Professor Christopher Breward Lecture

 

DIRK BOGARDE: FROM DOCTOR TO DECADENT

Prof. Christopher Breward

Dirk Bogarde was born Derek Niven Van den Bogaerde to Anglo-Belgian parents in North West London in 1921. He trained as an artist at the Chelsea School of Art and entered into the stage-acting profession just before the outbreak of World War II, when he served as Signalman and Intelligence Officer in the British Army. On demobilization he returned to acting on stage and television before signing with the Rank organization in 1947. From then until his final film in 1989, Bogarde enjoyed a celebrated career as movie-star, author, celebrated expat and raconteur. A little has been written by film theorists Andy Medhurst and Richard Dyer on the complexities of his screen characterizations and their relation to questions of masculinity and homosexuality in post-war Britain, but even less has been published on the visual and sartorial nature of such relationships.1 I want to begin to address the issue of Bogarde’s use of clothes in this informal paper. Through tracing the development of costume in key productions and using the actor’s own words alongside popular film criticism, I want to suggest a parallel between biographical concerns and the celluloid representation of ‘queerness’ from the 1940s to the 1980s, in which Bogarde’s self-fashioning forms a constant point of tension.

I. FIRST FILMS

In the Paramount film Dancing With Crime (1947), starring Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim, Bogarde played his first bit-part role as a policeman and established his association with cinematic treatments of the seamier side of post-war urban life. The production was reviewed in The Times as ‘another film which illustrates the present pre-occupation of British studios with the black market and the more sinister and dubious ways of living indulged in by ex-servicemen and those who never wore a uniform. Not to be taken as a serious illustration of contemporary social conditions, but decidedly well cut to its own ‘spiv’ fashion and authoritative in its comments on London palais de danse, ‘pub’ and garage.2

J. Arthur Rank’s Esther Waters (1948), based on George Moore’s nineteenth-century novel offered Bogarde his first leading role as William Latch, the caddish footman and racing gambier whose fecklessness ruins the life of Kathleen Ryan’s Esther. He recalled in an interview with Picturegoer of 1957 that ‘I walked around with hundreds of pounds worth of costume on my back in a daze. When I asked the director how I should play a scene, he told me “you’re the actor, you should know”.’3 In his second autobiographical memoir, Snakes & Ladders (1978), Bogarde also noted that the role exposed his concerns about his physical appearance (a small head and thin neck) which he revealed to the producer Ian Dalrymple (described as ‘quiet, soft spoken, thoughtful, articulate, who smoked his cigarettes through paper holders and looked more like an Oxford don.’) who responded ‘I don’t see anything wrong with it, your neck. Your head will soon swell anyway; and until it does we’ll have your hats made by Lock and you’ll be wearing stocks most of the time. I shouldn’t worry. This is New Cinema…’4

In the same year J. Arthur Rank’s Once a Jolly Swagman (1949) offered another starring role as a speedway racer. The Times commented that ‘Mr Dirk Bogarde makes a dashing driver’,5 and in Snakes & Ladders (1978), the actor joked that ‘I, of all people, with my horror of mechanics, machines and speed, was engaged to play the Speedway Champion of Europe. Or something. The director [Jack Lee], standing beside a quite enormous copper and chromium bike, told me softly that he would like me to take it home, stand it in my bedroom, and love it as I would a woman… I would have be en happier with a ten foot boa-constrictor, and could have offered it far more love and affection than this harsh, gleaming, noisy machine on which I was to spend days and nights of agony, fear and mounting hysteria…’6

Bogarde played Tom Riley, the petty crook and murderer of policeman George Dixon in his breakthrough film, Ealing Studios’ The Blue Lamp, directed by Basil Dearden in 1950. Looking back in 1957, Picturegoer remarked that ‘it is strange to remember now that there was a time – only a few years ago – when Bogarde seemed fated to live a screen life of vicious delinquency in a dirty raincoat. It was his uncannily exact portrayal of the mean-minded killer-spiv in The Blue Lamp that launched this phase for him…’7

