Films and Filming – May 1971


DIRK BOGARDE in an interview with Gordon Gow

THE ROMANTIC LEADING MAN of British cinema in the 1950s has matured. Dirk Bogarde today is established beyond question as a film actor of international consequence. Recognition was granted in 1963 when he played the title role in Joseph Losey’s The Servant, but his value had been noted over the years by numerous critics, not least in films and filming, who perceived amid the varied characterisations he brought to mainly conformist films that here was a major talent straining at the leash.

Never a really angry young man, he was probably a disgruntled artist throughout his days with the Rank Organisation, the days which enabled him to live comfortably in the countryside, with an open fire to warm the bathroom and champagne to hand if he felt like a change from Guinness. But the glossy image, smooth of face in the photographs that graced utilitarian cinema foyers throughout the UK, was never to his taste, one felt. It took time and change to bring him to the point he has reached now, with two films in succession for a long established master, Luchino Visconti: as Friedrich Bruckmann, conspiring to profit from the social disorders of Nazi Germany in Götterdämmerung (The Damned), and as Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice. Making the first of the two in 1969, Bogarde was dubious about his own contribution but quick to appreciate Visconti’s persona.

‘It was immediate rapport of direction plus actor, although I didn’t have the best part. In fact, it was a rotten part – difficult, because there was no substance to it, but the magic of working with Visconti made it absolutely worthwhile. And I use the word magic advisedly, too. Of course, my character was swamped, but then it was supposed to be swamped. There were two parts of consequence in the film, and I didn’t have one of them – but that’s not important. I think Ingrid Thulin’s performance in it is one of the most marvellous that’s ever been given on the screen, and it’s shameful to think that nobody gave her an Oscar for it, or even suggested that she might get one. The boy, Helmut Berger, gave a sort of manufactured performance but he did try enormously hard and was tremendously loyal.

‘I knew, of course, from the moment I started, that I’d got the wrong part, and I wasn’t sure that I could do anything with it – but with Visconti I knew that I could. The first time I was really overwhelmed by his work was when I saw Senso. By then, I had seen La terra trema about four times, but probably I was not quite attuned to that when I first saw it. Then Rocco absolutely shook me off my feet – and I saw it in its proper version, not the English-American cut and dubbed one. But Senso was the one that threw me for a loop. I thought if anyone could make pictures with that kind of heart and feeling I would like one day to work for him. Then there was a sort of eclipse during which I didn’t see anything else of his, probably because I was too busy doing all my Doctors and all that rubbish. I didn’t go to the pictures very often.

‘I kept seeing Senso, though, all over the place, when I was on tour with a play. I caught it in Brighton, and again somewhere up north. Film societies all over England would have it and whenever I saw it advertised I always went.’

Senso was set in the period of the Risorginmento, and centred upon the romantically doomed love of a countess (Alida Valli) and an Austrian officer (Farley Granger). It drew upon symphonic music by Bruckner, and was distinguished by magnificent colour photography, especially in its opening sequence in an Opera House, and in superb location work in Venice and Verona. It is easy to understand how Senso aroused in Bogarde the ambition to participate in a Visconti film.

‘He has an aristocratic manner. If you go to dine at Visconti’s, you have a footman to each chair, wearing white gloves with a crest on them. You also have the most fantastic meal. But, on the few occasions I’ve been there, he never wore a tie to dinner. He’s quite a paradox. Despite this aristocratic air, he has the most extraordinary understanding and sympathy for people. He’s an arrogant bastard at times, one can say. He’s princely in his bearing, and very conscious of the fact that his great-great-great-great-fifty-million- times-grandfather was Charlemagne of France. He has a lot of German blood in him. He is utterly regal – yet he has this remarkable awareness of people’s feelings, and who they are and what they are – like the fishermen in La terra trema and the two people in Senso. He knows the family in Rocco. Sometimes I think, as with Vaghe stella dell’Orsa, he doesn’t quite succeed – he’s entirely too romantic.’

