Dirk seized with relish on the role of Melville Farr, the successful barrister with the beautiful wife, because Victim (1961) had something important to say about a society in which the blackmailing of homosexuals was commonplace. When the film was made, Lord Wolfenden’s Committee had reported on the merits of qualified reform, but the legislature was slow to respond.
Six years later, the Sexual Offences Act was passed, partially decriminalising homosexual acts in private between consenting males aged 21 or over. In 1968 the Earl of Arran, who had introduced the legislation in the House of Lords, wrote to Dirk, acknowledging the part the latter had played in helping to change the climate for the better. The brief but gratifying letter is reproduced on these pages by kind permission of the writer’s son, the 9th Earl.
House of Lords
5 June. 1968.
Dear Mr. Bogarde
I have just seen “Victim” for the first time (on telly), and I write to say how much I admire your courage in undertaking this difficult and potentially damaging part. As you may know, I was responsible for introducing the Sexual Offences Bill – now Act – and the swing in popular opinion as shown by the Polls (from 48% to 63% in favour of reform) was largely due to your two films “The Servant” and “Victim”, or so I believe.
It is comforting to think that perhaps a million men are no longer living in fear.
Dirk never nailed his colours overtly to the mast. In those oppressive days before 1967, how could he – at one time the nation’s most prominent matinée idol – have done so? Instead, as Matthew Parris, the writer and former Conservative MP, has written, Dirk was one of the ‘famous men who were gay, never quite said so, may never have joined the early campaigns, but lived and worked as openly as they dared.’ They ‘served the cause by an inner honesty, a disposition to be themselves, which is greater than the honesty of words.’
In his appreciation published two days after Dirk’s death, and reproduced in full here, Philip Hensher of The Independent said that Dirk’s work was at its most interesting in the Sixties, during the period between the Report and the Act: ‘In many ways he was the archetypal Wolfenden figure, pleading not so much for the granting of ordinary human rights, but rather for a measure of quiet respectability.’
Bogarde was a missing link between the repressive Fifties and the gay liberation of the Seventies
THE MONDAY REVIEW
The Independent 10 May 1999
LATER GENERATIONS of gay men were always rather disinclined to treat Dirk Bogarde with much respect or admiration. His name, by the Eighties, was often greeted by the ordinary gay man with ridicule and scorn. By the end of his life, he was widely seen as a very familiar, though not very admirable figure; someone who had the money and leisure to live his life as he chose, while refusing to make any very public admission of his homosexuality.
References to his “manager”, it often seemed, were no substitute for a willingness to stand as a figurehead for a nascent movement, a willingness to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people just by stating in public what he was.
Bogarde seemed, in short, like yet another version of the rich gay man, indulging private pleasures and shrinking from public responsibilities. But, however universally held this view was by the Eighties, it was incomplete, and to some extent, false. What, perhaps, it stemmed from was not Bogarde’s behaviour, but the uncertainties of his audience; that tendency among gay men, expertly diagnosed by Edmund White, to make pious lists of gay men in history while regarding living gay men with contempt.
It would be truer to think of Bogarde, perhaps, as an odd missing link between the terrifying atmosphere of the Forties and Fifties, deep-frozen in sexual repression, and the creation of a radical gay liberation movement in the Seventies. He refused to draw the conclusion that his private life was everyone’s concern. But his career shows a man at ease with the general idea that private lives have a political aspect. His work was at its most interesting in the Sixties, between the Wolfenden Report, which recommended the relaxation of the laws on homosexuality, and the enactment of the Report’s recommendations in 1967. In many respects, he was the archetypal Wolfenden figure, pleading not so much for the granting of ordinary human rights, but rather for a measure of quiet respectability.
The debate long ago moved on, and Bogarde, still talking about his partner Anthony Forwood as his “manager”, long ago started to look, at best, a curious figure. All the same, what the radical figures of the Eighties did not see was that Wolfenden, inadequate as it came to seem, was a necessary step on the road, and Bogarde was, in reality, something quite different from the rich and private queens of the prewar period. In the end, his behaviour looks something like bravery.
He made his reputation as a junior heart-throb in the popular series of Doctor films in the Fifties; the sort of light-hearted part, lightly dusted with sexual appeal, whom the audience is continually expecting to make an entrance through the French windows with a tennis racquet. No one could have predicted Bogarde’s next step. In Victim, he took a serious risk in making a polemical film about homosexuality. Homosexuality was still illegal, and not many people in his position would have felt it worth the candle.
Now, of course, Victim looks decidedly quaint. It goes along with the attitude of the Wolfenden Report that homosexuals are worthy of pity, but not of the attentions ofthe law. Like the report, it shrinks from the obvious proposition that adults ought to be able to do more or less what they like with each other so long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses; for Victim, the clinching argument for the legalisation of homosexuality is that it would deprive blackmailers of one of the tools of their trade.
A period piece, but a genuinely felt one. Bogarde jeopardized his jeune premier image by appearing in such a film, and went on to make more, and better, films exploring the life of the homosexual. His most remarkable appearance, perhaps, is in Visconti’s Death in Venice. Again, the debate has moved on and some audiences now find Death in Venice rather hard to take; paedophilia, which didn’t seem to trouble the early-Seventies, has become one of our major concerns, and we dislike the confusion in our minds when a story of sexual awakening also looks very much like a story about someone who wants to abuse a child.
Bogarde never really came out. But what his detractors did not admit was that there are some things which are worth a million interviews in which Dirk and Anthony welcome us to their lovely home in the South of France. What Bogarde did, and did with all the bravery one can reasonably expect, was present gay men with versions of their lives and their desires; not necessarily realistic versions, but fantasies through which they could explore what they actually wanted. He was, certainly, a bit of a missing link. But we couldn’t have done without him.
John Coldstream’s intimate study of Victim examines in detail the background to the production, focusing especially on the relationship between the film-makers, the screenwriters and the censor, John Trevelyan, whose participation at the script stage was crucial to its development. Half a century after its original release, one looks in vain to find Victim in the spasmodic surveys dedicated to identifying the greatest films of all time. However, as Coldstream argues, its recognition as a classic is more than justified by the vital contribution it made to gay cultural history and by its status as ‘a movie that mattered’.