By the end of the decade, Bogarde realized that he had little future with studios and casting directors in England. Once he began working with ‘forward-looking directors like Dearden, Losey, Schlesinger and Clayton’, his matinée-idol public faded away along with box office receipts. This profoundly private man’s prior history of not playing the studio game but preferring instead seclusion now made it easy for studios to reject or ignore him. With no work that he cared to do, he went where he was wanted. Abroad. But it also meant packing up and leaving England.
In 1969, Visconti asked Bogarde to appear in his latest project The Damned (La Caduta degli dei), which explored the sordid connections between the thinly disguised Krupp steelworks in Germany and the Nazis. Visconti had seen Bogarde’s portrayal of Charlie Hook in Our Mother’s House and perceived in him the particular quality needed for the role of Friedrich Bruckmann. (Gow, 44) Bogarde, however, considered the part one-dimensional and was hesitant to accept it. But appearing in the film meant an opportunity to be in the presence of ‘Papa’ Visconti, whom he held in the highest esteem. Bogarde considered Visconti ‘The Emperor’ of film directors. ‘I wouldn’t have minded being a doorknob on any film that he ever did, the richness one took in was so enormous.’ (Shivas, 4) A side benefit would be earning money from the film, he wrote to Mrs. X – ‘the reason that I am in such a bitch of a state financially now is that I have refused to work until the right work came along . . . it has been a long wait sometimes . . . but I whored too often in the past.’ (A Particular Friendship, 128) Visconti, who had heavily edited Bogarde’s part in the film, described it as the ‘best back of head performance’ by the actor.
Visconti promised him a grander role in the future to make up for his diminished part in the movie. Little did he know that his portrayal of Bruckmann would lead to a greater performance, one that would rank among the finest in his career. After the year in Italy working with Visconti, Bogarde and his partner Anthony Forwood bought a farmhouse in Southern France, where they lived happily for almost 20 years, with Bogarde coming and going as he was offered interesting scripts.
In 1971, one such interesting script was offered. By ‘The Emperor’. True to his word, Visconti approached Bogarde again, this time to star in his adaptation of Thomas Mann’s short story Death in Venice (Morte a Venezia). The role of Gustav von Aschenbach, rewritten as a romantic composer-conductor modeled on Gustav Mahler, would become Bogarde’s role of a lifetime. Bogarde gave an exquisite portrayal of the old, dying composer who, during a stay in Venice, becomes obsessed with the golden-haired youth Tadzio, described by Mann as having a ‘godlike beauty’. After a life of abstinence and reason, von Aschenbach finds himself in the grip of overwhelming yearning for the beautiful Tadzio. He covertly follows the boy daily through the streets of Venice and watches him at play with his friends on the beach. Unable to drag himself away from Tadzio and to flee Venice and its devastating wave of cholera, he dooms himself to die in his quest for love and Beauty.
Critics applauded the film as a visual and cinematic masterpiece, carefully scripted and filmed under Visconti’s meticulous scrutiny down to the last detail of society in Venice at that time. Visconti’s choice to use excerpts from Mahler’s 3rd, 7th, and the haunting Adagietto movement of his 5th Symphony infused the film with an operatic mood of grandeur and tragedy. The film was a critical triumph for Visconti and Bogarde. At Cannes, the audience gave the film a standing ovation. (An Orderly Man, 86) Yet Bogarde recalls how it ‘was widely misunderstood in distribution circles . . . Someone in the States wanted to change the boy into a girl, in case people thought it was a “fag movie”.’ (Castell, Oct 1975, 59)
Through the years, Bogarde and his directors were repeatedly plagued by the same production problems: getting the finances for a film, actually making it, and then having it distributed in an unedited, unbutchered version. Creative life never became any easier.
