Monday, September 22, 2008
Dirk Bogarde: The Dark Side of Britain's First Screen Heart-Throb
This article of mine on the late British actor Dirk Bogarde (pictured above) appears in the Daily Express.
With his good looks, easy charm and clean-cut image, he was the archetypal leading man of Fifties British cinema but off-screen Dirk Bogarde was a very different man from the characters he invariably portrayed.
While in films, the actor known as ‘The Matinee Idol of the Odeon’ played the romantic lead, in real life Bogarde was a homosexual, who concealed his true sexuality from his adoring female public, even after homosexuality ceased to be a criminal offence.
When his acting career declining in the 1970s, Bogarde re-invented himself as a successful writer- penning award winning autobiographical volumes, novels and book reviews. But again, all was not what it first appeared. His books helped foster the image of a well-mannered, cultivated and likeable man. The real Bogarde however was waspish, foul-mouthed and incredibly snobbish.
Bogarde resented the rise of working class actors such as Michael Caine and Albert Finney in the 1960s. He said of Caine: “he has to have the ugliest voice in the business… and pop eyes.” He railed against the “lower orders” and what he saw as their increasing influence. “I watch that filthy Telly to get into the feel of things. And the only feel I get is one of frustration and futility; and hatred against the lower orders who demand mediocraty (sic) and get it.” Fellow actor John Fraser recalls Bogarde telling him how, when he was a lonely young actor in London, he would invite studios assistants round to his flat for a meal. “One day I looked round at all these insignificant people with whom I was sharing my precious, precious leisure- and I thought’ If you’re going to be a Film Star, ducky, you better start behaving like one .Get yourself some proper friends”.
As his private correspondence, published in a new book, testifies, the misanthropic Bogarde rarely had a good word to say about anybody, or anything. The Cannes Film Festival was “a sort of nightmare as usual. A record crowd of foul people”. Holland, where he filmed ‘A Bridge too Far’, was “hell”. “Apart from the van Gogh’s, Rembrandts and the Vermeers, it is all a lot of crappy horror”. In a letter to the writer Penelope Mortimer he boasted how he had ditched his old friends. “I have dropped them all, Deliberately and without giving them any real reason. Don’t want ‘em. Useless. They drain me“.
But there was one person whom Bogarde did have a lot of time for: himself. “I am very fond of me” he wrote. “I get on with me. I make me laugh”.
This extremely complex and difficult man was born in 1921 in London of mixed Flemish, Dutch and Scottish descent. His father, Ulric van den Bogaerde, was the art editor of the Times, and his mother was a former actress. In 1941 Bogarde cut short his fledging acting career and joined the Army, and rose to the rank of Major in World War Two. In April 1945, he claimed he was one of the first Allied officers to reach the notorious Belsen concentration camp, an experience he found it difficult to speak about for many years afterwards.
Bogarde’s wartime experiences also made him a strong supporter of euthanasia. "My views were formulated as a 24-year-old officer in Normandy“ he wrote. During the war I saw more wounded men being 'taken care of' than I saw being rescued. they were pumping blood or whatever; they were in such a wreck, the only thing to do was to shoot them”.
After the war, Bogarde soon found success as a film actor, contracted to the powerful ‘Rank Organisation’. In 1947, Sketch magazine named him as one of Britain’s four ‘young men of mark’- and it wasn’t long before Bogarde was playing leading roles in films such as The Blue Lamp, So Long at the Fair and Appointment in London. In the 1950s Bogarde was firmly established as Britain’s most popular film star. His runaway hit ‘Doctor in the House’ was the top moneymaker of 1954. The influential Picturegoer magazine presented him with its Annual Award for ‘best actor’ three years in a row, while more than 4000 cinema managers chose him as ‘the World’s Greatest Money-Drawing Star’.
Bogarde was romantically linked to a succession of beautiful young actresses. But unbeknown to his adoring public, Bogarde’s sexual attentions were elsewhere. Bogarde had first met fellow actor Anthony Forwood in 1940. In the 1950s, Forwood divorced his wife, the actress Glynis Johns, with whom he had a son, to move in with Bogarde and become his ‘manager’. The pair were to be inseparable until Forwood’s death from cancer in 1988. In seven volumes of autobiography, Bogarde never once acknowledged that his relationship with the man he always referred to as ’Forwood’ was other than a business arrangement. But others knew differently. “They were closer than most married couples” recalls John Fraser. “It was abundantly clear that their relationship was deep and strong, but there never the slightest inappropriate gesture between them- no brush of a hand, no touch of a shoulder. Even their conversation was guarded”. In the 1950s, when homosexuality was still a criminal offence, Bogarde and Forwood had good reason to be reticent about their relationship. Many homosexuals of the time were blackmailed, and Bogarde’s ‘outing’ would undoubtedly have meant the end of his career.
Ironically in the ground-breaking film ‘Victim’ in 1961 Bogarde played a prominent London barrister who is blackmailed for being gay. The film was influential in helping change attitudes towards homosexuality- and eventually led to the reform of the homosexality laws in in 1967. But even after the threat of imprisonment was gone, Bogarde still refused to admit his the nature of his relationship with Forwood. Instead he claimed in interviews to be a heterosexual and to have had affairs with the French actress Capucine, and the American singer Judy Garland- claims denounced as ‘ludicrous’ by John Fraser.
By the Seventies Bogarde and Forwood had left Britain and settled in the South of France. In 1977 his first volume of autobiography ‘A Postillion Struck by Lightning’ was published and received excellent reviews. Further books followed, but in 1987, Bogarde had to leave his idyllic house and gardens in Provence to what he called the ‘filthy UK’ on account of Forwood’s grave illness.
There was no mellowing of Bogarde with age. “The girl beside me in the cinema offered me her Malteaser“ he wrote in a 1988 letter “ Wasn’t that pleasing? I scowled at her of course. I always do. Terror lurks not very far beneath this apparently cool façade”.
Bogarde also ridiculed the requests of British autograph hunters. “Could you sign this? Not for me, for my neice (sic), grandmother, wife, son, sister, baby-sitter, cousin Agnes, Eileen, with two ‘es’ please, Anne with an ‘e’. No one, ever, in France behaved like this. Not even in Paris, unless they were British”.
How can we account for his extraordinary bitterness?
John Fraser believes it was down to two factors: his failure to achieve the international success enjoyed by the likes of Michael Caine, Richard Burton and Sean Connery- and also the result of a lifetime spent revealing his true sexuality.
Others believe that it was his experiences of war- and witnessing at first hand man’s inhumanity to man- which made Bogarde into such a misanthrope. Perhaps the clues lie in his unhappy childhood. He once told the film writer Alexander Walker of an incident that shaped his way of life. “He was aged about seven” Walker recalled “when a pet tortoise that had gone missing one summer turned up trapped inside a hole in the meadow: at least, its shell turned up. Ants had eaten out the soft meat of its unprotected belly. The lesson it taught the impressionable child was: don't ever expose yourself. Don't stick you head out of your carapace. Don't let the world see your innards: if you do, it will eat you alive.”
Bogarde, who was knighted in 1992, was a man who above all, valued his privacy. “You haven’t cracked me yet” he once snapped at probing television interviewer Russell Harty. If the price of this prickliness was being left alone, then that was a price well worth paying. “If the tide runs out for me and I am left bereft in chair, then that’ll be fine”.
He died in 1999 at the age of 78.
With his memorable performances in classic films such as ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and ‘Death in Venice’ Bogarde was undoubtedly one of Britain’s greatest film stars but perhaps the greatest act he played was the one he played off-screen.