Dirk Bogarde: a class act

A bland British comedy star in the 1950s, Dirk Bogarde reinvented himself as an icon of European arthouse. But on screen, as in his memoirs, he remains a difficult actor to pin down. We revisit this feature from our September 2011 issue to celebrate the actor’s centenary.

26 March 2021

By Nick James

Sight and Sound
Dirk Bogarde

As a species, the movie star is reckoned – in these post-reality-television, everyone’s-a-star days – to be under threat. There may be no better time, then, to look back at the career of Dirk Bogarde (1921-99), a natural screen actor who, over 60-odd films, managed a rare transformation that some of today’s faltering marquee attractions might look upon with envy.

From being an adored matinee idol (and, for publicity purposes, English ‘lord of the manor’) for the Rank Organisation in the 1950s, peaking in popularity as the dashing young medic Simon Sparrow in the comedies Doctor in the House (1954), Doctor at Sea (1955) and Doctor at Large (1957), he went on to become a highly regarded master performer in such European arthouse films as The Damned (1969), Death in Venice (1971) and The Night Porter (1974).

That’s the official story, self-created in the actor’s own writings. But here I want to give a personal view. Two simultaneous and contrapuntal responses to Dirk Bogarde are traced below: a critic’s growing respect and sympathy, coupled with a devotee’s mature disenchantment. And the obvious lesson to be drawn is that, if you want to keep the faith with a celebrity, you should try not to learn too much about them.

This feature originally appeared in our September 2011 issue.

My own admiration of Bogarde stems from the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he was one of my icons of masculine ‘style’. This was a moment in popular culture when such things seemed crucial. Robert Mitchum (about whom I’ve written before, see ‘The Actors’, S&S, August 2005) was perhaps more important to me – and it’s pretty obvious which end of the masculinity spectrum Mitchum represents, despite his voluptuous looks when young. In comparison, a slipperiness of sexual character is intrinsic to Bogarde, especially in his characterisation of himself; his extreme reluctance to be nailed down or pigeonholed is not only half of his charm, but also half the reason why he annoyed the hell out of some of his collaborators.

To me, in the late 1970s, Bogarde was the archetypal stylish, sensitive Englishman of artistic bent, flirting with the grand bohemian decadence of the time. It was a great act, at which no one could touch him. Never mind that he was of mixed Flemish, Dutch and Scottish descent – he was christened Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde. (As novelist Len Deighton famously observed, “All the best Englishmen have foreign names these days.”)

But any observant fan should have known that Bogarde was a flawed figure. His legendarily catty and rather whining television interview with Russell Harty in 1986 made him look like a miserable git, when his life seemed on the surface such a portrait of aesthetic bliss. But at the time I didn’t know that his lifelong companion and manager Tony Forwood (always referred to by his surname in Bogarde’s books) was slowly dying of Parkinson’s disease and liver cancer. The keeping up of appearances so necessary to the movie-star life is, of course, at the heart of the Bogarde dilemma, and I was to learn that the lifestyle that I envied from afar – the pre-Peter Mayle Provençal idyll of his house in Grasse – was quite carefully contrived.

Indeed, the first thing one discovers in researching Bogarde is that the many eloquent books (seven memoirs, single collections of letters and journalism, and six novels) written by this complex, fascinating, contradictory, self-obsessed figure should come with a health warning. John Coldstream, in the introduction to his authorised 2004 biography of Bogarde, contradicts the actor-writer’s claim that “it’s all there in the books, if you know where to look. The lines are wide enough to read between.” As Coldstream writes: “Dirk was a writer whose entire oeuvre became a fiction, thanks in large part to his hyperactive imagination and his fantasies – fantasies so vivid and powerful that they were, for him, a reality.”

No wonder he became a throwback icon of the style-obsessed era of the late 1970s and 80s, for he was a kind of prodigy of self-invention. That does not mean, however, that the realities of his life can be set aside in discussing his work, for his was a life lived in the heart of the contradiction of craved privacy and sought-after fame.

Kay Kendall and Dirk Bogarde in Doctor in the House (1954)

Rise from the Ranks

The teenage Bogarde had flirted with stage acting before he was called up for military service in World War II, making his West End stage debut in 1939 as Derek Bogaerde in J.B. Priestley’s Cornelius. He also attended Chelsea College of Art. His own account of his wartime experiences, during which he gained a commission and ended up as an intelligence officer analysing aerial photographs, is riddled with cautious self-disparagement, but includes the claim that he was present at the liberation of Belsen concentration camp. This is now widely considered to have been one of his self-convincing fantasies. However, he did come out of the war with a feeling common among survivors of being inferior to those who died – though these occasional fits of self-loathing did not restrain the bumptious self-confidence with which he tackled his early acting roles on screen.

