Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Revisiting Dirk Bogarde

I was going through some old computer files last night and came across an excerpt that I had found and saved from the highly informative and comprehensive website I'll share that excerpt in a moment, but first a bit of background.

I wrote about the great British actor and author Dirk Bogarde (1921-1999) in a three-part Wild Reed series in 2006. I was in Australia at the time, and reading John Coldstream's hefty biography of Bogarde. It's a very illuminating and entertaining book, and one that I definitely recommend - along with a more recent publication, Dirk Bogarde: Rank Outsider by Sheridan Morley.

Here's what Morley says about Bogarde's perspective on his own sexuality - a stance that intrigues me and, truth be told, saddens me.

[Dirk's] very first live BBC Television drama [was] a production of Rope. . . . He played a student who commits a murder for fun. It was based on the famous American case of Leopold and Loeb, two college boys involved in a homosexual affair.

From the very beginning of his career this raised questions about Dirk's own sexuality, as, later, did his work in such movies as Victim, The Servant, and Death in Venice. . . . At the time of Death in Venice (1971) one or two critics, notably American, felt that this had to be the triumph of a gay actor. While Dirk never sued, he carefully denied the suggestion whenever possible.

. . . [He once said:] "No one is ever allowed to come too close and the limit is always fixed by myself. So far and no further."

Years later he told the interviewer Russell Harty, "I'm still in the shell, and you're not going to crack it, ducky." All through his career he had chosen to be particularly circumspect about his private life. What today seems an extraordinary achievement, greater even than stardom over the next forty years, must surely be his absolute privacy in this area, all the more remarkable given that he has published seven volumes of autobiography. In those, he has written at length about at least three affairs with women; he has never once commented on the suggestion that his interest in homosexuality was anything other than artistic and compassionate, except to characterize his forty-year life with Tony Forwood as asexual, often adding the intriguing piece of information that Forwood was anti-homosexual.

Dirk has always said that their life together was a deep friendship and the house-sharing of two increasingly confirmed bachelors.

Mmm. I guess that given that homosexual acts were illegal during most of his career, and that he was no doubt unwilling to jeopardize his large female fan base, it would make sense for Bogarde to say these types of things about his relationship with Forwood. His younger brother Gareth Van den Bogaerde, however, confirmed in a 2004 interview that Bogarde was engaging in homosexual sex at a time when such acts were illegal, and that his long-term relationship with Tony Forwood was indeed more than simply that of a manager and friend. He also noted how Dirk "hated himself" and was jealous of his brother's heterosexuality.

Bogarde's friend Helena Bonham Carter believes that the actor and author could never come out as gay in later life because he was unwilling to face the fact that he had been forced to live a lie during his career. Of 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”.

Can you see why I find this aspect of Dirk's life saddening? Thank God things aren't as difficult today for gay people. I realize that there are some parts of the world where homosexuality is still treated as a crime and something of which to be ashamed (see Monday's post), but I'd like to believe that, overall, society has and is progressing and becoming more enlightened and accepting of the diversity of human sexuality.

Anyway, the excerpt from that I share today deals, not with Bogarde's personal life – well, at least not directly, but rather his formidable acting abilities.

At play in Bogarde’s magnetism was his ability to ‘get to the gut and mind’ of his viewers and to tap into their emotions. (For the Time Being, 82-83) He understood the inherent sensuality in cinema, explaining to one interviewer: ‘This is a fantasy land ... The basic thing about the cinema is sensuality... eroticism... All great art is a stimulation of the senses, and if they are not the sexual senses, they are the senses that stimulate and excite and liberate.’ (Wiedenman, 56) He knew well the power of an actor to tap the ‘emotional receptivity and craving’ in audiences. Early on, he realized that he had sex appeal on screen and how audiences reacted to him: ‘People were turned on by me... there was an alchemy at work and so I used it... I was going to make every wing commander I played as mischievous, as flirty, as physically attractive as I could... You’ve got to work at your charm... your sex appeal.’ (Dirk Bogarde: By Myself) But he also knew that sex appeal alone would not hold an audience for long.

For Bogarde, a potent force in holding an audience’s attention was the magic that derived from the focused use of an actor’s ‘energy’, which was ‘both mental and physical’ and sprang ‘directly from the gut’. If an actor can tap it to transform himself ‘not through tricks of make-up or lighting’ but through a sudden release of that energy in a scene, it becomes ‘the life force behind a performance; without it a performance can be adequate, acceptable: but lacking in lustre.’ When an actor creates that magic on screen, ‘an audience will react instantly: the experience disturbs, excites, and involves them completely.’ (Backcloth, 209-210) No longer mere observers, the audience shares the experience. Bogarde had the rare ability to do this and to take his audiences to what he called a ‘higher plane of experience.’

Above: Dirk Bogarde in the 1958 film A Tale of Two Cities.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Dirk Bogarde (Part 1)
Dirk Bogarde (Part 2)
Dirk Bogarde (Part 3)

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


Ross Lonergan said...

Fascinating post, Michael. I remember seeing "Victim" many, many years ago, in which Bogarde played a gay man who was being blackmailed. I must find it and watch it again.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi, Ross! Yes, Victim is a great movie - and quite a significant one in both film history and gay history. I've previously written about it here and here. I hope you get the chance to see it again soon. I purchased a DVD of it a couple of years ago through Amazon.



Mareczku said...

This is kind of sad. The human condition is so complex with so many ins and outs. Life just isn't black and white. Some things were probably just to painful for Dirk Bogarde to discuss. It is hard for gay people because nobody teaches a lot of us about things when we are young. Who explains it to us? Some people only have themselves to talk to about it. And some people (like me) didn't even really talk to themselves about it.

Davis said...

How awfully tragic. I am at a loss for words.

crystal said...

I remember being shown A Tale of Two Cities in a high school class - it was really memorable. Sad that he felt unable to be himself in publuc.

Joe said...

Thanks for all these links to a cache of intriguing material. These tormented Englishmen -- like Britten, Greene -- have an extraordinary aura. The much-panned "Death in Venice" is the apotheosis of the closet, with Bogarde as the perfect embodiment of three lifetimes of refined suppressions -- Mann's, Visconti's and his own.