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07.05.10

Modeling for Don Bachardy

Tom Ford’s critically acclaimed adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel A Single Man made painter Don Bachardy a sensation—but modeling for him is still a tough job.

After four long hours of no movement, “pins and needles” doesn't even begin to describe it. I was in the cluttered, sunlit studio of Don Bachardy, the legendary artist who has captured some of the world's most famous people, and to my amazement, he was painting a portrait of me. Although it was a great honor, I had no feeling whatsoever in my lower extremities, and thought I might topple off the chair at any moment.

Bachardy first came to public attention as the much younger lover of celebrated novelist Christopher Isherwood. Their 33-year relationship has been the subject of several books and documentaries. But over the years, Bachardy has become an esteemed portrait artist in his own right, having painted the likes of Fred Astaire, Bette Davis, and Montgomery Clift. (When Angelina became pregnant with baby Shiloh, she commissioned Bachardy to do three nude paintings, a la Demi, to immortalize her growing belly).

Click Below to View Our Gallery of Painter Don Bachardy's Work

This year, Bachardy has been experiencing the kind of fame usually reserved for his subjects. Ever since the movie A Single Man hit theaters, Bachardy, a shy and introverted man who usually spends his days in the company of an easel, has found himself smack in the middle of Hurricane Hollywood.

"I've had all kinds of people calling me and commissioning me to paint them,” he says almost apologetically. “They tell me how much they liked the film, but I really can't take any credit for it.”

Bachardy is being humble. A Single Man, based on the book by Isherwood, was inspired entirely by Bachardy, or more precisely, by his absence. It was written after the couple had broken up; they eventually got back together and remained so until Isherwood's death in 1986. Isherwood was so affected by the temporary split that he wrote a short story about a gay English professor who unexpectedly loses his younger lover in a car crash. A Single Man became one of his two most famous novels along with The Berlin Stories, which was the basis for Cabaret.

Bachardy, who owns the rights to all of Isherwood's books, was also the one who gave fashion designer Tom Ford the green light to direct the film, even though Ford had no experience making movies. There was something about Ford's passion, his knowledge of the material that touched him. “I realized in our first meeting that if anyone could get that film done it would be him,” Bachardy recalls.

So he took a leap of faith. And boy, did it pay off. A Single Man was hailed by critics as one of the best films of the year, and received a gazillion nominations at major film festivals around the world. Actor Colin Firth took home the Golden Globe and got an Oscar nod for Best Actor. "I'm very excited and encouraged that so many people are seeing the film and liking it,” says Bachardy. “It's wonderful to know that they're being awakened to Chris and, by extension, to me.”

Now that the movie is coming out on DVD this week, Bachardy, now 76, can finally go back to what he loves most: painting. Although he's known for his celebrity portraits, he paints "regular" people as well. He works every day, for hours at a time, with the passion and stamina of someone one-third his age. He's one of the only portraitists in the world who only paints live, meaning he'll never use photographs or even work from memory. Once the model has left the room, he puts down his brush.

"What is exciting is to work with the person and get all the input, all the vibration and the aura of a living personality,” he explains. “How can you do that with a photograph?”

Which is why he needs lots of models. But sitting for Bachardy is not for the faint of heart, a lesson I learned after getting a call from his assistant asking whether I'd like to be his model for a day.

I arrived at his house as instructed and sat on the only stool in the room, the same one Angelina Jolie had sat on, naked, only a few years before. (I asked.) After a very short greeting, Bachardy got down to business. I gave him my most troubled expression, enough angst and anger so that he'd have something to work with. I was doing well—or so I thought, until my body started to play tricks with my mind.

I sat on the only stool in the room, the same one Angelina Jolie had sat on, naked, only a few years before. (I asked.)

It started with a tiny itch on the tip of my nose. Then my ears, chin, and neck all joined in. The more I ignored it, the worse it got. I tried to sneak in a quick scratch every time Bachardy looked down, but I must have looked like a crazy person with scabies.

I had also miscalculated my position and now both my feet were buzzing with sleep. In fact, it wasn't just my legs that decided this would a perfect time to take a nap, my entire brain was shutting down. Even though I was rested (it was barely noon), I was struggling to keep my eyes open. I'd find myself waking up every few minutes wondering how long I'd been out, and whether Don was secretly cursing the moment he asked me to sit for him.

Bachardy finally took pity on me and ended my torture earlier than planned, but not before managing to complete two paintings. When he was done he asked me to sign them.

"You want me to sign your paintings?” I asked.

"Yes,” he said. “This is a collaboration between us.” I wanted to ask if we could collaborate on keeping the art, but decided not to push my luck.

I'm glad I got through it. I feel as though in a small way, I got to be a part of history. And in the process I learned something valuable about myself—mainly that I will never be able to make a living as a model, and that if I had only three weeks to live I'd spend them sitting for Don Bachardy. Because every minute seems like a year.

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Itay Hod is a former reporter for CBS News where he reported on a range of topics from breaking news and politics to lifestyle and culture.