The Blue Lamp (1950)

That was the way to get noticed in the British film industry of the time, and one of the most startling aspects of Bogarde’s early career is how quickly he evolved from the routine ingratiating young character actor we see in his feature debut, playing the groom in Esther Waters (1948), to the screen-commanding spiv hoodlum he plays in The Blue Lamp (1950). Already in this role, what Bogarde himself called his “absurdly boyish face” seems adored by the lens. His sympathy-seeking doe eyes, though, were then undermined by his gaping lips and poor teeth. (He would soon learn to keep his mouth clamped shut when in repose.) The quiff that connects the well-bred man of polished manners he was in reality to the Teddy Boys then emerging on London’s streets makes him seem ahead of his time, even if his cockney pronunciation of the word copper (“copahh”) sounds scarcely more authentic than Dick Van Dyke might have managed.

Over the next ten years, the young actor was burnished into bright British stardom under the Rank Organisation banner (though he always insisted he never attended the notorious ‘charm school’). This period in Bogarde’s life is the one he chronicled least. Secretaries handled all his correspondence – the mountains of fan letters and photo requests. Thus the published collection of his letters only begins with the transition period from Rank to what he called his ‘continental’ years.

Marius Goring and Dirk Bogarde in Ill Met by Moonlight (1957)

During his time at Rank, Bogarde became a full-time heart-throb celebrity and idol to thousands of British women – a position he fought desperately not to undermine throughout most of the rest of his life. We can get some sense of what this did to him as an actor from Michael Powell’s autobiography Million-Dollar Movie. Apropos of Bogarde’s work in his 1957 film Ill Met by Moonlight, Powell wrote: “I didn’t know that he was as subtle as a serpent, and with a will of steel… He knew all about me and actors, and he had absolutely no intention of acting in my film. He would smile (he had a charming smile), he would dress up (fancy-dress costume), he had a good figure (light and boyish), and he would speak the lines – or rather he would throw them away – with such careful art that camera and microphone would have to track in close… He would listen with attention to me while I told him what I wanted, and then would give me about a quarter of it.”

Watching Ill Met by Moonlight confirms much of what Powell says, but then the 36-year-old Bogarde may have known that he had been foisted by Rank on to Powell and his Archers partner Emeric Pressburger. Or was it that he was bored with playing war heroes in the Greek islands? (He’d given a much better performance three years earlier in Lewis Milestone’s They Who Dare, about a raid on Rhodes.)

Set in 1944, Ill Met by Moonlight tells the true story of the kidnap of a German general by Patrick Leigh Fermor (the recently deceased travel writer), then a British intelligence officer organising the Greek resistance. As Leigh Fermor, Bogarde looks splendid throughout, and the camera loves him; but you can see he’s refusing to do more than be winsome, enigmatic and charming, while biding his time until the next film. The odd thing about this collaboration is that, outside the experience of the film itself, both Powell and Bogarde write about each other in the friendliest fashion.

The films I’ve seen from the Rank period vary wildly in quality, and can be enjoyed on many different levels. Bogarde shows sweet sensitivity as the eponymous lead in The Spanish Gardener (1956), a poor, pelota-playing local who helps the young son of a stuffy Englishman to gain confidence, but he looks as if he’s just come from a West Side Story audition.

There are obvious kitsch excesses towards the end of the run, such as his hilariously camp turns as the brilliant pianist-composer Franz Liszt in Song Without End (1960) or a leather-clad western bandit in The Singer Not the Song (1961). He dominates every scene as a sadistic Naval lieutenant in H.M.S. Defiant (1962), but earned a reproof from his co-star Alec Guinness, who commented that Bogarde was like “no naval officer I ever met”, while socially he was “gay and amusing but pretty silly.”

Victim (1961)

But by then Bogarde had played the first redefining role of his career – a very courageous decision that was central to his identity. By starring in Basil Dearden’s Victim (1962) – as Melville Farr, a barrister who is determined to prosecute the blackmailers of homosexuals, only to be blackmailed himself because he too is sexually desirous of men – Bogarde deliberately undermined his own matinee-idol image and took the huge risk of allowing himself to be assumed to be homosexual, at a time when exposure as such might still lead to a prison sentence.

