Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Dirk Bogarde (Part I)

Yesterday I started reading the hefty tome that is John Coldstream’s “authorised biography” of British actor and author Dirk Bogarde (1921-1999).

In the introduction, Coldstream includes the following insightful quote by Peter Ustinov:

I’ve always been very much opposed to the courts of law where you are asked to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, because I think that’s impossible. If I was forced to do that, I should refuse because I’m willing to tell my truth, but I can’t guarantee that it’s the whole truth, and certainly not that it’s nothing but the truth. The truth is like a chandelier in the courtroom, which everybody sees, but from a different angle – because they’re different people and can’t occupy the same seat.

In talking about Bogarde’s sexuality, Coldstream writes:

At an entirely personal level and in the context of this book, it is perhaps worth saying that in the eight years I knew Dirk, the question most frequently asked about him was: “Is he homosexual?” I would answer, in all truth: “I don’t know – and I don’t care.” With some regret I now have to care . . . After all, it informs Dirk’s life, some of his most important work in the cinema and – even if by omission – his writing. Laurence Harbottle, Dirk’s solicitor from the early fifties, puts it unequivocally: “It is not given to many people to know themselves thoroughly. Even less can our observers, friends and acquaintances achieve a complete picture, especially because they are usually deprived of the knowledge of what we do on the streets or in bed. Nevertheless I shared the view of every friend of his I have ever known that Dirk’s nature was entirely homosexual in orientation.”

So what was it like to be an “entirely homosexual in orientation” film star in the fifties and sixties?

Writes Coldwater:

As L. P. Hartley wrote in his prologue to The Go-Between, the past is a foreign country where they do things differently. But it is not that far away. It is a place where, as recently as the 1960s, to grow up as a homosexual was to live in a very real fear of state-initiated disgrace. A certain leniency seemed to apply towards the arts, and especially the West End theatre where, from the inter-war period through to the late fifties, the power and influence wielded by a homosexual Mafia, with Hugh ‘Binkie’ Beaumont of H. M. Tennent as its capo di tutti capi, were formidable. Yet there was an ever-present threat of either prosecution or blackmail.

Bryan Forbes, a fervent admirer of the elegance and discretion with which Dirk and [his life partner] Tony [Forwood] lived their lives, wrote in his memoirs that [playwright] Terence Rattigan “was well aware that if any whiff of scandal about his private life escaped, the whole pack of cards would come tumbling down. Just as we were warned during the war that careless talk costs lives, careless talk cost careers.”

At least some of the reason for that fear was removed by a change in the law, but no legislator can affect personal prejudice, and in the course of researching this book I have met middle-aged men who, even now, are unable to admit to a parent the truth about themselves. Noël Coward proved both sage and seer in A Song at Twilight, which opened fifteen months before the Sexual Offences Bill received the Royal Assent. When the law ceases to exist, says [Coward’s character] Hugo Latymer, “there will still be a stigma attached to ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ in the minds of millions of people for generations to come. It takes more than a few outspoken books and plays and speeches in Parliament to uproot moral prejudice from the Anglo-Saxon mind.”

. . . [Dirk] constructed the outer shell for his own personality in an era when he had to do so; but the “house of cards” in which he then lived and worked was altogether more vulnerable. If Terence Rattigan, a shy playwright creating his brilliantly perceptive chamber pieces from the seclusion of his home, felt threatened, how much more fragile was the structure assembled around a matinée idol, who had to go out and “flog the product”? So the 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.

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