Invisible ink no 269: Dirk Bogarde


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The Independent Culture

It’s likely that a sizeable portion of the population has never seen a Dirk Bogarde film. His heyday as an actor ended four decades ago, and in later years he turned to fiction, biography, and journalism.

Unsurprisingly for a screen superstar, his six novels were eclipsed by 10 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.

Public respect for Bogarde was well deserved. Despite international success as a matinee idol, he turned to demanding roles that reflected his personality and allowed him access to emotional truth.

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.

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. Beneath the protests, it sounds like he loved every minute.