Along with his finest roles in the ‘70s, Bogarde accepted a brief part as a Brit turned Russian spy in The Serpent (1973) ’to act with Henry Fonda’ and to work with director Henri Verneuil, who was, Bogarde explained, ‘the first French director, apart from Alain [Resnais] who had asked me to work with him.’ Playing the role would also give him time in front of the camera again after a long break. ‘It had been three years since I had made a film . . . It was really all one mammoth dress rehearsal for The Night Porter.’ (Castell, June 1974, 387)
In another leap of artistic faith, and encouraged by a thumbs up from Visconti about his disciple Liliana Cavani, Bogarde accepted the role of Max, an ex-Nazi camp guard who falls in love with his victim, an inmate in the camp in The Night Porter (Il Portiere di notte,1973). But first, Bogarde laboured with Cavani on the plot and theme of the script to make it a film he wanted to do. He had no wish to play “another degenerate, this time an SS officer in a concentration camp.” (An Orderly Man, 134) He wanted to focus on the “essence of the thing,” the inherent “love story,” and “not on the political polemic, ” he told Cavani. ”I suggested that under all the welter of polemic there was just a very simple, very moving story of two people, a man and a woman who had come together in Hell, had discovered an extraordinary love there in the mud and the filth of the camp, rather like a tiny flower thrusting through the brutality and degradation of a battlefield.” (140) Nevertheless, the film would be his most controversial, often misunderstood film. Whatever the reaction of certain audiences, his portrayal of Max, unexpectedly reunited with the object of his obsession, memorably played by a young Charlotte Rampling, is unforgettable. Powerful and erotically disturbing, Bogarde is at his most compelling and daring in what is now a cult film. Despite screening difficulties in Italy, Bogarde noted with wry satisfaction, ‘It was a colossal success here in France. One of the major women’s magazines has just voted it their film of the month.’ (Castell, June 1974, 387)
As a change of pace from unorthodox character roles, Bogarde accepted a part as a CIA head in Permission to Kill (1975), to work again with his friend Ava Gardner. Fifteen years earlier, the two had appeared in a misguidedly glamorous production of The Angel Wore Red. He and Gardner had hopes that Permission to Kill would be more realistic than others of the genre: ‘We thought it had something to say about major powers finding a voice through minor organizations, so we removed the stereotypes and the clichés. Instead of the lovers watching the dictator’s plane taking off into the sunset, now the thing blows up. That’s how it is, the CIA always wins.’ (Castell, October 1975, 58) Unfortunately, the film became a clichéd view of amoral Western intelligence men and glorified revolutionaries. The flat CIA character offered Bogarde little challenge and did zero for his dossier except to serve as a brief break from complex roles.
Still writing and tending his farm in France, he continued to look for roles in intelligent films, which were not blockbusters, but gems that in the end resonated with his audience and critics. He did not shy away from taking on provocative, daring roles, often playing characters light years away from his matinée-idol roles, which were built on his good looks.
Yet writing had become increasingly alluring: ‘Nothing could be more fleeting than a movie . . . but a novel is mine. It’s not dependent on directors or actors.’ (Anderson, C7) He could still be lured out by a good script or infrequently to earn a pay-cheque. In his usual witty, irreverent way, he commented to one interviewer: ‘Of course I will work again. Ten acres of land cost more to support that I had realized. I work all day scything the fields. Someone has to do it if the sheep don’t eat it, and this year the bastards didn’t turn up.’ (Castell, June 1974, 387)
After waiting more than a decade to work on the right project with Alain Resnais, whom Bogarde dubbed ‘The Poet-Director’ (Shivas, 4), they found it in the form of David Mercer’s Providence (1978). Considered one of Bogarde’s and Resnais’ finest films, it has a complex psychological layering, dark humour, a jungle-like, phantasmagoric landscape, marvellous interior sets designed with a surreal quality to serve as organic backdrops for each psychological scene, and is enveloped in a score by Miklós Rózsa. Bogarde gave a tour-de-force performance, deftly shifting between reality and the various nightmare versions of his character conjured up by his writer-father during a drunken, all-night stupor to forget the pain in his decaying body, and distorted by guilt-driven angst over past neglectful relationships with his son and family. For Bogarde, ‘It was exactly the film I had always hoped to be a part of for it did all that I ever desired a film to do. It disturbed, educated and illuminated, and above all it made me laugh . . . The wait of a decade had been worth every minute and I had, at last, achieved what was perhaps my greatest ambition as an actor; to work with Alain Resnais. It was, I couldn’t help thinking, a hell of a long way from being “The Idol of the Odeons”.’ (An Orderly Man, 240-241)
In 1978, Bogarde received a phone call from Tom Stoppard who asked if he was “making any more films.” When Bogarde replied, “I’m not making any more crap,” Stoppard rebutted, “I don’t write crap.” The playwright had just completed adapting Nabokov’s novel “Despair” for the experimental young German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.”We both think that you would be marvelous for the leading character,” Stoppard said. At the thought of “Stoppard, Nabokov, Fassbinder,” Bogarde felt “an old surge of excitement.” An important consideration in accepting was the nagging thought that his days as a major star were waning, and if “Despair” were to be his last film, he was consoled that he “would not fade out on a cameo role.