Vaghe stella dell’Orsa, known in Britain as Of A Thousand Delights, was made in 1964 and was a variation upon the Electra theme with Claudia Cardinale in the lead and Jean Sorel as the Orestes figure. Although both were shown to be deglamorised by lust and fear, it was indeed a highly romantic study – but the dream-state of the incestuous lovers was spasmodically broken by shock-zooms of realism.

‘To work with him is like a dream, because he is the most extraordinary mortal. He’s almost a living immortal – I know that sounds like gush. You see, I hardly know him socially. I go to his house very seldom. I’ve only dined with him when we’ve been on location, or if there was some special occasion and he was giving a dinner party. I’m not in his clique. We have no relationship beyond work on these two films. He wanted tremendously to make Death in Venice, and I think – although he may not agree with this – that in some extraordinary way he probably found, quite by chance, that the work that I was doing in The Damned gave him the feeling that I could do Death in Venice. That – and perhaps my work for Losey, and also for Jack Clayton in Our Mother’s House. It was my performance in Our Mother’s House that got me cast in The Damned in the first place, I know that.

‘So I was offered Death in Venice – at my age and my standing in the cinema. I mean, I’d pulled myself out of the chrysalis of crap. I hope I had anyway. I was a bit soon, as a butterfly, to have a go at Death in Venice which was, after all, one of the modern classics. Most people would say I was too young and not experienced enough. In fact the character’s age was left rather loose by Thomas Mann in the book. He simply wrote that Aschenbach had passed his fiftieth birthday. So we worked on the basis that he was just over fifty – as I am.

‘One is never allowed to see any rushes on a Visconti film, and he himself never sees any for the first two months – then he sees them in a block. I found a lot of changes had to be made from what I was used to – I had to do without a stand-in, for example. And I’d always gone with a director to rushes – but doing without that is not important if you trust the director – after all, I’m an old experienced man.

‘Yet, when I arrived in Rome to do The Damned, everybody threw up their hands and said to me, “Oh, Visconti is finished – talking about Visconti is like talking about Tennyson – he’s dead”. They said he was marvellous still at opera, but he was essentially a theatrical… a romantic. But he is a romantic – and I think it’s marvellous to find this on the screen again. Because the great romantic directors, like George Cukor and Visconti – and, if you like, Fellini – are very hard to find now. There are very few left. John Ford is one. Sam Peckinpah, I think, is a sort of romantic. Very few great romantic directors exist – most of them are coming from television and doing terrible pictures about musicians. There are some dreadful things happening at the moment in the cinema.

‘I don’t think that Losey, whom I worship and revere, is a romantic in the true sense. But I do think there is a need now for a great splendour of romanticism, even if it is sometimes a little bit silly. Even if it’s a little bit dated. In Vienna, about three years ago, I went to see Zeffirelli’s production of La Bohème in the Opera House. Well, I’m told this is not pure opera. That the sets are too much and the costumes are too much, and there’s real smoke and real acting. But to me it was the most magical romantic night. I don’t know what the singing was like because I’m not a very good opera person, but the singers were making a very nice noise and they got lots of applause. And it was really a marvellous way of seeing that boring old La Bohème done by a romantic. Now, Zeffirelli’s film of Romeo and Juliet is a romantic picture.’

Zeffirelli, it must be remembered, was assistant director to Visconti on La terra trema (1948), Bellissima (1951) and the aforementioned Senso (1954), spanning the range from neo-realism to romanticism.

‘In the case of Death in Venice, Visconti has worked from the slimmest of stories. There is hardly anything there in the way of plot. But it is an evocation of a Venice that is no longer, alas, with us. The period is 1911. We shot it in Venice as it is today, working at four in the morning so that there weren’t any tourists. It is an utterly romantic picture. And if that American thing called Love Story catches on, we’re all going back to romance and Visconti has got a deal.’

