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Dirk Bogarde’s Psychosexual Nightmare

Katie Kessler examines the career of actor Dirk Bogarde and his portrayal of sexuality.

There are two types of creative genius. There is the kind that can turn their hand to any theme and bring it to beautiful fruition. Think Shakespeare, the Beatles or Beethoven. The second type ploughs a single furrow many ways, telling one story: themselves. Every song Nina Simone sang throbbed with the pain of the African-American struggle, every Haruki Murakami protagonist has the same taste in music, and every Hitchcock protagonist has the same taste in blondes.

But what about actors? Can an actor — a job that by definition demands disguise and versatility in service of someone else’s vision — continue to tell the story of themselves? I can think of at least one actor who did just that for most of his career: Dirk Bogarde.

Dirk Bogarde was one of Britain’s most beloved leading men in the 1950s, nicknamed ‘Idol of the Odeons’ for his slew of performances in matinee pulp produced by the Rank Organisation. In the 1960s he turned his back on romantic fluff in favour of a series of darker and more complex roles. He ultimately rejected the British film industry altogether to work with European art film-makers like Luchino Visconti, including his best known role in Death in Venice. The latter part of his life was largely spent in a peaceful farmhouse in Provence, living with his partner, Anthony Forwood, and writing an impressive quantity of memoirs and novels. His autobiographies are witty collections of anecdotes and reflections on his early adulthood, his acting life, his experience of France and much more. Not a single one alludes to the fact that he was gay.

Dirk Bogarde did not come out during his lifetime. In 1986, not long before inviting TV chat show host Russell Harty to his home for an in-depth profile, he destroyed a host of letters and diaries in a bonfire in his back garden. With this act, and silence on the matter after Forwood’s death in 1988 until his own in 1999, the details and exact nature of their relationship died with both parties,. But for almost anyone who knows one thing about him beyond his name and occupation, Bogarde’s sexuality has never been in doubt. This is largely down to anecdotal evidence provided by many of his contemporaries and close friends, made public after his death in the documentary The Private Dirk Bogarde, and John Coldstream’s biography. However, these posthumous affirmations alone do not account for how vividly Bogarde’s perception as a gay man has persisted in public consciousness. I would maintain that despite his reticence on the subject in interviews, Dirk Bogarde was always telling the story of himself. Partly in his books — as he archly commented to Harty in that same profile, “you’ve got to read between the lines” — and, most remarkably, in his performances.

You do not need to look far for overt examples of this. After his breakaway from Rank, he took the highly controversial lead role in Basil Dearden’s 1961 film, Victim, famously the first English language film to say the word ‘homosexual’ on screen, and also the first with a gay male hero. Radically sympathetic in its portrayal of the torment of gay men being exploited by blackmailers while their very existence was criminalised, the film was a monumental risk that Bogarde took with passion and enthusiasm. He even penned a crucial scene himself, where his character Melville admits the truth to his wife, that he desired the young man who was blackmailed into suicide. “You won’t be content until you’ve ripped it out of me,” he says. “I stopped seeing him because I wanted him.” Bogarde would consistently single out Victim as his proudest screen achievement, not least due to its role in changing anti-gay legislation by swaying public opinion enough to pass the Sexual Offences Act in 1967.

Melville was the most overt and positively depicted role in a long line of queer and queer-coded characters in Bogarde’s repertoire. There was the terminally ill Aschenbach in Death in Venice, silently tortured by his longing for a beautiful youth, the subtly camp and unrepentantly wicked protagonist of Cast A Dark Shadow, the far less subtly camp and outrageous villains of Modesty Blaise and The Singer Not The Song, and the sinister Barrett of Joseph Losey’s The Servant. It bears comment that very few if any of these roles could be called positive, or even valid queer representation – nearly always villainous characters, quite often unceremoniously killed by the end of the film’s runtimes, these were the Hays Code-compliant depictions of homosexuality that audiences were quite well-accustomed to. What is remarkable is seeing Bogarde’s face on so many of them after he had established himself as Rank’s go-to man for a handsome heterosexual lead for most of the ‘50s. Yet even in these earlier performances, you’d find the textbook cinematic codes that would fly over an unheeding viewer’s head:  a fraught and loveless marriage here, an offhand reference to interior décor there, his trademark saucy eyebrow quirk persisting through it all.