The film was made as ‘a homage to the police forces in Britain which were… fighting in the aftermath of war ‘a nationwide wave of crime which threatens the property and sometimes even the lives of many citizens… fomented by ‘a new breed of delinquent born from a restless and ill-adjusted youth – a kind which graduated with bravado to serious crime. They were a class apart from the genuine underworld and regular thieves, and ‘all the more dangerous for their immaturity.’8

Andy Medhurst saw Bogarde’s performance ‘as not only a personal breakthrough but, in its compelling, thrilling and above all erotic way, innovative as well. Erotic cruelty was not new to British films; in the 1940s it had been the property of James Mason. Yet where Mason’s successes had been mostly in historical or aristocratic roles, Bogarde’s appropriation of the thrilling sadist persona is urban, contemporary and working-class. It is, then, less distanced and more radical, more of a challenge to the norms of British screen masculinity.’9

II. SCREEN IDOL

During the 1950s, Bogarde’s roles matured, eliciting sympathy from a new, young and largely female fan-base. In General Film Distributors’ Desperate Moment (1953) he played a wrongly accused refugee and The News Chronicle reported on ‘Dirk Bogarde, fated to be permanently on the run, a sweating, panting fugitive, with terror in his eyes.’10 While The Sunday Pictorial reviewer wearily noted that “I am getting tired of watching Dirk Bogarde being chased.”11 Richard Dyer groups the film with Hunted and The Gentle Gunman (both 1952) as a vehicle for Bogarde’s masochistic acting style, and in a revealing passage in Coldstream’s recent biography we learn that ‘In an interview during the shooting of Desperate Moment [Bogarde] said that Rank had been worried about his physique and had equipped him with a full set of barbells, chest expanders, rowing machines, Indian clubs and other ‘instruments of torture’. When the Studio next saw footage of him as a tattered but burlier fugitive, he received hearty congratulations. Rashly he confided to his interviewer that he had achieved the new look by donning extra sweaters under a windcheater and a ‘double ration of trousers’. The packages of gymnastic apparatus lay unopened in the garage… According to the editor of the august fitness magazine Health and Strength… several of its readers had ‘gone up in the air’ about Dirk’s disclosure: ‘They want me to point out to their once-favourite film star that unless he gets down to it and puts some real beefcake on that lean frame they are going to give Desperate Moment… a miss when it comes round!…

A troubled Dirk wrote back:

‘I have been an ardent reader of your publication ever since I was a schoolboy way back in the early 1930s, and except for the six war years, when I only managed to sneak an odd copy in France, Burma or Java, I have remained so ever since. The last four years have provided me with a handsome set of H&S bound in red leather, and proud possessors of space on my bookshelves. It was therefore with a good deal of distress that I found the whole editorial of the current issue devoted to an inaccurate account of my doings. I should like to apologise to any readers who were annoyed by the newspaper article in question, and hasten to state here and now, that I have the greatest admiration in the world for bodybuilding. Also I have never in the whole of my career, ever worn two pullovers… or padded my shoulders. That is utter rot!’ 12

The tensions between Dirk’s screen image and the promotion of his private persona are set in high relief in a following article on his house at Bendrose for a woman’s magazine titled Design for Living. ‘He took great satisfaction in pointing out that almost every ornament and item of furniture had been a bargain: a walnut and ebony Regency bookcase – £20; two red damask, wing back chairs – 1930s and 1940s respectively; the 1840 Broadwood spinet – £9; the Zuccarelli painting – £3; the platoon of model soldiers – a souvenir from the set of Esther Waters. The harmony of colour and décor throughout the house was not only warm but also the mark of someone with a natural flair. His lampshade and chair-covers were even the subject of a do-it-yourself pattern.’13