Romanticism is an elastic word. It almost stretches to some of the hack fabrications of soap-opera, and it certainly reaches towards the Gothic tales of vampires, but Visconti is of the breed who can still apply it as a means of pointing out the realities of life and the helpless yearnings of the spirit. Bogarde knows the distinctions well, and appreciates the symbolic high romanticism in Death in Venice.

‘It is about an era of time which was just running out – 1911. History is coming up to that Sarajevo bit, when a tiresome student went and shot somebody and changed the world – not always for the better, in my opinion. There are too many students running around with guns. Anyway, when that one killed the archduke, a period ended. Visconti has caught, I think, this extraordinary feeling of the last summer ever, really, of peace. After that things begin to boil and build up. And this summer evokes romanticism and nostalgia. Whether this is going to be of any value to an audience today, I simply don’t know. Perhaps there isn’t time. Today’s romanticism, it seems to me whenever I travel about, is just sitting herded together with funny frocks on and, God, do they wear some funny frocks! – with beads and bangles and bows… sitting in airports, waiting in crowded bars until it is time to fly somewhere else. The leisure, the gentleness, the time… seems all to have gone.’

Before Bogarde determined upon an acting career, he had been an art student. His father, Ulric van den Bogaerde, was art editor of the London Times, and it was at his behest that Bogarde in his teens attended the Chelsea Polytechnic and then the Royal College of Arts.

‘Among my teachers were Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. They were vast romantics. They still are. But they were ahead of me in their thought, of course. I was going back all the time to rather prettier pictures. I remember once we had a subject in class – seven blocks of stone… to make a composition out of that and a hill, so everybody plumped for Stonehenge. I made a dam out of mine, and put weeds and grass around it, and made a waterfall. I remember Henry Moore coming up to me and making a wonderful design, and afterwards Graham Sutherland came and made the most beautiful Stonehenge with a mound in the middle and the seven blocks of stone and the sun rising – and I wish to God I still had it today… I’d be worth a million. But their pictures to me were not romantic, then. My picture with ferns and a trout and water and my seven blocks of stone made into a waterfall was romantic – to me. I was a retarded romantic, in effect. I liked the impressionists, and if you ask me to go further I’d say Holman Hunt or someone like that.’

Naturally enough, Bogarde began his theatrical career as a scenic designer. Today he can note objectively that a director like Visconti gives priority to visual qualities in a film. ‘He, and many other directors in Italy, choose an actor for how he looks. They’re not interested especially in the words. Visconti hates words. I don’t think Zeffirelli gives a damn about the words. They’re all dubbed, as a rule. And in Italy the audiences don’t care – they’re eating sweets all the way through the film, anyway, so it doesn’t much matter. But I think Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet was the most beautiful picture to look at, and all was well as long as you closed your ears. I’ve heard myself dubbed into Italian and French, and it sounds great. It wasn’t my performance. It sounds different. But it joins the pictorial event – in The Damned especially, but also in things I made for Losey. The Servant is absolutely spine-chilling in German, for example. But one thing that Visconti and Losey know backwards is how to handle actors. Not that actors are really all that hard to handle. They’re like horses – racehorses, to borrow Visconti’s own term. He used to train racehorses, and he says you can always tell what kind of actor you have in the same way that you can judge a racehorse when you open the truck in the morning, by the way the forefeet come down on to the ground – whether or not it’s a nervous animal. So he knows exactly how to handle actors in so far as he knows how to handle horses. I don’t consider that I’m a horse all the time. Visconti does. So we arrive at differences occasionally, for that reason. But they’re always good-humoured differences.

‘He is wildly ruthless, tremendously selfish. All that matters is the film. Nothing exists but the film, while he’s making it. And when Death in Venice was finished, which happened precisely at five minutes before noon in a plum orchard up in the Swiss Alps, he just said to me “Congratulations” and walked away. And I drove off to France in my car. There was no sentiment, nothing. The film was finished, gone, done. But I think the kind of romanticism he uses is a plethora of beauty on the screen. He fills rooms with flowers – well, they were filled with flowers in 1911 if you were rich enough. You had beautiful mirrors, you had lovely floors, you had real wood, doors that were made of walnut or mahogany. You didn’t have plastic cabins. It was elegant and charming and precise. They did things in a different manner, and it was much more romantic.

