March 28, 1921– Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde
“I love the camera and it loves me. Well, not very much sometimes. But we’re good friends.”
Dirk Bogarde was romantically linked to a line of beautiful young female actors, but his sexual focus was mostly on men.
Bogarde met fellow actor Anthony Forwood when they worked together in 1940. In the 1950s, Forwood divorced his wife, actor Glynis Johns, with whom he had a son, to move in with Bogarde and become his “manager”. The couple were inseparable until Forwood’s death from cancer in 1988.
Openly gay British actor John Fraser, who was working during the same era, recounts:
“They were closer than most married couples. It was abundantly clear that their relationship was deep and strong, but there was 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 offense in England, Bogarde and Forwood had good reason to be reticent about exposing their relationship. Many gay men of the time were blackmailed, and Bogarde’s outing would undoubtedly have meant the end of his career.
Frasier tells this in his memoir Close Up: An Actor Telling Tales (2004):
“I visited Bogarde at his loft where he greeted me on a high-revving static Harley-Davidson motorcycle while gazing at a poster of himself clad in crotch-hugging leather trousers as a Spanish bandit in the 1961 film The Singer Not The Song. Bogarde said: ‘This is my playroom’ and he rode for 10 minutes, his expression was like the rapture on the face of a medieval saint. Afterwards, he slumped over the handlebars. Dismounting, wiping sweat from his forehead, he said: ‘Now you know’. It looked like a Narcissus fantasy come to life. Bogarde lived in a wonderland sustained by doting fans.”
Subtlety is hardly the word for his work in The Singer Not The Song, which delves into the relationship between Bogarde’s bandit, Anacleto (in tight black leather gear) and a priest, played by John Mills, trying to reclaim him for the Church.
Bogarde played the role of an embittered working-class manservant manipulating James Fox into sex-and-power games in the screen version of Harold Pinter‘s homoerotic The Servant (1963). He portrayed a former Nazi SS officer caught up in a sadomasochistic relationship with a woman (Charlotte Rampling) he abused when she was in a prison camp when they meet again in Vienna in 1957 in The Night Porter (1974) for director Liliana Cavani.
Especially for a closet case, he was brave in his career choices. He plays a Nazi sympathizer in The Damned (1969), written and directed by Luchino Visconti, the tale of a wealthy industrialist family who have begun doing business with the Nazi Party. It is a thinly veiled reference to the Krupp family of steel industrialists. The film portrays the 1934 Night of the Long Knives, and the subsequent executions of the Resistance leaders by the SS, as a gay orgy. He made Providence (1977) with Alain Resnais and Despair (1978) with Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
He crowned his career with Death In Venice (1971), also directed by Visconti, based on the novella by Thomas Mann, playing a man who falls fatally in love with the ideal of beauty exemplified by a beautiful boy. With almost no dialogue, the film amounts to a 125-minute reaction shot.
In the 1961 film Victim, Bogarde plays a respectable married lawyer, who also happens to be gay. His character is being blackmailed and stands to lose everything. The film highlighted the pressures that gay men faced at that time, including ruin, violence, self-hatred and suicide, because of the criminalization of homosexual acts, sort of like Alabama in our own era.
Victim became an important vehicle for changing the attitudes towards gay people in Britain in the 1960s. It is one of the first films where the word “homosexual” was uttered. I can’t recall another film in which an explicitly gay character actually stood up to fight the system that oppressed gay people. In Victim, Bogarde is filmdom’s first true gay hero. Victim came close to ending Bogarde’s career as a leading man, but it also paved the way for his rather brilliant work as a character actor later in his career.
But, even after the threat of imprisonment for being gay was long over, Bogarde still refused to admit his relationship with Forwood. He claimed in interviews to be a straight guy who had enjoyed affairs with the French performer Capucine and with Judy Garland.
Bogarde wrote seven volumes of memoirs without once mentioning that he was gay or anything about Forwood. As a matinee idol who’s adoring fans probably could not deal with their favorite actor being a queer, Bogarde kept his private life very private. Yet, he played several gay and bisexual men in films, and then spent his entire career denying his own gayness. He wanted more than anything to be noted as a straight leading man. He was called the British Rock Hudson because he was so handsome and possessed an especially appealing screen persona. The two actors had more than beauty and acting style in common. When Bogarde was making Campbell’s Kingdom (1957) in Italy, Hudson was filming A Farewell To Arms there at the same time, leaving me to wonder if they got together on a rare day off.
Even as he stayed deep in the closet, by accepting roles in films like Victim, Death In Venice, and The Night Porter, Bogarde pushed the boundaries of what a star could do in movies further than most actors of his generation. And my, oh my… he certainly was handsome!
Bogarde craved having an international film career, not one limited to British film fans. When it was a big box-office flop, he blamed everyone else involved in the making of his only Hollywood film, Song Without End (1960), where he plays Hungarian pianist/composer Franz Liszt. He blamed his agents for limiting him to British films, and he complained that he was under appreciated and underpaid.
All that from a man who as early as 1958 was the biggest draw at the British box-office, bigger than Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn or Elvis Presley.
He remained haunted by WW II. When those nasty Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Bogarde joined the Queen’s Royal Regiment as an officer. He served in the Air Photographic Intelligence Unit, eventually becoming a Major. He was awarded seven medals in his five years of active duty. He wrote poems and painted during the war, and in 1943, a small magazine published one of his poems, Steel Cathedrals. His paintings of the war are part of the Imperial War Museum’s collection.
Similar to the character that he played in King And Country (1964), Bogarde was called upon to put a wounded soldier out of his misery, a tale recounted in one of his memoirs. He also took part in the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, which he said was like “looking into Dante’s Inferno”.
It is fascinating that his finest films are all somehow about him. He was a great self-portraitist and the screen persona he fashioned not only dominated its surroundings but spoke subliminally and powerfully to British movie fans about the tensions of the time, about the cruel respectability of England in the 1950s and 1960s.
In September 1996, he suffered a pulmonary embolism following heart surgery. At the end of his life, Bogarde was paralyzed on one side of his body, which affected his speech and left him wheelchair bound. Still, he would finish a final volume of memoirs that explored the stroke and its effect on him. He spent most of the day before he died with his BFF, Lauren Bacall. Bogarde’s final credits rolled in London, taken by a heart attack. He was 78-years-old. He never did come out of the closet, even after Lawrence Harvey and John Gielgud did so reluctantly, and Ian McKellen did blazingly.
“Living in a tower, however secure it may feel, is hardly a social attribute.”