The exact nature of Bogarde’s sexuality remains shrouded in a carefully nurtured ambiguity, though his devotion to Forwood was lifelong, and we would do well to remember how hard to prise open the closet door needed to be for his generation. But whatever his personal connection to the subject matter, this was a landmark passionate performance, and the film itself helped bring about the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK. It also sparked a change in Bogarde’s career, firing his sudden need to pull out of what he called “the chrysalis of crap”.

The top of his game

The golden period of Dirk Bogarde’s film career begins with Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963) and ends with Alain Resnais’s Providence (1977). The films that really matter are not that many in number, but together they contain the performances that define what it means to be able to act thought on screen.

The only other actor I’ve seen who’s as good at this as Bogarde is Helen Mirren (particularly in her portrayal of Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in the occasional TV series Prime Suspect). Both Bogarde and Mirren do what I call the ‘weather face’ superbly well. Emotion is expressed wordlessly through convincingly subtle changes of facial expression: in small movements of the eyes, mouth and nostrils, in nervous swallows, in tiny tilts and swivels of the head, in flexings of unnoticed muscles (this kind of acting cannot be achieved, one imagines, by users of Botox). The effect is that these actors seem to be able to convey what’s going on behind the eyes. They can portray thought.

Bogarde’s characters usually grow from his own soigné persona. He’s imperious first, as if expecting a challenge, but behind that try-me-if-you-dare bravado, there is usually a wound of self-doubt or enthralment to another. He has a cat’s ability to stare enigmatically, and his affected superciliousness can be wielded with cruelty.

Alexis Smith and Dirk Bogarde in The Sleeping Tiger (1954)

Losey had first worked with Bogarde on The Sleeping Tiger (1954), in which the actor plays an invited intruder (he tries to mug a psychologist, but the psychologist gets the better of him, and then invites him into his house to be a test case for reform). The Servant is a more sophisticated version of the same theme, in which a well-off young gentleman (James Fox) hires a butler named Barrett, who proceeds to take over his life by slow degrees.

As Barrett, Bogarde gives a brilliant, sly and menacing performance. He claimed to have based the character on a batman (a military officer’s personal servant) he’d had during the war. Bogarde’s anxiety about how he was perceived by the public is obvious in the way he described the role in a 1971 interview with Films and Filming: “It was enormous fun to do [but] it was no effort. It was entirely technical to act… Harold Pinter had written it so unfailingly that that you couldn’t put a foot wrong… It cost me very little emotionally, because I’m nothing to do with the man I played… So therefore it was much easier to expand my realms of fantasy and imagination and become a North Country bastard called Barrett.”

What The Servant revealed most tellingly was that the middle-aged Bogarde was now built to play sleaze as well as superiority, although it would take a while before the seamy roles became dominant. In King & Country (1964), for Losey again, he plays a frosty World War I military lawyer who tries to advise a simple-minded private (Tom Courtenay) under the threat of execution. John Schlesinger’s Darling (1965) casts him as a television journalist who embarks on an affair with Julie Christie’s superficial gold-digging it girl, only to be left in her wake.

Jacqueline Sassard and Dirk Bogarde in Accident (1967)

My personal favourite of his mid-career roles is Stephen in Losey’s Accident (1967), the married Oxford don who unwisely becomes besotted with one of his students who happens to be both an Austrian princess and the girlfriend of his protégé. A sexual tragedy of manners scripted, like The Servant, by Pinter, Accident makes Stephen’s class anxieties look similar to those displayed by Bogarde himself. Stephen tries to engineer a tryst with the girl, but hasn’t the guts to go through with it. Later he takes cruel advantage of the opportunity afforded him by the titular accident.

Bogarde himself worried about a real connection here. “In Accident I had to sublimate my own personal feelings,” he told Films and Filming, “because I don’t believe in actors being – actors have got to act. The character… is a really gentle man. A loser-out. A quiet man who is lost and settles for something. I’m a loser but we all are, aren’t we? I was very aware of the emotions of the man… and I was almost in a trance for about four months after I finished it.” (In another version of the story, however, it only took him a few hours to shake off the character.)