General Film Distributors’ Doctor in the House (1954) had Bogarde playing Dr Simon Sparrow – a role he would reprise five times during the course of his career and one that would promote him most directly to the women’s magazine readers who followed his interior decoration tips – an unprecedented 17 million of whom bought tickets in its first year. The Star‘s reviewer noted that ‘Mr Bogarde, wearing a youthfully lost look, displays a gift for comedy I don’t remember seeing before.’14 And in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph of 1970, the actor suggested that ‘I never looked a conventional romantic hero. And I think it was only because the producer was a women, Betty Box, that she could see I had sex-appeal, though not of the orthodox kind.’15The unorthodoxy of that appeal was also demonstrated in the reminiscences of his co-stars, Richard Gordon who observed that ‘the camera crew would sometimes call out ‘Oh he’s Ginger inne?’ as in Ginger Beer, Cockney Rhyming Slang for ‘Queer’, and Donald Sinden, ‘who… was struck by his insularity… During breaks… Dirk would retreat to his Rolls-Royce – ‘his first status symbol’ and sit by himself. ‘We used to say, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ It was very much the chaps together, and the feeling came round that he was the only homosexual among us. But nobody bothered him… ‘16

In J. Arthur Rank’s The Spanish Gardener (1956) Bogarde played Jose, the sensitive gardener friend of the lonely young son of an embittered British Diplomat Brande, played by Michael Hordern, stationed in a Spanish port. Based on the 1951 novel by A J. Cronin, the film was unusual for its time in its treatment of a sublimated homosexual desire. Though this was far more explicit in the text – as Cronin’s words suggest: ‘The gardener stood on the edge of the bright lawn, naked to the waist, young thighs planted well apart, his golden-skinned torso gleaming in the sunlight, swinging the schythe with easy strokes. Fascinated, scarcely breathing, Brande watched the splendid rhythm, each sweep cutting into his flesh.’17 Bogarde was ultimately miscast in his tight jeans with crisp English accent. His costumes were designed by Margaret Furse who would go on to win academy award nominations for her work on The Lion in Winter (1968) and Anne of the Thousand Days (1969). However, Picturegoer suggested that ‘Bogarde looks right, he acts right. But there is a basic complexity about [him] that doesn’t gell with the character of a peaceful, earthy peasant… For once, I suspect, this is a case where a British film’s heart has run away with its head.’18

J. Arthur Rank’s Ill Met by Moonlight (1956), directed by Powell & Pressburger suffered equally from the casting of Bogarde against type. In it he played Paddy Leigh Fermor, leader of a British secret agent group working in occupied Crete. Powell noted that he had wanted for the role ‘a flamboyant young murderer, lover, bandit – a tough, Greek speaking leader of men, and instead I got a picture-postcard hero in fancy-dress.’19 Bogarde did keep the still of himself in beret, battle-dress top and jodhpurs tucked into knee-length boots as a memento of his ‘heroic’ phase – yet it is perhaps a representation of what cultural critic Philip Hoare in his Fashion Theory article ‘I Love a Man in Uniform’ has termed ‘his key trait: a sense of icy distance that overlies a deep empathy combined with ennui; the repressed emotion of his own stiff upper lip, an Englishness undercut by his European background, a rictus of handsomeness and suavity betrayed by a veiled sexuality and a sense of implied threat. It is the classic, remote pose of a dandy, but now in a Freudian, post-Armageddon age, fatally invested with neurosis.’20

III. QUEERNESS

In the Rank Organisation’s The Singer Not the Song (1961) Bogarde plays Anacleto, a Mexican bandit who ensnares John Mills as the local priest Father Keogh in a sado-masochistic struggle of good and evil. His costume by Yvonne Caffin is remarkable for its black leather trousers. John Russel Taylor in The Times decided that ‘Mr Bogarde, whenever he is allowed to act with more than his left eyebrow, enters with some enthusiasm into the slightly lunatic mood of the piece (there is, in particular, an hallucinatory moment when he appears, tightly sheathed in black leather and carrying a white Persian kitten, for all the world like a latterday Queen Kelly)’ and The Evening Standard suggested that ‘Dirk’s each scene is a victory over the costume designer.’21 The film was a commercial and critical disaster, though interestingly Bogarde used it to paradoxical ends by suggesting in later interviews that his exquisitely camp performance was a deliberate act of narcissistic subversion, stating ‘I had a great love affair with me… can you believe that not one single person in that bloody organization knew what I was up to.’22

