Ever since the earliest days of this blog I've periodically written about or shared others' insights on British actor and author Dirk Bogarde (1921-1999).
I'm not so much a fan of Bogarde as I am intrigued by him. In particular, I'm intrigued by his tragic perspective on his own sexuality. It was a perspective that kept him silent about his sexual orientation, his long-term relationship with his manager Tony Forwood and, by all accounts, his and Tony's very happy life together. I have a difficult time fathoming such silence.
Joseph S. O'Leary, in responding to a previous post on Bogarde, sums it up well when he writes that "those tormented Englishmen" like Bogarde are intriguing. O'Leary also points out that Bogarde's 1971 film Death in Venice is "the apotheosis of the closet, with Bogarde as the perfect embodiment of three lifetimes of refined suppressions" – Death in Venice author Thomas Mann's, director Luchino Visconti's and his own.
There's always such a terrible price to pay for such closetedness, isn't there? And we get glimpses of it in photos and interview footage of Dirk Bogarde. For one thing, he really didn't age well. And I wonder how much of this (and the related fact that he was a heavy smoker) was because of the bitterness he felt with never being free and open about who he really was and thus his relationship with the man he genuinely loved.
I also wonder: Did Bogarde witness the emerging gay liberation movement of the late 1960s and regret not being part of it? Helena Bonham Carter, who was a friend and colleague, certainly thought that this was part of Bogarde's problem. She believes he never came out in later life because he was unwilling to face the fact that he had been forced to live a lie throughout his career. Reflecting on her time working with Bogarde in the late 1980s, Carter says: “He would always make out that he was a macho heterosexual. He was conscious of keeping the mystery, weaving webs. But he was really a hunk of self-denial.”
Even as a young man Bogarde liked to "keep the mystery" and "weave webs," usually in that uniquely droll British kind of way. (Just watch him in the "bonus" interview footage on the DVD release of his 1961 film Victim.) Yet as he got older this drollness definitely seemed to turn to bitterness. And it's painful to observe.
Bogarde himself described his closeted existence as a "shell," and once remarked, "No one is ever allowed to come too close and the limit is always fixed by myself. So far and no further." Years later, when a reporter politely inquired about his life with Tony, Bogarde mockingly retorted, "I'm still in the shell, and you're not going to crack it, ducky."
John Coldstream, in his "authorized biography" of Bogarde, writes that this shell became "harder and harder, until it was impossible not only for any outsider to 'crack,' but also, I believe, for Dirk himself to shed."
All of which reminds me of my friend Brian's rueful observation that "If you can't be a good role model, at least be a horrible warning"!
Anyway, my intrigue with Bogarde continues with the sharing of the following from Eric Braun's Frightening the Horses: Gay Icons of the Cinema.
One of the handsomest, potentially most charming and gifted actors ever to find stardom in films, Dirk Bogarde was a paradox. Adored by teenagers during his Rank years, increasingly courageous in his choice of film subjects, yet fiercely closeted regarding the truth about his sexuality and increasingly bitter over the recognition he felt his own country denied him.
. . . After his first starring role [with the Rank Organization] in the somewhat dreary Esther Waters (in a part turned down by Stewart Granger), Bogarde shone in “Alien Corn,” one of the sections of the Somerset Maugham portmanteau film Quartet, for which the author filmed an introduction. . . . At 29, Bogarde was convincing as one of the Boys in Brown – the one who corrupts innocent Richard Attenborough, a mere 26. As a watered-down version of the play, the film was effective without being half as sexually explicit: if such a thing had been possible, Lord Rank might well have expired in a cloud of outraged cigar smoke.
Bogarde, after his real start in the Maugham film in 1948 and his resonant hit as the cop-killer in The Blue Lamp the following year, hit his mark as Britain’s top teenage idol in 1954’s Doctor in the House, directed by Ralph Thomas, which catapulted him to the position of Rank’s biggest star, even if it was not in quite the way he would have wished. In 1955’s Doctor at Sea his leading lady was Brigitte Bardot, on her way to becoming France’s greatest sex symbol – although her singing voice had to be dubbed by a leading recording and TV star, England’s Jill Day. Bogarde was always baying for the moon and later used to decry this stage of his career.
. . . In a newspaper article, [Bogarde’s friend and sometime co-star] John Fraser remarked on the singularity of Bogarde’s relationship with his manager, Anthony Forwood, who had left his wife, Glynis Johns, to devote the rest of his life to Dirk. Forwood always insisted that theirs was nothing more than a business association, although they seemed as close as the happiest of married couples. There was never a hint in any of Bogarde’s brilliant part-autobiographical books that he and “Forwood” (as he always called him, making him sound like a butler) were anything but just good friends. This was surely long after the days when any disclosure of a personal relationship between them could have disillusioned any of his early fans who were still alive.
. . . Paradoxically, Bogarde had been sending out signals towards sexual liberality in his films, tentatively, since 1956. A strangely cast Bogarde, not too convincing as a Spanish working man in A. J. Cronin’s The Spanish Gardner, is accused of by his employer, diplomat Michael Hordern, of stealing. The man is jealous of the gardener’s friendship with his lonely and neglected son, Jon Whitely. The original motive of his jealousy, that he was sexually attracted to his employee, is omitted from the film, directed with subtlety by Philip Leacock.
Subtlety is hardly the word for Bogarde’s 1960 The Singer Not the Song, which delves into the relationship between Bogarde’s bandit, Anacleto (in tight black leather gear) and John Mill’s priest trying to reclaim him for the Church. . . . From this to 1961’s barrier-breaking Victim was only a short step, but one Dirk Bogarde was brave to take. He admitted that “It was the wisest decision I ever made in my cinematic life.” Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called the film and performance “unprecedented and intellectually bold, presented honestly and unsensationally.” Yet, apparently, all done without upsetting his real fans. So why did Bogarde feel himself unable to carry this “intellectually bold honesty” into his private life?
Postscript: In linking aspects of this post to other Internet pages, I came across the following quote by Scottish actor John Fraser. It's from his 2004 autobiography, Close Up: An Actor Telling Tales.
Dirk's life with Forwood had been so respectable, their love for each other so profound and so enduring, it would have been a glorious day for the pursuit of understanding and the promotion of tolerance if he had screwed up the courage . . . to make one dignified allusion to his true nature. Self-love is no substitute for self-respect.
For more of Dirk Bogarde at The Wild Reed, see the previous posts:
Dirk Bogarde (Part 1)
Dirk Bogarde (Part 2)
Dirk Bogarde (Part 3)
Revisiting Dirk Bogarde
Out and About – November 2009
Dirk Bogarde's "War Against Himself"
Recommended Off-site Links:
The Private Dirk Bogarde (Part 1) - 1/6, 2/6, 3/6, 4/6, 5/6, 6/6
The Private Dirk Bogarde (Part 2) - 1/8, 2/8, 3/8, 4/8, 5/8, 6/8, 7/8, 8/8