‘Today, you see, the whole bias is back – back towards Rita Hayworth, towards all the old stars of the 1940s and early 1950s. It’s the glossy red lips, the Andy Warhol bit; it’s the sequin dresses and the dreadful shoes all the girls are wearing now. The last Yves Saint Laurent collection was a throwback to the French occupation by the Germans. It’s all 1940s, it’s all escape, a romantic thing – away from this grubby sort of pitch-your-tent-and- be-a-gypsy-with-me bit. And of course, although it’s a matter of degree, all this is romantic. Claudette Colbert was romantic. And don’t tell me Norma Shearer wasn’t, because I won’t believe you and you can leave this room immediately.’

This jumping about through the decades needed reining in, it seemed to me, although I refrained from using such a horsey expression, all things considered. But from red lips and Warhol art to Norma Shearer is quite a leap, as Bogarde conceded when I pointed it out. ‘Well, of course, Marilyn Monroe with her red lips in Andy Warhol’s paintings, is not romantic. Marilyn was carrying the burden that followed the war years. She had this intangible wistfulness of a lost time – and died, because there was nothing else she could do. In Bus Stop she was magical, but that certainly wasn’t a romantic film. That was a mirror of its time, the middle of the 1950s. What I worry about is the grotty youth of today – poor old loves who never got it. They’re sort of clumping around dressed up as fake Theda Baras and Carole Lombards, searching for something in their dreadful wedgy shoes with mirrors all over them and their headbands. At Orly airport recently I saw about eight million of them, stuffed to the gills with pot, looking for some form of romanticism, some form of loveliness, which they can’t recognise. This is the terrible thing. Do you remember the scene in Bus Stop where Marilyn Monroe gets her tatty old train ripped off her by a man at the cafe table when she’s doing her act? Do you remember her look of pain and rage and despair? Well, these girls I saw at Orly wouldn’t know what the hell that’s about, unless you tore their own clothes off.

‘If they see the Visconti film, and if they like it, they will see a beauty and stillness which no longer exist because everything is going too fast. But anything like Love Story which becomes awful and sob-stuffy, they will absolutely glut on. Because it’s the equivalent of the old Crystal’s Weekly, and they need it now. But what makes me so mad is that I made so many of those bloody films when they were out of fashion. I died all over the place – looking for God, as the critics used to say. Having cerebral haemorrhages or cancer or some dreadful thing. But people didn’t want that kind of romance at that time.

‘There’s always been a demarcation, anyway, between romanticism and glamour. I mean, Jeanette MacDonald singing “Beyond the Blue Horizon” was glamorous – and she was also glamorous singing in the ruins of San Francisco, and so was Spencer Tracy with a little bit of dust on his shoulder after the entire building had collapsed. I re-run those old movies – and when Miss MacDonald’s eyes filled up with tears, she was bloody glamorous… I defy you to say she wasn’t. But was that romanticism? It certainly was not truth. And when she sang “Beyond the Blue Horizon” in Monte Carlo in 1930, and Lubitsch cut to the wheels of the train carrying her away, that was glamorous, you see. But nowadays we travel by plane. That’s not glamorous. The loo is so crammed you can’t get into it.’

Throughout his own unfashionable period, mostly at Pinewood, plenty of people were conscious of Bogarde’s quality as an actor, whatever the subject. And, on occasion the subject was all right. He began in films, after a reasonable background of stage acting, in 1947. He made much of his opportunities in the Alien Corn episode of the omnibus Somerset Mangham film, Quartet. The role of a young criminal in The Blue Lamp (1949) and of another criminal who befriended a small boy in Hunted (1952) affirmed his talent quite emphatically.

