“I’ve always felt that all my work could be titled The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” Ira Sachs says, a comment that anyone familiar with the 48-year-old filmmaker might consider an understatement. If you take a look through his two-decades-and-counting career, you might find that the miseries and mysteries of human attraction are a common thread. What links the interracial romance between a young Southerner and a Vietnamese hustler (1996’s The Delta), a character study set in the Memphis music scene (2005’s Forty Shades of Blue, which took home the Sundance jury prize), a self-conscious take on Fifties melodramas (2007’s Married Life), and a decade-long chronicle of a gay relationship in pre- and post-9/11 New York (2012’s Keep the Lights On) is the notion that romantic bliss is impossible. Marriages are disasters, affairs are common and nobody ends up happily ever after.
It’s surprising, then, that Sachs’ latest film — Love Is Strange — has been dubbed the most romantic movie of the year by a number of critics since it premiered at Sundance last January. The praise, however, is deserved. Ben and George (played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, both garnering Oscar buzz) are a loving New York couple that, having been together for 39 years, are finally getting hitched thanks to the Marriage Equality Act. But after George gets fired from his job at a Catholic school for his sexual orientation (his homosexuality has been an open secret; it’s the marriage part that raises hackles), they can no longer afford their place. The two have to rely on friends and family for temporary housing, an upsetting development that forces the men to live apart for the first time in decades and sends unexpected shock waves through their close-knit community.
What could have been just a polemic about a hot-button social issue and how intolerance destroys lives, however, turns into a tender, tragic look at the way relationships are tested — and how the toll ends up weighing heavily on everyone involved. “I’ve always been interested in the intimacy between individuals and among groups of people,” Sachs says. “The movie is about romantic relationships, but it’s also about familial relationships: neighbors and friends and mothers and sons. All these things are ‘strange’ — if you consider ‘strange’ to be ‘unique’ — and yet also very universal.”
If Keep the Lights On suggested that Sachs was working out some issues and exorcising some serious demons — its doomed love story was inspired by Sachs’ failed relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg — Strange reflects a happier period in his life. Now married to painter Boris Torres and the father of two-year-old twins, the filmmaker has found that domesticity has altered his perspective. “It’s a very hopeful film about the possibility of love between two people of the same sex,” Sachs says. “I couldn’t have made this film in my 30s because it wasn’t how I experienced life, and certainly wasn’t how I experienced intimacy. All my previous work was about the nature of love to destroy and how much we hide from each other. That’s no longer the life I live, and I feel that the world has changed —not necessarily because of the [marriage] laws, but the laws reflect an openness, which is really beautiful.”
“An old friend of mine — who’d had a long, long marriage that was still going strong — once told me, ‘If you’ve been married for 35 years, it means you’ve had about seven different marriages,'” Lithgow says. “There are many chapters to life. And if you are lucky enough to withstand all those chapters with the same person, you have something that’s so valuable, which is a mutual history. You have another self.”
When it came to Lithgow’s onscreen “other self,” the actor didn’t have to dig deep to find a shared sense of connection. Friendly for more than 20 years, Lithgow and Molina (who are both in long-term marriages) first met briefly on the red carpet at the Tony Awards in the early 1990s, occasionally running into one another or sharing a meal with a mutual friend. But the cementing of their bond occurred during a sad period when they separately went to the hospital to visit the character actress Ileen Getz, who died of cancer in 2005. “Fred and I hung out with a lot of her other friends in the hospital ward, and we got to be really, really close,” Lithgow recalls. “Meet Alfred, and you just get this extraordinary warmth from him. He’s a very open, genial, self-effacing man. It’s the stuff of really good friendships.”
No surprise, then, that the two actors effortless convey Ben and George’s lived-in rapport, the small details suggesting a lifetime of cohabitation, complete with its minor annoyances and gentle affection. As for Love Is Strange‘s final moments, with their mixture of tears and warmth, Sachs not only enjoys its open-ended nature but also the fact that viewers can’t quite decide when the story concludes. “It’s interesting because different people have different moments that they call the end of the movie,” he says. “To me, the end of the movie is [a particular character] heading forward into some unknown that is different than when the movie began. In lots of ways, Love Is Strange is as much a coming-of-age film as it is a romantic movie or a tragedy. I always knew that this was a film that contains loss — but wasn’t about loss.”