When Tom Ford's directing debut A Single Man hit cinemas in 2009, very few knew what to expect. Ford had never directed a film before (not even a short), had never adapted a novel into a screenplay before and yet here he was tackling everything all at once. Yes, he was a fashion tycoon with immaculate taste but how would this translate to cinema? Beautifully, as it turned out, the captivating day-in-the-life tale of George Falconer – a gay and deeply depressed British university professor living in 1960s Southern California – resulting in resounding praise from critics, skeptics and Ford fanatics alike.
As anyone who's seen the film will know, its success lies in its concoction of perfectly complementary components. First there's the breathtaking cinematography which bestows the film with its dreamlike quality, at once dappled and saturated. Then there's the exquisite attention to detail – from the beguiling locations to the sumptuously 60s props, costumes, make-up and hairstyles. Finally there's the cast – from an Oscar-nominated Colin Firth and a cherubic Nicholas Hoult to Julianne Moore as the barmy and beautiful Charley – who pull off Ford's nuanced script with understated aplomb. And so, in celebration of the designer-cum-director's birthday, we take a look at the key lessons his film can teach us.
1. Wooden interiors work wonders
An undisputable star of A Single Man is of course the Schaffer Residence, George's covetable Modernist home, built by John Lautner in 1949. Situated at the foot of the Verdugo Mountains, the residence opens out onto a verdant oak forest which informed its design. Its structure comprises of concrete, glass and redwood, the latter lending a jaw-droppingly chic yet cosy quality to its various, light-strewn rooms. Other wooden interiors of note include that of George's stylish, navy blue Mercedes 220S Coupe (swoon), and the Art Deco bank where George has a sweet encounter with his neighbour's young daughter, Jennifer.
2. Find joy in colour
Perfectly curated colour abounds in A Single Man – look no further than Jennifer's vibrant, frilly frocks and Charley's pink cigarettes with gold foil tips. Charley asks George to buy her a bottle of Tanqueray gin, declaring "I love the colour of the bottle," and although her penchant for the bottle's contents is also clear, a later look inside Charley's good-enough-to-eat apartment, complete with white shag carpet, silk couches and pastel wallpaper, demonstrates the truth behind this statement.
Colour is also used as a clever cinematic technique to symbolise George's changing outlooks: when he is at his most despairing the screen fades to a muted palette of browns and greys, while when he makes an impactful human connection, colour seeps out in sparky, saturated hues (think the deep red sky that accompanies the appearance of the dashing Spaniard, Carlos.) A discussion of colour symbolism even makes its way into the script – "I thought you'd pick blue," Kenny observes when his professor selects a yellow pencil sharpener as a gift – "Isn't it supposed to be spiritual?"
4. Be fastidious
The film is a masterclass in chic accoutrements, from George's angular, black framed Nalcos spectacles to his Smythson writing paper (White Wove stock printed with black Hamilton Hall font, incidentally) and first editions of Aldous Huxley and Truman Capote. Not to mention his plethora of crisp white shirts and La Dolce Vita suits. One can't help but get the feeling that Ford put a little of himself into the character in terms of George's consummate good taste (see the designer's list of "15 Things Every Man Should Have".) He even dictated the fragrance that Firth should wear throughout the filming process – Creed’s Bois du Portugal aftershave – convinced that its rich, warm and mysterious scent would help the actor delve deeper into George's complex character.
5. One must always appreciate life's little gifts
This is a pearl of wisdom bestowed by George upon Hoult's quietly enamoured Kenny when they sit together drinking whiskey late into the night. He is referring to the pencil sharpener that Kenny bought him earlier in the day, but this sentiment is one which imbues the whole film. In his state of suicidal mourning for his charismatic partner Jim, George is meticulously planning what he believes will be his last day on earth. As a result he is hypersensitive to everything around him, seeing people and places with fresh appreciation.
This newfound joie de vivre is best expressed in his chance encounter with a Smooth Fox Terrier, which he describes as smelling like "buttered toast". He dances the night away with Charley and skinny-dips with Kenny, seized by a decision to carpe (his final) diem, at last enjoying these small but extremely "meaningful connections" that make life worth living. To quote George quoting Aldous Huxley: "Experience is not what happens to a man, it's what a man does with what happens to him."