Hunted was completely dismissed in England. The rest of the world liked it. It still runs in cinemas in France. It still plays – almost every night, it seems – on television in America.’

The Sleeping Tiger (1953) was a psychological melodrama, notable in retrospect as the first film in which he was directed by Joseph Losey, with whom he would attain success in the 1960s. And Doctor in the House, directed by Ralph Thomas in 1953, was not only a joyful light comedy in a virtually documentary format but also an indication of Bogarde’s ease with a tricky kind of character, the comical likeable leading man, perplexed and beset but gamely forging on through his tribulations as a medical student with sexy hazards on the side. The lightness of this performance was remarkable, although Bogarde himself seems to place no value upon it and is generally dismissive about the subsequent films of the Doctor series. He was in several of them, and as they grew broader and broader in style the laughs seemed to come less naturally.

He was incorporated, as well, in various war films whose very titles make one flinch: the mind boggled at the sight of The Sea Shall Not Have Them spelled out above a cinema marquee, not in the quaint old silent era but in 1954. The Spanish Gardener (1956) was another matter: a work that contained in the outcome some traces of delicacy while hedging awkwardly around the psychology of its subject.

‘Fake-romantic, that was. It could have been genuinely romantic but they fought like steers not to have it that way, because in those days they wouldn’t have anything to do with homosexuality. And the whole premise of the original story was that a small boy, without any sexual knowledge, fell in love with the gardener because he had no love at all from parents. He had no mother and a perfectly foul father. This sort of thing so often happens. The whole story tilted on the fact that the father became incurably jealous because he was sexually in love with the gardener. And of course that didn’t come through because then we were supposed to be making nice wholesome pictures. In the end nothing worked out. I wasn’t killed, as the gardener was in the book, because that’s what happened in all good moral books of that tone. We made it all nice for the Odeon circuit, so everybody could go and have a good old cry – and I broke my arm in the course of the shooting, falling off a train. It was so absurd and shameful that I didn’t go to see it, but old aunties and uncles loved it.

‘The people who used to read stories for Rank, and make reports on their suitability, were legion – and very strange. I wouldn’t have allowed one of them to chop my parsley. Oh – there was just one who was all right, but the rest were sitting there looking for family stories that their superiors would approve. And The Spanish Gardener as a novel was a very big best seller, and at that point I presume – although they always denied it – that I was making a certain amount of money for them, so they permed my hair and put me into it.’

Homosexuality was also extremely muted in The Singer Not The Song with Bogarde as a bandit in slinky black leather, but the breakthrough on this subject came with Basil Dearden’s Victim, a very script-bound but forthright plea for tolerance, rather daring for its time – 1961. Bogarde sets considerable store by it, and considers that it marked a decided progression in his career as well as contributing strongly to legal reform.

Surprisingly, in view of his high esteem for Joseph Losey, he is not especially fond of his own work in The Servant: ‘It amuses me. It was enormous fun to do. It was no effort. It was entirely technical to act. I’d been trained for many years by that time and I knew what I was about. Harold Pinter had written it so unfailingly that you couldn’t put a foot wrong in it. I was surrounded with only the very best people, and considering Losey’s dedication to the camera and everything else – it was as easy as falling off a log. But The Servant will be a classic film for all time, I know – whatever happens to me. I’ll be in the archives because of The Servant. In its entirety, of course, it’s an important film. Especially now that we know all about LSD – surprise, surprise. Apparently audiences didn’t know about LSD when the film was first shown, and none of the critics did either, and the whole ending is LSD – the boy is on a trip. I’ve seen it again in America recently, and it stands up – more than that, it’s a towering picture. But from my point of view it cost me very little emotionally, because I’m nothing to do with the man I played in The Servant. So therefore it was much easier to expand my realms of fantasy and imagination and become a north country bastard called Barrett.