At least I would go out above the title, a position to which I had grown accustomed ever since my first film in 1947.” (An Orderly Man, 248-249) Bogarde embraced the opportunity, giving a brilliant performance as the bourgeois Russian émigré whose personality gradually fragments into two during the film. He considered Despair ‘a bloody good film’ and his best ‘technical’ performance, explaining to Tony Bilbow at a Guardian lecture: ‘I think it’s the best technical performance I’ve given on the screen… it’s the culmination of all the work I’ve ever tried to do, and if you take it layer by layer, inch by inch, step by step, it is a perfect example of a developing madness which becomes paranoia… the lengths I found I could go to in that satisfied me enormously. I did a lot of research for that.’ (220) After viewing the ‘final’ cut of the film in September 1977, he wrote to Fassbinder: ‘Stoppard called yesterday… he is now convinced that we have done a marvelous film and is very excited. I told him that he would be shocked here and there the first time around, but that he would be immeasurably proud the second time. I hope this is correct.’ (Watson, 27)
But in the seven-month interval between the version he had seen and what was actually shown at Cannes in May, Bogarde concluded that Fassbinder had edited his part ‘to bits’. In a letter to Wallace Watson, he indicated he was ‘profoundly disappointed when he saw the film at Cannes… in the intervening time Fassbinder had cut the film substantially.’ (27) He believed that the drastic editing was in part to blame for his losing the Best Actor Award to Jon Voight. With a certain amount of disillusioned resignation, Bogarde returned to his farm, pointing out to one interviewer: ‘I retreated, not retired, a whole different thing.’ (Bilbow, 212) Yet Bogarde had now reached the satisfying position where his innovative work with Visconti, Resnais and Fassbinder put him in high esteem with a new group of young British filmgoers. (Coldstream, 416-417)
In 1981, three years after his experience with Despair, Bogarde was again tempted out of his retreat to work with Glenda Jackson in The Patricia Neal Story. Although he and Jackson thought the film excellent with its stirring message of human will, that opinion was not shared by enough television viewers. The ‘Press was enthusiastic in their praise’, (Backcloth, 207) but when the film was shown coast-to-coast in the US, viewers preferred lighter fare and quickly switched channels. In the UK, it was ‘buried’ by being slotted on New Year’s Eve, a time when few would tune in. (Bilbow, 222)
His final forays into television were to star in May We Borrow Your Husband? (1986), with a script Bogarde had adapted himself from the Graham Greene short story, and in The Vision (1987), which had a ‘literate, well written’ script. (A Short Walk from Harrods, 190) Considering it a lifeline at that point, Bogarde readily accepted the role of a washed-up TV presenter tempted by money to work for an ultra-conservative religious television network with sinister motives. Playing opposite Lee Remick, Eileen Atkins and a young Helena Bonham Carter was a decided plus. Director Norman Stone was in awe at Bogarde’s ‘astonishing ability to compress and concentrate emotion; you could feel it from a word, thudding somewhere in the soul.’ (Coldstream, 490)
In 1990, back living in London after Forwood’s illness, and firmly established in his career as a best-selling writer, Bogarde made one last appearance on screen, this time in the French film Daddy Nostalgie, directed by Bertrand Tavernier. The role was a fitting swan song. In his ‘portrait’ of Tavernier for The Sunday Telegraph, Bogarde had only praise for the director: ‘He knows more about the cinema than practically any director I have worked with, Visconti coming a close second.’ I have said, when asked, that Visconti is the Emperor of film, Losey is the King, Tavernier is the Genius. And, for me, so he is a genius in the minutiae of life which he gets on to a cinema screen as no one else has ever done quite so brilliantly before. Nothing very much happens in a Tavernier film. Just all of life. ” (For the Time Being, 74-76). While Visconti was ‘The Emperor’, Bertrand Tavernier was ‘The Genius’. (Coldstream, 511)
Going into the film, the two artists had a long-standing rapport and respect for one another. Bogarde had known Tavernier as Joe Losey’s publicist years before. Moreover, as President of the 1984 Cannes jury, Bogarde and his team members gave Tavernier the Best Director Award. Filming Daddy Nostalgie was a cordial meeting of minds, with Tavernier soliciting Bogarde’s input throughout.
He reshaped his role to that of a less sympathetic one of a retired ex-pat salesman who tries to bolster his relationship with his young daughter by giving himself more importance. At Tavernier’s request, Bogarde also wrote a crucial scene for the film, which the director noted, was ‘wonderful… I think I only changed one line and we shot it. It was marvellous.’ (Phillips) Jane Birkin’s loving portrayal of the daughter was a perfect match on screen for Bogarde’s shirty, but needy dying father.
