In Ira Sachs’ new film, “Love Is Strange,” George (Alfred Molina), a choir director at a Catholic school, and Ben (John Lithgow), a painter, take advantage of New York’s gay marriage laws and joyfully tie the knot. Their happiness becomes short-lived, however, when George — who has never hidden his homosexuality — is promptly fired by the parochial school for legally marrying his partner. Suddenly short on cash, the couple is forced to sell their apartment and to live apart for the first time in 39 years, crashing separately in crowded households of friends and relatives. Yet their love continues to grow as they struggle to find new housing and to once more live together, even as they deal with the consequences their situation has for all their loved ones.
For Sachs, 48, who is both gay and Jewish, “Love Is Strange” represents a profound departure from his previous work.
“All my past films tended to be about the nature of love to destroy everyone involved,” Sachs, who lives in Manhattan, said in a telephone interview.
His 2005 drama “Forty Shades of Blue,” for example, spotlights a restless young Russian who chafes within her relationship to a much older, narcissistic womanizer.
And Sachs’ semi-autobiographical 2012 film, “Keep the Lights On,” tells of the highly dysfunctional relationship between a documentary filmmaker and a previously closeted, drug-addicted publishing attorney. The movie is a fictionalized account of Sachs’ own long-term relationship with Bill Clegg, a literary agent who chronicled his battle with crack cocaine in his memoir “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man,” according to The New York Times and other news reports.
In our interview, Sachs politely declined to discuss his ex, as they’ve promised each other to keep their past private, he said. He would say that the shame some of his characters endure regarding their sexual orientation comes directly from his own experience: “Growing up in Memphis, I was never called a ‘faggot,’ ” he said. “But I encountered an enormous amount of cultural repression and homophobia while I was closeted and afterward. I came out of the closet at 16, but that didn’t mean I left behind all of those bad feelings.”
The change came as Sachs — who described himself as “a great believer in the talking cure” — embarked on a 17-year journey through psychoanalysis; the therapy taught him not only “to like myself,” he said, but also to engage in a more open and direct way with Boris Torres, the Ecuador-born painter he fell in love with after his past relationship failed.
Sachs and Torres wed in 2012 just a week before the birth of their twins, a boy and a girl who are now 2. They live in Greenwich Village, next door to the twins’ mother, who along with Torres has agreed to raise their children as Jews.
The result of all this marital bliss was “Love Is Strange,” Sachs said: “I aspired to make a film as someone who can, for the first time, imagine a long and blossoming love,” explained the director, who co-wrote the film with Mauricio Zacharias. “The movie is about love at the end of life, and I wanted to imagine what my young marriage might look like in many years to come.”
The film was also inspired, in part, by a news article Sachs and Zacharias read some years ago about a choir director at a Catholic school who was fired after marrying his longtime partner. Nevertheless, Sachs said he was concerned less with homophobia than with depicting what he calls “the normalcy of gayness” onscreen — which could be regarded as radical in its own way.
Out Magazine called “Love Is Strange” a “post-gay landmark in cinema.” Sachs, for his part, said, “We’ve seen very few couples like Ben and George in American films. The films that have made their mark broadly and commercially in our culture are movies like ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘Milk,’ which describe the struggle to be who you are as a gay person. This film is different in that it provides another image of gay people, perhaps a more ordinary one. Telling a story about a gay couple who’ve been together for almost 40 years is culturally significant. Ben and George are presented in a full, human way and can’t be limited by being distinguished as marginalized or ‘less-than.’ ”
In his life outside filmmaking, Sachs has been more of an overt activist. After graduating from Yale and moving to New York in 1988, he became a member of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), and he currently runs New York’s Queer/Art/Film program.
Sachs traces his activism to his progressive Jewish upbringing in Memphis, Tenn., where his father was involved in the American Civil Liberties Union, his mother worked to eradicate poverty, and the family’s Reform synagogue rallied for civil rights in the 1960s and ’70s. Sachs, who served as president of his chapter of the National Federation of Temple Youth, also lived for a time in Memphis’ inner city — where some of his neighbors were impoverished — and which spurred his interest in the issues of class and inequality that permeate all his films.
Thus, the hardships that Ben and George experience in “Love Is Strange” stem more from their finances than from their gay identities:
“I think that character can be defined, in part, by economics,” Sachs said. “Freud said that the only thing harder to talk about than sex is money, because that’s so essential to who we are.
“What’s interesting about Ben and George is that their separation is due to external forces, and that makes it even more of a love story,” he added. “We get to know and value their relationship because we see them at a moment of struggle.”
“Love is Strange” opens Aug. 22.