Bogarde’s next Rank film, Victim, directed in 1961 by Basil Dearden was a landmark production, which famously contributed to the later partial de-criminalisation of homosexual acts in Britain in 1968. In it Bogarde played the lead role of Melville Farr, a barrister who is implicated in, and finally uncovers, a blackmailing ring targeting gay men from all walks of London life. In an interview in 1970 Bogarde recalled that ‘it slung the whole of the Elvis Presley image. It busted the thing wonderfully open because the kids just fell away overnight… not because I was playing a homosexual, because in England the word ‘queer’ usually means you’re not feeling very well, so they didn’t get it anyway, but I did have grey temples and I was broaching my own age, playing a man about 45. I wasn’t the bouncy happy doctor with a little perm in the front lock of my hair and my caps in and my left profile… all that broke. The caps came out, the hair was never permed again and a different audience came in.’23 Richard Dyer in an important essay of 1977 on Victim as hegemonic project talks about the deliberate contradictions set up in the film’s styling – its considerable pains to keep the worlds of normalcy (the Farrs) and of deviance (the gay world) iconographically distinct,’ and the blurring of these in Bogarde’s own self-construction, noting that ‘his early roles had combined youthful good looks with elements of criminality, sadism and masochism… In addition, even in very straightforward films his acting style suggests repression of feeling, often manifested as an uneasy combination of cool, poised stretches of acting and sudden outbursts of anger. Thus Bogarde as Farr is a far more ambivalent, disquieting figure than the role as it is written might indicate.’24

Warner Pathé’s The Servant (1963), directed by Joseph Losey, screenplay by Harold Pinter, and based on a Robin Maugham novella, starred Bogarde as Barret, the corrupt manservant to Tony, James Fox’s dissolute aristocrat. Once again, costumes were by Beatrice Dawson and in Snakes & Ladders (1978), Bogarde provided a rich description of the role clothing played in the construction of the part: ‘I am an actor who works from the outside in, rather than the reverse. Once I can wear the clothes which my alter-ego has chosen to wear, I then begin the process of his development from inside the layers. Each item selected by her was carefully chosen by Losey, down to the tiepin: a tight, shiny, blue serge suit, black shoes which squeaked a little, lending a disturbing sense of secret arrival, pork-pie hat with a jay’s feather, a fair-isle sweater, shrunken, darned at the elbows, a nylon scarf with horses heads and stirrups. A mean, shabby outfit for a mean shabby man… Next the detail: Brylcreemed hair, flat to the head, a little scurfy round the back and in the parting, white puddingy face, damp hands… Glazed, aggrieved eyes, and then the walk to blend the assembly together… His walk I took from an ingratiating Welsh waiter who attended me in an hotel in Liverpool. The glazed and pouched eyes were those of a car salesman lounging against a Buick in the Euston Road, aggrieved, antagonistic, resentful, sharp; filing his nails. No make-up ever.’ Time Magazine recognized Bogarde’s relish in the role, his ‘tea party façade through which the gleam of hellfire is always dimly perceptible.’25

