By Margaret Hinxman
The Guardian, Monday 10 May 1999
At his peak and with directors he trusted – Joseph Losey, Luchino Visconti and Alain Resnais – Dirk Bogarde, who has died of a heart attack at 78, was probably the finest, most complete, actor on the screen. He esteemed and learned from Spencer Tracy and, in common with all the most mesmerising screen actors, could convey a quality of stillness which suggested hidden turmoil and torment. If Bogarde could have written his own epitaph he might well have chosen the line from a Judy Garland song he was fond of citing as a personal philosophy: ‘It’s all in the game and the way you play it.’ The game being his life, which he conducted according to a code that was admirable and, at times, uncomfortable, for himself and for those he loved and worked with.
It was a blend of honour and honesty which, he conceded, might seem old-fashioned. It informed everything he did in a diverse career from matinee idol in the 1950s, to acclaimed international actor in the 1960s and 1970s, to best-selling author, memoirist and broadcaster.
It also shaped the private character of a man who could be prickly and contradictory, but never mean or devious. The erosion of grace, courtesy and decency in society was a grievance to him.
Bogarde was a writer and gifted artist, but it is as a film actor that he is remembered. He developed a formidable range, from his manipulative manservant in The Servant (1963), to the campy caricature of a master criminal in Modesty Blaise (1966) and the silent obsession of von Aschenbach, haunted by the unapproachable beauty of the boy in Death In Venice (1971). But the least showy, more reflective roles tested his true qualities best. Joseph Losey’s The Servant, Bogarde used to say, was ‘a piece of cake’ compared with his introverted academic in Accident (1967) or his icily correct first world war officer charged with defending a deserter in King And Country (1964).
He had the rare gift of supporting extravagant female characters – Judy Garland in I Could Go On Singing (1963), Ava Gardner in The Angel Wore Red (1960), Julie Christie in Darling (1965) – without being dominated by them. Steering the seriously unstable Garland, playing a seriously unstable superstar, through her last fraught film was a selfless act on Bogarde’s part: but he could never rid himself of the feeling that he might have failed her. To give less than 100 per cent – even to such silly escapades as Hot Enough For June (1963) or The Singer Not The Song (1960) – would have been not only sloppy but impermissible in his reckoning.
He had an intimate relationship with the camera. The secret of film acting, he said, was all behind the eyes, the ‘look’ and he would cite, surprisingly, Alan Ladd, who wasn’t good with words but who knew exactly what ‘a great look’ was all about.
Derek Van den Bogaerde was born in London; his mother was a celebrated beauty and frustrated actress, his father the art editor of the Times, who hoped his son would enter his profession. But, although he studied at art school, acting attracted Bogarde. He spent an apparently idyllic childhood in Sussex with his sister Elizabeth and beloved nanny, Lally: a period he sensitively evoked in his first volume of memoirs, A Postillion Struck By Lightning.
He served in the Air Photographic Intelligence Service during the war. But he didn’t talk about the war until much later in his autobiographies. Then one appreciated the emotional scarring caused by the sight of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Those scars remained with him. His abhorrence of louts – from officer class bullies to sullen other ranks – came from this time.
When Bogarde was demobilised, he did the usual rounds of auditions before appearing on stage in Power Without Glory in 1947. A feature in the Sketch magazine tipped him as one of four young men of promise: another was Harold Wilson. (The irony of being lumped with the future Prime Minister amused him, he was never a socialist.) The play and article led to his first starring role in Esther Waters (1948) and a Rank Organisation contract.
The Rank studio system kept him working in a series of trivial films; his portrayal of the psycho who killed Dixon of Dock Green in The Blue Lamp (1949) left such a lasting impression that, for a while, all producers envisaged him as a raincoated thug on the run.
He credited Doctor In The House (1954) and its producer, Betty Box, with saving his career; yet the Doctor series became a curse as well as a blessing. It gave him a decade of Beatle-like fame and sent fans to camp on his doorstep and try to debag him at public appearances. Unnerved, he avoided show business as much as possible. He was far more at ease later with an older generation of fans who wrote him respectful letters and worshipped him from a distance.
While loathing the attention, he sensibly appreciated that it kept him in country houses, servants and Rolls Royces. His home became a kind of court for favourite, famous people. ‘Why should I go to the Caprice?’ he once said, rather grandly. ‘The Caprice comes to me.’
After more than 30 films, including a disastrous spell in Hollywood playing Liszt in Song Without End (1960), and the deep disappointment of not playing Lawrence of Arabia in a film which was never made, to be directed by Anthony Asquith and written by Terence Rattigan, Victim (1961) changed his career.
