Closet Case

12.07.09

Tom Ford, A Single Man, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 99 minutes. Production still. Jim and George (Matthew Goode and Colin Firth). Photo: Eduard Grau/The Weinstein Company.


PHILADELPHIA FOR THE ART-HOUSE CROWD (with crossover appeal to readers of Allure and fans of Mad Men), A Single Man is a gay film designed for the tolerant admiration of straight audiences. For his directorial debut, Tom Ford, the former creative director of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, has adapted Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel (the author’s personal favorite of his books) about a day in the life of George, a fifty-eight-year-old gay Englishman who teaches literature at a small college in Los Angeles; memories of his longtime partner, Jim, who died eight months prior in a car crash, frequently interrupt George’s interior monologue.

In his take on Isherwood’s text—praised by Edmund White as “one of the first and best novels of the modern gay-liberation movement”—Ford has crafted one of the most laboriously art-directed, mawkish depictions of pre-Stonewall gay life. After nixing a completed screenplay by David Scearce, Ford (who put up almost seven million dollars of his own money to make A Single Man) wrote a script, introducing several misguided plot points. George, played by Colin Firth, now begins his day knowing it will be his last, assiduously attending to pre-suicide errands: arranging farewell notes on his desk just so; laying out the suit (designed, of course, by Ford, as is all of Firth’s attire) he is to be buried in, specifying a Windsor knot for his tie; retrieving documents from his safety-deposit box at the bank, where George will have a mystical encounter with the pigtailed moppet who lives next door. The protagonist of Isherwood’s novel, lonely, melancholic, but still vigorous and determined, has been stripped of his vitality, portrayed as a tragic, extremely fussy homosexual.

Preparing for his own death, George experiences all the events and interactions of the next twenty-four hours (set on an unspecified day sometime before Christmas 1962 in Isherwood’s book but assigned the specific date of November 30 in Ford’s movie) with heightened appreciation. George and a Madrileño hustler he meets in a liquor-store parking lot remark on the pretty pink hue of the smog hanging over Los Angeles at dusk—another narrative addition of Ford’s whose sole function is to allow Firth to show off a Castilian lisp.

Nothing randy happens between George and the pretty, pompadoured rent boy; Ford, notorious for his carnal fashion spreads in the 1990s, has made a sexless film. We catch a glimpse of well-sculpted butts when George and Kenny (Nicholas Hoult, also outfitted by Ford), a student who’s hot for teacher, skinny-dip in the Pacific. George’s flashbacks to life with Jim (Matthew Goode), the love of his life for sixteen years, reveal a furtive nuzzle. In Ford’s most grotesque intervention into Isherwood’s text, George has the most bodily contact with Charley (Julianne Moore), George’s neighbor and fellow British expat, depicted on-screen as the pushiest of fag hags. “If you weren’t such a goddamn poof, we could have been happy,” Charley, soused on Tanqueray, her bouffant collapsed, slurs at George after he rebuffs her. Desperate women, suicidal gays: Ford may have perfected the retro look of 1962, but beneath the superficial glamour of his movie lies an exceptionally retrograde sensibility.

Melissa Anderson

A Single Man is now available through Sony Pictures on DVD and Blu-Ray.