At the heart of my slow disenchantment with Bogarde the man is the matter of class. The way he always writes about Luchino Visconti, the Italian aristocrat who gave him two of his key later roles, reeks of the snobbery of the lower middle class – that combination of reverence for nobility combined with hatred of parvenus. In Bogarde’s version, he and Visconti – as superior beings – understood each other naturally, without needing to communicate. As Frederic Raphael put it, “Dirk appeared set on proving that first class was never quite good enough for him.”

Anyone so determined (in his books and letters) to constantly assert his superiority over others is surely angsting about his own true status. Bogarde’s memoirs positively throb with anxiety about guests, both pleasing them and getting rid of them – a by-product, I suppose, of the contradiction between his generosity and his much-trumpeted shyness. The often purple prose is served with lashings of poshlust, a diet I now find too rich. And the gushing letters can be worse, as full of capitals and underlinings as a teenage girl’s diary.

Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde in The Night Porter (1974)

But none of that can take away anything of Bogarde’s acting talent. All his traits and abilities are put to their utmost dissipated use in the operatic Italian films he made around the start of the 1970s: Visconti’s The Damned (1969) and Death in Venice (1971), and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974).

Death in Venice (1971)

In the Macbeth-like scene in The Damned where Ingrid Thulin encourages Bogarde’s industrial magnate to murder the head of the Von Essenbeck family so he can take over their steel corporation under the Nazis, Bogarde projects a stream of frantic emotions communicated in one storming flow of cajolement and entreaty as he crosses the room towards her. This role was meant to be a pinnacle of Bogarde’s achievement, but emphasis was moved by Visconti away from his character towards the mad, beautiful young industrial heir played by Helmut Berger. “It was a rotten part,” Bogarde later commented, “difficult because there was no substance to it, but the magic of working with Visconti made it absolutely worthwhile… My character was swamped, but then it was supposed to be swamped. There were two parts of consequence in the film [Thulin’s and Berger’s] and I didn’t have one of them.”

His reward for accepting this downgrading was the lead in Visconti’s next feature, an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice. This was a cult film of its time (one that I alternately adored and disliked). All that aesthetic pile-up – the ‘Adagietto’ from Mahler’s 5th Symphony; the enchantment of twilight on the Venice lagoon and the city itself; the comic absurdity behind the elderly composer’s supposedly purely aesthetic adoration of Tadzio, the young Polish boy in the bathing suit; the painstaking beauty of the pre-World War I good life – was either intoxicating or indigestible, depending on one’s mood or predilection. Visconti’s removal of the novella’s interior monologue strips the film of meaning, but Bogarde does a brilliant job of trying to reinvest the composer’s tremulous emotions, culminating in the unforgettable beach scene where he sweats away his life as his make-up cracks and the hair dye starts to run.

It would be tempting to end the Bogarde story there, with what he clearly thought was the pinnacle of his career. Certainly he may have had cause to regret his role in The Night Porter as the former concentration-camp officer who is reunited with the Jewish prisoner he previously kept for his own sexual purposes. Susan Sontag picked on this film and The Damned as egregious examples of the 1970s interest in “Fascinating Fascism”. Certainly The Night Porter plays both ends against the middle of this argument; if you agree with Sontag that “fascist art glorifies surrender… [and] glamorises death”, and that “never before was the relation of masters to slaves so consciously aestheticized”, then The Night Porter certainly follows those precepts, even if it does so in order to show their bankruptcy.

What sort of career Bogarde thought might follow Death in Venice needn’t concern us here, but it’s obvious that his concentrated interest fell away when the great parts and scripts either didn’t come his way, or didn’t seem good enough when they did.

Providence (1977)

His run at the top of his game ended with Alain Resnais’s Providence, in which he plays the son of John Gielgud’s dying writer, seen by his father as estranged, ridiculous and disappointing. The film is constructed around a contemporary bourgeois house party, and in Bogarde’s performance you can see a more relaxed, less operatic style at work, that’s classier than ever. What a shame there wasn’t more from him in this vein.

Further reading

Victim archive review: Dirk Bogarde fronts a courageous, landmark thriller

Victim archive review: Dirk Bogarde fronts a courageous, landmark thriller

“Bogarde is exactly ripe for this role”: on the set of Visconti’s Death in Venice

By Margaret Hinxman

“Bogarde is exactly ripe for this role”: on the set of Visconti’s Death in Venice

The making of Cary Grant

By Pamela Hutchinson

The making of Cary Grant

How Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey probed the British obsession with class

By Nick James

How Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey probed the British obsession with class

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