‘It was much harder to be in Accident, because that has got something to do with me. I think it’s the best film Losey and I have made together, although I don’t know whether he’d agree with me. In Accident I had to sublimate my own personal feelings, because I don’t believe in actors being – actors have got to act. So there I had to take the essence of my own feeling, and act it. Accident was close to me. Barrett in The Servant wasn’t. I knew about that kind of man, and his compulsion to dominate. I’d seen it happen. I had a batman in the war. He was from a brass foundry in the north of England. He was like Barrett. But he went to pieces eventually – and he was killed in the war. Later in life, I had a servant of my own and he was another Barrett. If I hadn’t had seven years of the army he might have got away with it. But he was creeping up. He said to my parents, “Never mind – I’ll make a proper little gentleman of him yet.” That was when I was at least 30. He had shoes that squeaked. He had hair like Barrett. I modelled the whole performance on him.

‘The character in Accident, as distinct from a gentleman, is a really gentle man. A loser-out. A quiet man who is lost and settles for something. I’m a loser, but we all are, aren’t we? I don’t think anybody’s a complete gainer. I’m a loser in hundreds of ways. I was very aware of the emotions of the man in Accident, and I was almost in a trance for about four months after I’d finished it. Because the film was finished and he’d gone and I didn’t have to work him and use him any more. The vacuum that was left was so enormous that it took a long time to fill. I put all the clothes and the shoes that I wore for the character into a trunk and locked them up. I wore them later in Justine, the whole gear, and left them all behind me there in Hollywood, so they may come up for sale in 20th Century Fox’s lot. I got rid of them, you see, because the man that I had been in Accident was dead and I didn’t want his clothes – locked them away as you would with the clothes of anybody who has died in a sudden car crash. Justine was much later, and Pursewarden was a different man. Yet the same sort of man. I tried to do as much for Lawrence Durrell’s original writing as the Americans tried to undo. I tried to stay faithful to Durrell. Pursewarden in Justine was very much a failure, a losing man. So the clothes that I had worn for Accident fitted him very well.

‘Now, Aschenbach in Death in Venice is the ultimate loser. He’s a dying man. He goes to Venice for the last months of his life. And after years of rigorous and strict belief – a ruling passion, really – that beauty is created by man, he suddenly finds at dinner one night that God, quite alone by Himself, all up there in Heaven, has created a piece of beauty sitting across the soup plate … a youth of such beauty that Aschenbach can’t believe it. All his foundations of fact are gone. And die he does. But before he dies he does see that God was right and that man was wrong. That God in fact is the creator of beauty, and man desecrates it, or is capable of using God’s beauties to help to create for God further beauties. If this sounds like religion, it’s not, I promise you. I don’t believe in Jesus. That’s a lot of rubbish: the Virgin birth and all that stuff. But I do believe that there’s a higher power, and I don’t know any other word for it but God. I think our future is formed: whether you go and play golf on the moon or get squashed by a truck on a French bypass. It’s all shaped. I wish I could believe it enough to stop worrying. But I don’t.’

Since Death in Venice was completed, Bogarde has been waiting for Alain Resnais to give him the word to start work on a film about the Marquis de Sade, but money has been difficult to raise. It might or might not happen. Meantime, Bogarde lives in his house in France, at Grasse, eschewing the crowded beaches below and settling for a hose-down in his back garden. He writes essays and poems, which he doesn’t think anybody would ever want to publish. And he is financially secure enough: ‘I’ve got a very pleasant place to live in now. Sufficient money to exist for the rest of my life if I’m very careful- very careful. I can manage. And, what’s worse is that I don’t want to work any more. Death in Venice could very well be the finish for me. I don’t want to go back to the things I did before. I’m not back-tracking. If Death in Venice fails, I’ll stay with it as a failure. If it’s a success, and if my performance in it has worked, then perhaps it’s the film I’ve always been wanting to make – and I might someday go and do another somewhere. But I’m not anxious.’