Dirk Bogarde, who died in 1999, would have been 90 this year. ROBERT LEEMING looks back at the enigmatic life and dazzling career of the legendary British actor
“My hermit crab syndrome is firmly fixed,” writes Dirk Bogarde in one of his many volumes of autobiography, “I dreaded and I still do dread possession.”
Nobody possessed Bogarde in his lifetime and only a scant few could ever claim that they actually knew him. Britain’s number one box-office draw of the 1950′s, and one of the original pin-ups, was an unknowable enigma to most.
He was a man who made his name in light comedy and concluded his career in controversial European drama. He was mobbed by screaming girls years before The Beatles, but he never married and lived many blissful years on a French hillside with his manager and friend, Tony Forward.
Bograde’s early life
He was an actor whose craft and range grew with every film he made – and he made nearly sixty.
Oddly enough his legacy is not as well maintained as that of Olivier, Mills, Guinness or Gielgud and other patron saints of the British stage and screen. But the 90th anniversary of his birth this year will see a clutch of DVD releases and a season of Bogarde films at the British Film Institute, in an attempt to re-evaluate this particularly English star.
Bogarde was a notorious web weaver, spinning life stories out of thin air to suit his audience and covering himself with canopies of camouflage. What we can be sure of though, is that Derek Niven van den Bogarde was born in 1921 and lived a happy childhood in southern England, discounting a hideous but brief spell spent with his Glaswegian kith and kin.
He then served with the Queen’s Royal Regiment in the Second World War and, after being demobilised with several medals on his chest, worked briefly in the theatre briefly before being signed up by the Rank Organisation.
“The Rankery”as Dirk labelled it was a money-making factory rather than a creative studio, with no pretensions to art, only entertainment. Actors were products to be sold and looks always trumped talent.
From light comedy to dark drama
Working with the legendary Betty Box and Ralph Thomas, Dirk starred in some of the biggest British hits of the 1950s, playing parts he labelled as “little boy looking for God roles, staunch upper-lip types and brave captains.”
He was consistently on the list of the top grossing English stars until the early 60’s, scoring huge success as Dr Simon Sparrow in the Doctor in the House films and playing a string of pathological, rain-coated killers in films such as The Blue Lamp, Hunted and Cast a Dark Shadow.
None of these films were great. Some were good, but most were vehicles for his stardom, exemplified by the fact that his name was always placed above the title of the picture.
Never comfortable with adulation
He was never comfortable with the adulation which accompanied fame though, and when an opportunity arose to dispense with it all, he jumped at the chance.
The opportunity came in 1961 with Victim, a look at homosexuality in London before decriminalization, when prominent gay men often fell prey to blackmailers.
Tame by today’s standards, 50 years ago the film was explosive. Dirk accepted the role only after another leading British actor had turned the part down for fear it would damage his chances of gaining a knighthood.
Bogarde’s coming of age
To say his decision was brave is an understatement. The subject was poisonous – the love that dare not speak its name had ended careers, was slammed as inhuman and led to severe prison time if caught and convicted.
The original script did its best to skirt the issue, using homosexuality merely as a subtext for a gritty thriller.
But Bogarde accepted the role only on condition he could add a self-penned scene in which his barrister character, Melvyn Farr, stands in front of his prim and pretty wife and says of one of his affairs, with desperate carnal desire: “I stopped seeing him because I wanted him, do you understand, because I wanted him.”
Middle England and an entire fan-base shuddered. Victim marked Bogarde’s coming of age as an actor, his transition from a man who portrayed cardboard cut-outs to a man who played character, with all its simmering chameleonesque contradictions.
Mysterious and sensuous
His partnership with Joseph Losey, the American blacklisted director, also proved a catalyst for Bogarde’s talent in the 1960′s.
The quartet of films the two made together, The Servant, King and Country, Modesty Blaise and Accident, were for the most part intellectual, sensuous films, European in style and mysterious in nature.
Of particular note is Accident, a role for which Bogarde was almost driven to the edge of a nervous breakdown, such was the effort he poured into portraying Stephen, a philandering university professor and a family man in the middle of a mid-life crisis. It was a million miles removed from Bogarde’s real life.
With the rise of a new generation of stars, good roles for Bogarde in began to dry up. Fleeing England for France in 1969, he set up camp with Forward on a remote Cote d’Azur hillside overlooking Cannes.
There, he began to be courted by some of the great directors on the continent. The greatest in fact: Luchino Visconti. They made two films together, The Damned and Death in Venice, but it was with Lilliana Cavani in 1974 that he created his most controversial role, Maximilian Theo Aldorfer in The Night Porter.
The film tells the story of a concentration camp guard who falls in love with one of his prisoners (Charlotte Rampling) only for them to meet again in Venice, some years later, rekindling their brutal relationship, prompted outrage.
His performance is extraordinary, both dark and sexual, disconcerting and heart breaking. As an actor he had achieved a rare jump, from mainstream to arthouse.
Bogarde began a second lucrative career as a writer in 1977, after Dorothy Gordon, a Boston librarian encouraged him in correspondence, encouraged him to “force memory.” In a converted woodshed overlooking his beloved French countryside, he poured out his life story in tome after eloquent tome.
The private life of Dirk Bogarde
Bogarde claimed to be in love with Capucine, the bewitching French actress, but it came to nothing. He dismissed any notion that he was homosexual.
His relationship with Anthony Forward, was, he admitted, more than a manager/client arrangement, but nothing more than friendship and certainly platonic.
Nonetheless, it was a relationship from which he gained great strength, and Bogarde’s attempts at camouflage should most probably be seen as articles of their time, born out of a more repressive age. He lived the life he wanted, without trumpeting his sexuality as his raison d’etre. And yet, in a celebrity obsessed world, there is something to be said for mystery.
Jane Birkin, who starred with Dirk in his final film Daddy Nostalgia, perhaps summed him up the best: “He was someone who was not to be violated, someone where pride takes a great part, which is why when people misinterpret him you feel cross, because a mysterious man he will always be.”