John Coldstream draws strong parallels between the masochistic relationship of Barret and Tony, Bogarde’s domestic set-up with Tony Forwood and the internal tensions of the actor’s personality. He uses an anecdote from James Fox to illustrate the ways in which these tensions found sartorial expression: ‘Fox remembers an occasion later in the 1960s when he himself had become involved with the rock music crowd. He made contact with Dirk, who invited him to the Connaught for a reception he was giving after the premiere of Accident (a Losey-directed film from 1967). Fox said he had some friends with him: could they come to? ‘Oh God’ said Dirk, suddenly alarmed. So there amid the elegance and the formality were Fox and his girlfriend in fairly advanced hippy mode, with velvet trousers, cascading hair and wreathed in scarves, accompanied by Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful, slouching on the radiators and popping amyl-nitrate capsules. Dirk, immaculate in his suit and cut-away collar, went over to them and said if they wanted to do that kind of thing they should do it in the lavatories. As they left, he said to Fox: ‘Do get washed, have a hair-cut and choose new friends.’26

Following an understated performance as model Julie Christie’s journalist lover Robert Gold in the 1965 John Schlesinger production of Darling, Bogarde turned again to the perverse. ‘Twentieth-Century Fox’s Modesty Blaise of 1966, directed by Joseph Losey with costumes by Beatrice Dawson, was a slice of high mid-1960s pop/camp in which Bogarde reprises the role of sexually-ambiguous arch-villain opposite Monica Vitti’s Barbarella-like Modesty. Alexander Walker, reviewing in The Evening Standard, suggested that ‘Dirk Bogarde dominates the film with a glorious parody of a master criminal who hates sex, is afraid of his mother, struts around so long as he is wearing a silver wig… employs a female executioner and a Scottish Presbyterian accountant who brings his ledger into battle and chides a henchman for wasting ammunition.’27 To a later interviewer Bogarde rather disingenuously recalled that ‘Joe [Losey] said ‘why don’t you play the villain because you’re quite the wrong type?’ For my own sake, I invented a background for the character: a ferocious, dominating Scottish mother who never came south of the border and summoned him to dinner every so often. To her, I was the milksop son and she never knew I was an arch criminal. I decided to wear the white wig and white clothes. I’m terribly fastidious. I don’t actually commit the murders, I just watch them being committed, while the record player plays something soothing like Mozart.’28

Modesty Blaise was followed by a further Losey film, Accident (1967), in which Bogarde established the character-role that he would continue to draw on throughout his later career: the repressed upper-middle-class intellectual. As Stephen the Oxford University don, he adopted Beatrice Dawson’s minutely observed tweed and brogue approximation of sublimated sensuality and angst to play a man consumed by menopausal lust and guilt, propelled into a chain of fatal adulterous events in the midst of a bucolic, but stultifying English summer. His co-star Michael York remembered that ‘for a tutorial scene with Dirk the don, he wore his old college tie and gown; he was impressed to find that Dirk himself was sporting ‘a fine old tweed jacket that had already done duty in many films.’29 And in a post-release letter to the film critic Dilys Powell, Dirk wrote: ‘When I had finished with Stephen, one sunlit day at Oxford, I was almost a dead person. I drove from there to here in a sort of haze. I confess that I wept for a day (exhaustion I suppose as much as anything… ) and then took all the clothes which ‘he’ wore and put them away. And for three weeks after I waited for ‘him’ to sort of, die… I thought “You’ve gone a bit potty, no one will see the effort or find the man. It is too buried. You should laugh more, and sing perhaps or go back to Betty Box… ” But I think I was wrong… Something does happen if you have the inspiration.’30 That tendency towards darker roles was to become magnified in the three films which constituted Bogarde’s final flowering.

