Fashion designer Tom Ford has made a seamless transition to filmmaker with "A Single Man," the soulful, immaculately styled story of a grieving college professor in 1960s California.
The ultra-confident Ford never doubted his abilities — though he admits plenty of other people did.
"It's funny, because everyone was so supportive," Ford said. "And now that I've made the film, quite a few people have said to me, 'Isn't it nice you did that when everyone was laughing at you?'"
They're not laughing now.
"A Single Man" has earned strong reviews — it opens widely across North America on Christmas Day — and last week received Golden Globe nominations for its score and the performances of Julianne Moore and Colin Firth.
Firth won the best-actor prize at the Venice Film Festival for his performance as George Falconer, a gay Englishman in Los Angeles mourning the death of his longtime lover in a car accident.
Ford — who directed, co-wrote and co-produced the film — has been praised for his subtle adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novel, which recounts a day in George's life through seemingly unfilmable interior monologue.
The film adds a dash of plot and gallons of visual flair.
Unable to see a future without his partner Jim (Matthew Goode), George resolves to end it all. He gets a gun and starts to set his affairs in order.
Along the way he encounters his best friend, Charley (Julianne Moore, sporting a wardrobe to die for), and Kenny (Nicholas Hoult, all grown up since he played the boy in "About a Boy"), a young student who takes a slightly stalkerish interest in George.
It's all remarkably assured, but then the Texas-born Ford has never lacked ambition. Now 48, he transformed luxury brand Gucci in the 1990s before founding his own Tom Ford label. Filmmaking seemed like a small step.
"I've just never let the thought of failure stop me when there was something I felt that I wanted to do," he said. "I wanted to make a film. And I want to make another, and another, and another."
"A Single Man" is the work of a film fanatic, a love letter to cinema. George's monochrome life bursts into Technicolor when he makes contact with other people. Ford includes visual salutes to directors from Alfred Hitchcock to Pedro Almodovar to Wong Kar-wai. Even "The Wizard of Oz" gets a reference. These are not the acts of a director afraid to be compared to his idols.
The movie's stylish surface offers all you would expect from a fashionista's film: precise period detail, handsome actors and gorgeous outfits that capture the early 1960s in all their sartorial glory, from pin-sharp suits to pink mohair sweaters.
"I don't know how to help myself," laughed Ford, who despite a jetlag-inducing round of international openings is impeccably tailored, from his crisp shirt cuffs to his neat suit jacket.
"People said to me afterwards, 'Everyone's so beautiful.' And I thought, 'They are?' It wasn't anything that occurred to me.
"It's kind of enhanced reality. You're seeing the world through the eyes of a man who thinks he's leaving, and everything becomes hyper-beautiful to him."
Ford insists, however, that he did not put style over substance. Many reviewers have been surprised by the film's restraint, the unflashy way it depicts an intelligent, ironic, emotionally reserved man consumed by grief. It's a tribute to Firth, who gives the performance of his career, but also to Ford.
Ford says that, when he chose the project, "believe it or not, I didn't care about the style. It's layered on to support the characters. But when looking for the right project it was the story, something worth telling. That's what attracted me."
"I had to figure out what my voice was as a filmmaker. I knew what I stood for as a fashion designer, but let's be real: Who needs to see a Tom Ford film? Who cares? What did I have to say?"
What the film seems to say is: embrace the moment and enjoy the beauty around you.
Like the late Isherwood — best known for writing the stories of 1930s Berlin that inspired the musical "Cabaret" — Ford has an interest in philosophy and spirituality. The film approvingly cites Aldous Huxley's maxim, "Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him."
"It is a very spiritual book," Ford said. "It's about a guy who can't see his future. It is all about living in the present."
Despite the film's warm reception, it hasn't all been smooth sailing. The openly gay Ford has taken some flak for advertising the film with a poster featuring Firth and Moore — implying, in some eyes, a heterosexual theme.
Ford says the poster is "marketing 101: you have your two biggest stars and they give great performances, who are you going to put on the poster to get people to go see it?"
He's less happy about having to cut the trailer to remove a male-male kiss — fine in Europe, but classified in the U.S. as "adult sexual content" that would limit the circumstances in which it could be seen.
He agreed to the cut — marketing won out again — but says the classification is "totally absurd."
Overall, though, Ford is enjoying this new career.
He says filmmaking is "the closest thing to God we get to be."
"I created that universe: it's forever sealed in that little bubble. A hundred years from now, all the actors will be dead, I'll be dead — but you'll still be able to pop it in and laugh, cry, smile. It will be alive. It's just amazing."
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