One of the most distinguished British screen actors of all time, Dirk Bogarde's mixture of charm, intelligence and dangerous ambiguity was irresistible. We take a look at his extraordinary career from the early hits to the later arthouse classics.
During the 1950s, British cinemas had no more reliable draw than Dirk Bogarde. Posterity may judge the films he made as bland and lightweight but contemporary audiences adored him.
For most people, such stardom would be the apex of their career. For Bogarde, however, it was only the prologue, or at least the opening act in a career that would defy expectation at every turn.
As one of his most notable films, Victim, makes its way back to cinema screens, we take a look at one of the most intriguing men in movies.
"The Idol of the Odeons"
Bogarde was born in 1921 and christened Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde. Despite the exotic moniker, he was a Londoner by birth (albeit one descended from Flemish stock): daddy van den Bogaerde was the art editor of The Times.
Then came the war. He worked in Intelligence, for the most part, analysing photographs and whatnot. But his duties often took him to the front; on one such occasion, he was present for the liberation of Belsen, something that haunted him for the rest of his days.
He’d already resolved to give acting a shot and, once demobbed, was quickly noticed by the talent scouts. It’s true they were more interested in his boyish good looks than theatrical talent but he seized the opportunity with both hands.
Despite his bourgeois background, his early roles were as working class lads, and unlikeable ones at that: most famously, he raised hackles as the beastly young spiv who shoots PC Dixon in The Blue Lamp.
He managed to trade up, though: his big break came as the medical student in Doctor in the House, a role that located his hitherto unexploited charm and showcased his gift for light comedy. Sensing they were on to a winner, Rank Studios signed him to a long-term contract and it wasn’t long before he was their biggest asset. A star, as they say, had been born.
The Wrong Trousers
Stardom has always required compromise: an image must be cultivated and maintained, both onscreen and off. Few stars have found this as wearying as Bogarde.
More interested in balance sheets than artistic development, the nabobs at Rank steered their young star away from anything perceived to be challenging or difficult and instead towards the melodramas they thought were more likely to shift tickets in the provinces.
Happy to play along at—the rewards, after all, were tremendous—Bogarde started to find Rank’s expectations increasingly restrictive. This would manifest itself in his on-set behaviour: for all his on-screen likability, the actor developed a reputation for being "difficult".
The climax of all this was The Singer Not the Song, a film where Bogarde’s discontents can very nearly be seen on screen. Not only does he play an atheist Mexican Bandido who develops an apparently erotic obsession with an Irish priest played by John Mills (...seriously...), he insisted on doing so wearing tight leather trousers. No amount of studio remonstration could change his mind; when the film bombed, those trousers received much of the blame.
Soon after the debacle of The Singer Not the Song, his contract with Rank lapsed. He chose not to renew it.
Footloose and fancy-free, Bogarde could now do whatever he liked. The trouble is, he wasn’t sure what that was. Two directors helped him his way forward.
The first was Basil Dearden. He’d been working on a film intended to star Jack Hawkins. But the bluff Hawkins had bailed out; excuses were made but Dearden suspected that Hawkins had got cold feet about the subject matter of the project.
That subject matter was homosexuality, then still a criminal offence. Dearden’s script concerned a barrister threatened by a blackmailer who had compromising pictures of him with a young man.
Almost every actor Dearden had shown it to had declined, with various degrees of honesty (the more truthful admitted they thought it would kill their careers) and Dearden expected the same result from Bogarde. Instead, Bogarde accepted.
What wasn’t widely known then is that Bogarde himself was gay: he and his partner, Tony Forwood, lived together from the mid-Fifties until Forwood’s death in 1988. Victim, then, was a very personal film for Bogarde and it was an important one for British social attitudes too: when homosexuality was partially decriminalised in 1967, Victim was credited as an important part of paving the way.
Victim revealed Bogarde as more than a matinee idol. It caught the notice of Joseph Losey, who asked Bogarde to appear in his film The Servant. The result is (probably) Bogarde’s best performance: it certainly redefined his career. Here he sheds his Doctor in the House charm to create a subtle monster, the manipulative manservant who plays mind games on James Fox. We can only wonder what his fans from the old days made of it.
The Icon of the Art-Houses
The career trajectory for successful British actors has always been to try and parlay British success into Hollywood fame. Ever the contrarian, Bogarde chose a different path.
It should be noted that he did once try his luck in Tinsel Town, furrowing his brow through Song Without End, a biopic of Liszt. It was not an experience Bogarde enjoyed and he decided against further tries to crack America, unimpressed by the quality of the material (Song Without End is not a good film. Not at all.) and the hand-on meddling of the Studios, who made the Rank organisation look benign.
So Bogarde remained in Britain, and might have stayed there for the rest of his career had it not been for further films with Joseph Losey (he worked with the director again on King & Country, Modesty Blaise and Accident). Those films attracted very different audiences to Bogarde’s earlier work, an audience that included the European film aristocracy. First to get in touch was Luchino Visconti who used Bogarde twice, in The Damned and Death in Venice.
Other auteurs were paying attention. Lilliana Cavani paired Bogarde with Charlotte Rampling for The Night Porter, and Alain Resnais recruited him for Providence. Best of all is Despair, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s wonderful mangling of a Nabokov story, with Bogarde as the man who thinks he’s found his exact double (spoiler: he hasn’t).
Man of Letters
Acting, though, was starting to pall. Oh, he kept his hand in (A Bridge Too Far, The Patricia Neale Story, in which he plays Roald Dahl) but he was getting on and, besides, he had other interests: much to his great surprise, he had become a writer.
His career change began with a chat show, wherein he discussed his life and times. Among the viewers was Norah Smallwood; she wasn’t much of a film goer—indeed, she claimed she’d never heard of Dirk Bogarde until she tuned in—but she recognised his way with words. And since she was a publisher, she decided to prod him into penning a book.
His literary career began as a memoirist—he wrote eight in total—but with Smallwood’s encouragement, he tried his hand at fiction, with agreeable results. No, he never did make the Booker shortlist but he didn't disgrace himself and the success of the novels, with reviewers and readers alike, is down to their own merit than their author’s celebrity.
It was as a writer that Bogarde dedicated the rest of his life, with breaks for very occasional film work, concluding with Daddy Nostalgia in 1990.
You can review some of Dirk Bogardes' literature work on this link
Tony Forwood died in 1988; friends say Bogarde was never the same afterwards. There was a stroke in 1996 which incapacitated him; three years later, he died.
And in the years since, he’s been a little forgotten, in Britain at least (or at least associated mostly with the films he made at the peak of his 1950s fame, rather than the more substantial work). He deserves better, and not just because he’s one of the very best screen actors this country has ever produced.
He must be one of the most fascinating people ever to step before a camera, an intelligent man visibly auditing himself with a ruthless honesty throughout his working life, determined to be as true to himself as he could allow himself to be.
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