It was the first British film to deal openly with homosexuality and he was always proud of making it. Although it might now seem tame, at the time it was instrumental in changing the legislation against gays. It also changed the public perception of Bogarde. Doctor fans deserted him. At that time, young, working-class actors were about to conquer the British cinema and Bogarde’s elegant, middle-class image seemed out of date.
Oddly, what followed was the most productive period of his career. Bogarde had already worked with the black-listed American director Joseph Losey, who came to Britain in the early 1950s, on The Sleeping Tiger (1954), an unexceptional psycho-melodrama. Because of the communist witch-hunt in the US, Losey used the pseudonym Victor Hanbury. Before he died, he recalled: ‘In so far as Dirk understood my political opinions he certainly didn’t agree with them, so it took much courage to perform the unselfish act of faith which he did.’ (Later, Bogarde joked, semi-seriously: ‘I only became political when I had to do my own washing up.’)
Ten years later, the two embarked on the remarkable quartet of films – The Servant, King And Country, Modesty Blaise and Accident – produced on miniscule budgets and with little help from the British cinema. With the exception of Modesty Blaise, the films were all critically acclaimed, but not box office successes. Losey and Bogarde worked on them for love and little more than lunch money. Now they are seen as classics.
For Bogarde, interesting film offers from Britain were becoming rarer. In Europe and, to an extent, America, he was accorded more respect. It was that – and British taxes – that persuaded him to leave England for Italy, and then to settle in France.
The move generated inexplicable rancour. He was accused of desertion. ‘I’m passionately English, but sometimes I don’t like the English,’ he confessed. ‘They seem to resent success. When Joe and I made those terribly difficult films which no British companies wanted to touch, we honestly wanted to make British cinema important, to lift it out of the domestic rut.’
His decision to buy and restore a Provencal shepherd’s house and its terraced olive trees coincided with his third fruitful period: his work with the Italian director Luchino Visconti.
Visconti’s macabre reworking of Macbeth set in the Nazi era in Germany, The Damned (1969), later led to Bogarde’s portrayal of Thomas Mann’s von Aschenbach in Death In Venice, a role Visconti thought Bogarde ‘ripe’ for. Bogarde called the autocratic Visconti ‘V’, either a ‘monster’ or a ‘master’ depending on the prevailing wind of their partnership. Despite interesting performances in Liliana Cavani’s weirdly erotic The Night Porter (1973), Fassbinder’s even weirder Despair (1978) and Alain Resnais’s Providence (1977), Bogarde had reached the point of no return in cinema.
His life in Provence was agreeable and simple, but still – as always – fastidious and comfortable. Prompted by a perceptive editor, he discovered his genuine and original flair as an author. He interspersed his autobiographies, including Snakes And Ladders and An Orderly Man, with novels, often drawing on his experiences in the war and as an actor: A Gentle Occupation, Voices In The Garden, West Of Sunset.
In his writing, and certainly in his private life, there was an element of romanticism that took greater pleasure in the unattainable than in a possibly bruising brush with reality. It manifested itself in the passionate friendship, by correspondence, with a woman in America who had once lived in the house he occupied. They had a pact never to meet for fear of disappointment. After her death, he published a selection of the letters in his book A Particular Friendship. On a professional level, he turned down roles in the musicals Gigi and On A Clear Day which Alan Jay Lerner had written for him ‘because if I had done them, we wouldn’t have remained friends’.
The fatal illness of his long-time companion and manager, Anthony Forwood, forced them to leave France and return to England. He nursed Forwood through his last months, recording the experience in his painful memoir, A Short Walk From Harrods. For nearly 40 years, he had relied on Forwood’s counsel and discreet, calming influence. The loss left him floundering in his increasingly reclusive life.
After a stroke, he became more and more absorbed in his writing and broadcasting. With the death of his father, mother, Forwood and many old friends he felt able to write about them more freely. Two intriguing mysteries, Jericho, and its sequel A Period Of Adjustment, and a collection of remembered oddments from the past, Cleared For Take-Off, came in quick succession.
He returned to the screen to give another commanding performance as the irascible, dying father in Bertrand Tavernier’s Daddy Nostalgic (1990), but most of all he relished being regarded as an established author.
Despite his love of France, he remained essentially English and accepted an overdue knighthood in the 1990s. He was equally proud of being a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and an honorary Doctor of Letters at St Andrews University.
Although the Oscars and Booker prizes eluded him, many feel these omissions gave Bogarde the kind of exclusivity he would have relished. Not one of a kind, but one on his own.
• Sir Dirk Bogarde [Derek Niven Van den Bogaerde], actor and author, born March 28, 1921; died May 8, 1999
Original article available at the Guardian