In an interview conducted at the Sydney Film Festival in 1999, Tavernier had these glowing words to say about his friend and collaborator: ‘Dirk Bogarde’s contribution to Daddy Nostalgie was enormous. He was very literate, biting, but warm and funny and we got along very well during the shooting. I’d admired Dirk’s work for many years and he mine… Bogarde was a very brave actor who wanted to experiment and worked to break his matinee star image. He fought to appear in The Servant and immediately agreed to work with someone who had been blacklisted. In a way he was like Michael Powell, someone who had no frontiers and was ready to work with anybody in the world. He disagreed with the attitude that sometimes prevailed in Britain, that British cinema should be an island onto itself. He always looked for serious and challenging work.’
Almost sixty years after Dirk Bogarde first appeared on screen, audiences remain mesmerized by the range of his talent and the characters he brought to the screen. Bogarde lived life under his own terms as a private man, an ‘orderly man’, a postillion struck early by lightning in his acting career, and rising quickly above the title. Through strength of character and artistic vision, he charted his own creative course and despite all odds kept to it.
Refusing to play the studio game, he sought shelter in a protective ‘shell’ throughout his stardom, year by year bricking himself into a ‘tower of obsessional privacy’. (A Postillion Struck by Lightning, 192). It is easy to understand that this talented, discriminating man would not long suffer superficial roles based solely on his good looks. Once he made the leap from the confines of Rank to freelance work, he remained true to his resolve to take on roles that he believed had depth and which furthered the cinema as an artistic form. His independent and gutsy decisions led to artistic accomplishments but exacted a toll. He made films he described as ‘critical successes but box office failures’. ( A Postillion Struck by Lightning, 192) Unlike some ageing actors who accepted any roles, including bit parts, Bogarde refused to do this, holding fiercely to his artistic standards. It was a daring approach, often financially unprofitable but artistically rewarding and one he would continue for the most part through to his last film appearance in 1990 in Daddy Nostalgie.
One cannot help but wonder what further paths his film career might have taken had he been given more opportunities to play the challenging character roles he craved: ‘I’ve never, never gotten the parts that I would actually like to have . . .’ (Guerin, 82) Over the years, there had been interesting, usually European projects, which for lack of funds or other problems would fall through. In 1968, he spoke of filming Jean Renoir’s Memoirs of Captain Jacques, set in the belle époque, with Jeanne Moreau. Alain Resnais asked him to make a film with Vanessa Redgrave. (A Particular Friendship, 107-108) There were visionary projects such as Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, to be made with Visconti, but the director’s illness ended those dreams. Unfortunately none of these films or others discussed with directors and writers was ever made. It was a loss for Bogarde’s admirers, who would have valued seeing him perform in many more roles with artistic scope and complexity.
Although some directors and producers were more interested in financial gain than in quality, Bogarde’s talent was held in the highest esteem where it counted, by the most élite directors in England and Europe and by discerning filmgoers around the world, with the result that the roles he wanted and did play are considered among the finest on screen.
With poignant insight, Joe Losey paid this tribute: ‘Dirk fought the system and he carries scars, but I would say that he has won. In a sense he gave up stardom and security to become an actor who is always exceptional and frequently extraordinary. ’ (Introduction, The Films of Dirk Bogarde, 2)
By the time of his death in 1999, Bogarde could look back with pride at his career in the cinema. He had come a long way from his days as ‘Idol of the Odeons’. He was knighted in 1992 for his contribution to British cinema, made a Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government; nominated six times by BAFTA, winning twice as well as being accorded its first Tribute Award; nominated for the Hollywood Foreign Press Award, and twice for a Golden Globe Award; given the Dilys Powell Award by the London Critics Circle; honoured at Cannes in 1983 for service to the cinema, and again in 1986 as the first Englishman to head the Festival jury. In his later years, he taught master classes, passing on his years of accumulated experience and thoughts on acting for the cinema. (Indiana, 77) After fifty years, The Blue Lamp and Doctor in the House remain on the British Film Institute list of the top ten highest attended British films of all time.
To the least of roles Bogarde brought quality; to the best of roles, his own special genius. With every passing year and repeated viewings of his films, admirers more deeply comprehend the scope of his unique talent and compelling presence on screen that made him one of the most important actors of British and European cinema of the 20th century. Dirk Bogarde’s name will remain eternally above the title.
Barbara Siek received her Ph.D. in English Literature from The University of Chicago and has lectured on and written about British literature and cinema for over 20 years.