Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Paradox of Dirk Bogarde

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 notes 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 example, at least be a terrible 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


Michael O'Sullivan said...

Fascinating stuff on Bogarde, whom I too was fascinated about since I was about 11 years old and saw him first in Campbell's Kingdom, 1957 and The Spanish Gardener. I have written about this myself last week in fact, as I had just read the original book where the character of Jose the gardener is 19 and gets killed but of course in the film Dirk is in his mid 30s and not only survives but sends the reconciled son and father happily on their way to their next post - a total reversal of the novel's bleak ending!
Bogarde's private life is endlessly fascinatng too, he really knew everyone, friends with Garland (until they made that film together!), Kay Kendall, Ava Gardner, Capucine, Bacall and working with all the new emerging /British talent (Julie Christie, Tom Courtenay etc) and all those European ladies like Aimee, Thulin, Mangano, Vitti.
I love Modesty Blaise where his camp villiant is a constand delight and then of course there are The Servant, Accident, Victim, Darling, all 60s classics.
If you are interested the Dirk Bogarde label on my own blog shows what I have been writing on him.
His own books and novels are also still in print and worth investigating. I met him briefly in 1970 when he gave a very entertaning discussion in London to promote Death in Venice.
The Singer Not The Song is also of course a bizarre camp classic, where Dirk was furious to be lumbered with John Mills as the object of his passion!

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi, Michael! Thanks for alerting me to your own writings on Dirk Bogarde and to your blog in general. You've gathered together some great pictures and it all makes for a fascinating and entertaining read!



Michael O'Sullivan said...

Thank you indeed. I also recently reviewed Andre Techine's LES ROSEAUX SAUVAGE (The Wild Reeds) which perhaps is where the title of your blog comes from? A fascinating movie too.

Anonymous said...

Secret relationships. One statement you quite, Michale, is so telling. We want to believe that we could have this secret exciting relationship. It does have its appeal, "our little secret." Intrigue. But it wears on anyone, can't be healthy for long, and everyone should be able to respect and be respected in their relationship.

"I'm still in the shell, and you're not going to crack it, ducky." I can hear the bitter pain oozing out of that statement.

And his silence as being gay became more a part of the public discourse: was his silence out of bitterness? Was there shame, that later people were brave enough to speak out and live while he chose to hide--even if it were so much more dangerous for him to come out.

This is so instructive when we look at the kind of bitterness that seems to visit some people in their later years. We see less of it now, but a life of general unhappiness is not "fixed" by a "perfectly happy" relationship.

Growing up as I did in a place where my romantic feelings were widely unwelcome as a racial minority in the 1970s in a very homogeneous community, I realized at some point that I was in the closet, even as a heterosexual. Can't live like that, even though in ways, at times I still do.

Just makes me think that living like that is such a loss in realizing and enjoying one's own beauty. What a waste of a beautiful man--a waste to himself.

Stevie Rickard said...

I am surprised you find it difficult to fathom such silence. For the early part of his career gay men were routinely hunded, entrapped and prosecuted in probably the most persecutory period in gay British history. British stage actors who were caught looking for sex - John Gielgud, for one - seemed to have received some support from audiences. It is unclear what would have happened to a British film star. Bogarde was nearing 50 by the time male homosexuality was partially decriminalised in the UK. To imagine that he would have come out at that point is far-fetched surely: he had set up a carefully managed social and professional self, even if many (friends and family) understood that Forewood was his partner. Who else came out at that time?

The closet is fiercely and darkly powerful, and remains so for many, even in 2018. It is a highly personal experience, as is coming out of it. So it seems a particular type of cruelty to criticise Bogarde for not coming out (when? at a time of our choosing?). We seem to have replaced the shaming of being gay with the shaming of hiding it, which is ahistorical and, well, just downright bizarre. But it shows us how attractive shame is as part of our titillating discourse around sexuality. The 2001 Arena documentary is a prime example of this.

On a different tack completely, who's to say how much Bogarde would have benefited personally from coming out to strangers. There's no control segment on that particular experiment. (He was, in effect, out to his inner circle at a time when many weren't even able to achieve that.) He relied on the control of his image and played with that control cleverly and creatively. Many film stars since have been (and still are) very reluctant to reveal that they're gay because it would get in the way of being viewed - necessarily - as the bland canvass for their work.

'You have to read between the lines of everything I've written. It's all there if you're prepared to read between the lines', he said (or at least something very close) in the TV interview with Harty. I think the writing about his care for the dying Forewood is hugely moving and clearly, openly records Bogarde's love for him.

What is abundantly clear from all the films, the books, all the interviews, all the family reminiscences is that Bogarde was big on power, less so on personal fulfilment. Power was what it was all about. We may find that unpalatable, notwithstanding the zeitgeist of personal empowerment. Ultimately he exercised his personal agency to not come out. I don't see how we've been disadvantaged by that, and it's presumptuous to suggest that he was.

lepoissonmasqué said...

See, as for example,what happened to Rupert Everett. He ended being cast in gay-bitchy-best-friend parts only!
Plus Bogarde seemed to be anyway a quite discreet man.