their photographs,” he says. “I don’t think any drawing done from a photograph could ever be of real interest, but I was developing the sharpness of my eye.”
Half a lifetime later, he encountered movie actors again, and drew them again – but by this time, his eye had grown sharp with the encouragement of his lover, the late writer Christopher Isherwood.
“So many people have said, ‘Do I look like that to you?’ They’ve never seen what they look like when they’ve been sitting still for three hours. Something deep comes out, something very different and shocking. Fred Astaire sat for me once. He looked startling when his face was un-animated. He looked almost scary, like Boris Karloff. He was very deflated by the result. He offered to sit for a second portrait and of course I said yes – but the result was every bit as grim as the first.”
Bachardy completes portraits in a single three- to four-hour sitting, and he refuses to sugarcoat what he sees. The result is rough and lifelike, filled with imperfection and revealing of emotion, no matter how closely guarded by his subject. He has turned from the precision and elegance of his early line drawings to a blunter, more brutal brush with fame by painting it unadorned, daring the shocking dullness he spies beneath each movie star’s image to announce itself with a keen intensity.
“I can’t cheat,” Bachardy says. “The whole point of drawing from life is to draw what I see, and the truth of what I’m looking at is always far more interesting to me than any fantasy I may have in my head about a particular personality.”
He claims that his favorite part of any portrait is the mouth. “Of course eyes are more telling than anything else,” he says, “but the mouth is where the personality of a person most expresses itself.”
These portraits of movie stars speak not volumes. Each speaks instead as if it were its own terse tale – that is how they express themselves – his strokes as spare with purpose as any sentence that issued forth from Isherwood. (“We were both recorders by nature,” Bachardy explains.) The stillness it takes to pose for those three to four hour sessions – I posed three times for Don myself – begins to reverberate in the silence that Don insists one sit in when he is working, a reverberation that then finds itself settling there in the canvas. Don Bachardy sees movie stars without the framing of fame. These are not glamour portraits. There is even a kind of willful, wonderful kind of exalted ugliness at times one finds in them. As a boy, Don Bachardy worshipped glamour. His art now – his very wisdom as an eighty-four-year-old man – serves as its apostate.
Listen to Don at the bottom of this curated gallery of his portraits talk about movie stars and his artistic process.