In The Damned (1969), the first of two films he would complete with Luchino Visconti and costume designer Pierra Tosi, Bogarde played Friedrich Bruckmann, the murderous, Macbeth-like lover of the widow of the heir to a German steel fortune whose various family beneficiaries fall to corruption on the eve of the Second World War. Dirk was not entirely comfortable with the part, but relished the opportunity to work with Visconti. Interestingly the planning for the film took place in Rome while Bogarde was both being filmed for a commercial for Foster Grant sunglasses on the Spanish Steps and considering the business approach of, in the words of Tony Forwood, ‘three very young but talented… designers who wish[ed] to open their own fashion house to cater for both men’s and women’s clothes. Their idea [wa]s that Dirk, who they consider[ed] to be an arbiter of elegance and distinction… should be their sole sponsor, lending both his name and his money to the project, which [was] planned to service a modern-minded clientele who wish[ed] for clothes better designed and made than the run of the mill boutique.’31 The scheme for a Bogarde fashion brand came to nothing, but it and the sunglasses venture mirror the particular take on soignée sophistication associated with Visconti’s painstaking reconstruction of historical milieus through set design, lighting and costume, conjured up in The Sunday Telegraph‘s characterization of The Damned as ‘this huge, sinister tapestry of a film, its dark mahogany tones skillfully burnished by cameramen Armando Nannuzzi and Pasquale de Santis.’32

Two years later in 1971, Death in Venice, Bogarde’s second film with Visconti, would cement the actor’s association with the aesthetic registers of European art house cinema and seem to draw together all the narrative and sartorial threads of his career since Victim. The repressed homoeroticism, the mid-life crisis of morality, the decadent elegance, all found a kind of apotheosis in Bogarde’s playing of Gustav von Aschenbach. Visconti himself later justified his choice of lead by explaining to Warner Brother executives that ‘Bogarde is like a dead pheasant, which you hang from the neck and when the head falls the body is ripe. Bogarde is exactly ripe for this role.’33 And (in the words of John Russel Taylor in The Times) ‘in the fussy walk, the little outbursts of petulance and self-satisified delight, the tiny stages of physical decay which betoken a moral break-up’ Dirk’s characterization made the film.34 His wardrobe, hastily assembled by Tosi following budget restrictions – but including an ‘old second hand suit… from which [they] had hastily removed a tailor’s label bearing the date of its making, April 1914, lest Visconti reject it out of hand as being four years ahead of the story’, was gradually augmented by Bogarde until Von Aschenbach emerged as a rounded, believable figure. Bogarde recounted the process in his autobiography:

‘Forwood was fingering through a small box of moustaches… he handed me one at random. I stuck it on; it was bushy, grayish, Kipling. In another box of buttons, safety pins, hair-grips, and some scattered glass beads he disentangled a pair of rather bent pince-nez with a thin gold chain dangling. I placed the hat on my head, wrapped a long beige woolen scarf about my neck, took up a walking stick from a bundle of others which lay in a pile, and borrowing a walk from my paternal grandfather… I started to walk slowly round and round the room emptying myself of myself, thinking pain and loneliness, bewilderment and age, fear and the tenor of dying in solitude. Willing Von Aschenbach himself to come towards me and slip into the vacuum which I was creating for his reception.’35

Despite the pain inflicted by toxic make-up in the final death-scene, Bogarde revealed in an interview in 1973 that:

‘For me, Death in Venice is the peak – the end-of my career. Oh I shall go on working to earn money, or if a project interests me. But I can never hope to give a better performance or in a better film than Death in Venice. One critic ended a review with the words ‘it is like the death of a friend’. They understood.’36

Bogarde did in fact go on to appear in several significant films before his own death in 1999. In Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974), the sado-masochistic seediness of Barret in The Servant was married with the fascistic degradation of The Damned. The stiff-upper lipped Officer Englishman resurfaced in Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977), to be followed by three final films directed by Alain Resnais, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Bertrand Tavernier. Through all, a continuing interest in the dandy-like subtleties of costume and characterizaion continued to underline the paradoxical nature of Bogarde’s screen and private personas. In Philip Hoare’s words: ‘It is a paradox in which… uniform plays an almost sentient part – a trans-chronological guise of power and sex, psychological turmoil and narcissism in which Bogarde becomes a kind of talismanic connection: from heterosexual focus of bobby-soxers to the very embodiment of decadent, homoerotic transgression’37: from Doctor in the House to Death in Venice.’

Dirk's-Frog