Sir Dirk on Book and Film
For a long time he was the quintessential British film star, but it’s likely a sizeable portion of the population has now never seen a Dirk Bogarde film. Or Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde, to give him his full name.
His heyday as an actor ended over four decades ago, and in later years he turned to fiction, biography and journalism. Unsurprisingly for a screen superstar, his six passable novels were eclipsed by ten volumes of wonderfully indiscreet memoirs and writings, starting with A Postillion Struck By Lightning in 1977. He also crammed hundreds of letters with gossip, complaints, generous praise and venomous opinions. The public loved reading about him because he was likeably vulnerable and human.
Bogarde was famously ‘private’ in a time when the word was understood to be coded. For such an honest man – his writing is seamed with the frankest opinions – it is uncomfortable to be aware of his denials concerning his life-partner, Tony, but this was an act of self-preservation. As a Rank star he made three films a year and became Britain’s most popular actor at a time when the government was conducting a series of high profile gay prosecutions. He was intelligent enough to be careful, so no letters of any frankness survive.
However, he made up for this in his choice of film roles. Public respect for Bogarde was well deserved. Despite international success as a matinee idol, he turned to risky, demanding parts that reflected his personality and allowed him access to emotional truth, especially in the film ‘Victim’, in which he is haunted by the suicide of a former lover. It was a film that helped change the laws in the UK.
By the 1970s, with the British film industry in terminal decline, he moved abroad. Bogarde combined the most individual and stereotypical characteristics of actors. The observations, insecurities and waspishness of his memoirs were balanced by clear-eyed criticism, even if some of his writing felt as if he blasted words at the page with a shotgun, ranting, often shouting in glee or annoyance, because the important thing was to offer emotion, gut reaction and opinion
Part of the fun is matching Bogarde’s recollections with the actual films he appeared in. An actor who moved from Carry On-style comedies like ‘Doctor in the House’ to the Nazi drama ‘The Night Porter’, he was also prepared to push the envelope into camp, notably in ‘Modesty Blaize’, and who can forget him bursting into the priest’s room in black leather trousers in the bizarre western ‘The Singer Not The Song’?
In his published diaries, Bogarde put down his feelings about all of his films. His habit of switching in mid-conversation between, say, mounting the steps at the Cannes Film Festival and repairing his lawn-mower is disconcerting until you become familiar with the patterns of his mind. He hated returning to the shabbiness of England after leaving his home in France, but loathed America. ‘I never want to set foot in their immature, undiplomatic, plastic, mutilated land again…but they write super musical shows, make reasonable ice cream and sometimes make excellent movies.’
Contradictory but rarely contrary, he insisted he never understood a single script sent to him by Resnais or Losey, but that it all came clear in the end. He certainly tried to give the impression that he’d fallen out of love with his profession, and once said; ‘The kind of acting I used to enjoy no longer exists because your prime consideration is the budget, running time, the cost – and whether they’ll understand it in Milwaukee.’
But beneath the protests, his books reveal that he loved every minute, no matter how much he complained to the contrary. He was eventually knighted.