A Single Man director, Tom Ford.
When it was announced that fashion design icon Tom Ford was making a film, most dismissed it as a vanity project; few imagining that A Single Man would become a critically acclaimed work.
Based on the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man is the story – set in the 1960’s – of George Falconer, a 52 year old British college professor, played by Colin Firth, who is struggling to find meaning in his life after the death of his long time partner, Jim. He is limited in his ability, as a gay man in this era, to express his grief publicly and is not even invited by Jim’s family to the funeral.
As George contemplates suicide, we meet his best friend Charley, portrayed by Julianne Moore, an ageing beauty who is also grappling with her own future. Thrown into the mix is Kenny, one of George’s sexually ambivalent students, who seems intent on stalking his professor.
It’s a gorgeously rendered, even poetic, look at grief, love and finding meaning and beauty in the little things in life. As one would expect from an aesthetic craftsman such as Ford, the film is immaculately filmed and visualised.
“I first read the book in the early 1980s and was moved by the honesty and simplicity of the story,” says Ford, the openly-gay Texas born writer-director-producer of the film. And it’s no surprise that, at 48, Ford is almost the same age as George.
“Three years ago, after searching for the right project to develop as my first film, it occurred to me that I often thought of this novel and its protagonist, ‘George’. I picked it up and read it again and the book resonated with me in an entirely different way. It is a deeply spiritual story of one day in the life of a man who cannot see his future.”
Ford’s past work as a creative director of still photography, advertising campaigns and commercials in the fashion industry – heading up design for companies such as Gucci and Yves Saint-Laurent – for the past 25 years helped him understand framing, lighting, and the importance of image in the telling of a story.
He is quick to point out, however, that image and style can also kill a film if there is not a story or message that deserves to be told and challenges the viewer. For Ford the story is all: “We seem to have lost character driven films with dialogue, and these are ultimately the most rewarding films for me as a viewer and this is the type of film that I set out to make.”
While the hero of the story is gay, Ford points out that the film transcends sexuality. “The movie is about loss and loneliness. It could be the same story if it was George’s wife, instead of his partner, who had died. This is a love story and one man’s search for meaning in his life. The theme is universal.”
Colin Firth as George in A Single Man.
This kind of comment has infuriated some critics who suggest that Ford has purposefully attempted to downplay the film’s gay elements in its marketing to help sell it to a wider audience. They have pointed out that the trailer for A Single Man in the US showed no hint of the main character’s sexuality.
In an interview with AfterElton.com, Ford – who has been with his partner, journalist Richard Buckley, for over 20 years – responded that this simply reflects the reality of trying to market a film around the world.
“America is a very strange place. In order to cut a trailer that we could run in theaters, we had to remove the men kissing because they consider that ‘adult sexual content.’ In order to make the trailer acceptable, that was a cut that had to be made,” he explained.
“Did I do the actual cut? No. Was I happy about it? No. But did we have to do it to market the film and get the word out? Yes. Is the film gay when you see it in the theater? Absolutely.”
The film has not only redefined Ford’s career, thrusting him into the movie world as a talented film director, but it has also given its star Colin Firth – last seen as a gay man in the musical film Mamma Mia – the opportunity to offer the most widely acclaimed performance of his career.
Ford says, “The incredible thing about Colin is his ability to telegraph what he’s thinking through his eyes, almost without moving his face and certainly without saying a line.” He adds that Firth’s subtle acting skills worked perfectly for the restrained character of George.
The 49 year old English actor has received an Academy Award nomination for his work in A Single Man, and recently won the BAFTA for Best Actor, among a slew of other critical accolades. Interestingly, while receiving his BAFTA award Firth said that he almost turned down the role because it seemed too difficult, claiming that he was interrupted by a handyman before he could send the e-mail rejecting the role.
Firth, who is straight, is clearly no stranger to gay roles and A Single Man nicely rounds off his career to-date in so much as he first launched it by also playing a gay character; Guy Bennett in Another Country, on stage in 1983 and on film in 1984.
This kiss was cut from the US trailer.
When asked by The Scotsman about having any trepidation about taking on another gay role, he responded: “If you’re an actor who is afraid to play a character because they’re gay, you should probably go and get yourself sorted out, actually. Grow up.”
He also spoke about the gay subject matter to Marshall Fine from Hollywood and Fine, noting that Tuesday, November 4th, 2008, a day on which he was filming a scene for A Single Man, was also the day that the Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage was passed in California. “And I thought, ‘Maybe we are still in 1962,’” said Firth.
“When Proposition 8 passed, I thought, ‘If that can happen now, if something so retrograde can occur in 2008, maybe we haven’t made much progress at all.”
There is, however, much progress in terms of the critical success of A Single Man. It’s another landmark in gay cinema, adding to the growing body of work that reflects a maturing of the genre and an increasing acceptance by mainstream audiences. Ford though, had less ambitious goals when embarking on the film…
“A great movie haunts you,” he says. “It’s both entertaining and thought provoking. In that way, I hope that A Single Man makes you question things… think about things in a way that you haven’t thought about before.” He adds, “I am hopeful that it will show the audience that the small things in life are really the big things in life.”
A Single Man is released in South African on 26 February.