But when I talk of Bogarde ‘telling the story of himself’ through his performances, I’m not just talking about a few quirked eyebrows and suggestive comments. What shines through in so many of his films is compelling bitterness. Within the Wildean wit and affable flamboyance was a cold, grudge-bearing streak: he had a number of fellow actors and directors  whom he inexplicably viciously turned against, including John Mills and Richard Attenborough. On film work, he stated flippantly but firmly in a letter to film critic Dilys Powell, “I detest the job and most of the time I detest the people.”

This dichotomous personality may have been forged in the threefold fire of unresolved trauma from WWII, the stress of keeping his sexuality a secret in the public eye, and the buttoned-up gentlemanly affect he perfected. “I didn’t make it this far by being cuddly and dear,” he said in response to Russell Harty commenting on his prickliness. Flashing one of his charming, withering smiles, he added, “People need to be taught a lesson sometimes.” It is these glimpses of venom, the satisfied smirk from behind a well-curated mask of pleasant English normalcy that I find alluring about Bogarde, and it’s that that I look for in his performances. 

This quality was picked up while he was still performing under Rank. While his reputation as a smiling leading man throughout the fifties has prevailed, a quick look at his filmography from the time reveals that he was also often taken on for villainous or otherwise dark roles, such as the murderers on the run in Hunted and The Blue Lamp. Even his heroic characters are sometimes betrayed by a certain artificiality and aloofness in their eyes, something that film production duo Powell and Pressburger noticed with displeasure about his performance as the daring Major Patrick Lee Fermor in Ill Met by Moonlight.

In the ’60s he began to embrace that inner darkness, opening the shutters to allow a look into that well of rage. We see it in the righteous anger of Victim, but arguably in more fascinating detail in The Servant. While it is his most sincere and moving performance, Melville is an anomaly in Bogarde’s work: an honest-to-god hero acknowledged to be gay. Barrett, meanwhile, is a character plucked from the abyss, the trickster in a fable made nightmarish. The titular servant enters the home of a layabout young aristocrat, Tony. He asserts his power and ultimately manipulates Tony into a pit of debauchery and degradation for his own pleasure.

The film is a heady, psychosexual feast that hinges on Bogarde’s mesmerising performance. In the film’s early sections, he is reserved, a little effete, quietly deferent to his master’s wishes but particular about his own tastes, especially where decorating the house is concerned. His malice first reveals itself in small shows of passive aggression, and then in sudden shifts into gleeful sexual rapaciousness once he and the maid are alone together. His demure, restrained energy is fully unleashed in the second half of the film, which sees professional boundaries dissolved as he and Tony tear at each other. The two devolve into childlike states, playing schoolyard games, petulantly lashing out one minute and falling into each other’s arms the next. Once Tony has been reduced to a drugged up, placid doll, Barrett looks at him with unmasked pleasure, affection and sadism mingling sickeningly on his face. He is an agent of havoc whose intentions are never fully revealed, and in lesser hands could be nothing more than a fixture of horror, but in Bogarde’s, we see a soul twisted by a life of repression and resentment.

Ultimately, that is the singular story of Bogarde’s career: the vengeful anguish of repression. The Servant makes that anguish its curdled centre, resulting in a desire that only knows how to destroy. In Barrett, Bogarde luxuriated in a side of himself that he could allow to be cruel, lascivious and ungentlemanly. And even more satisfyingly, he could direct that malice towards the walking metaphor for English polite society, pushing it to the ground to lie at his feet. Throughout his career, that dark desirous side would imbue his screen presence with an arresting intensity that always said: this is my story.

Image Credit: Film Star Vintage/CC BY 2.0

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