Dirk Bogarde: The authorised biography by John Coldstream

Kissing the girls made him cry
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The Independent Culture

Dirk Bogarde once remarked to Russell Harty: "I don't see the point in somebody, a long time later, riffling through the memorabilia and the debris of my life." But a clear-headed biography is necessary, for Bogarde's memoirs were re-imagined to the point of vexation. "His life was all made up, you know," said the ever-blunt John Gielgud. "It was a great act," Michael York agreed, "carried off with enormous thespian skill. But at what cost?" For John Coldstream, the biographer's job became nightmarish, as no two accounts seemed to tally. Bogarde's life was fiction, and his fiction proved less revealing than he pretended. He told friends he wasn't gay - he was. He said he had fathered a child - he hadn't. He was tidy, organised and free of scandal. As a consequence, it must have been easy to create wish-fulfilling rumours about himself.

Dirk Bogarde once remarked to Russell Harty: "I don't see the point in somebody, a long time later, riffling through the memorabilia and the debris of my life." But a clear-headed biography is necessary, for Bogarde's memoirs were re-imagined to the point of vexation. "His life was all made up, you know," said the ever-blunt John Gielgud. "It was a great act," Michael York agreed, "carried off with enormous thespian skill. But at what cost?" For John Coldstream, the biographer's job became nightmarish, as no two accounts seemed to tally. Bogarde's life was fiction, and his fiction proved less revealing than he pretended. He told friends he wasn't gay - he was. He said he had fathered a child - he hadn't. He was tidy, organised and free of scandal. As a consequence, it must have been easy to create wish-fulfilling rumours about himself.

The most common question raised, concerning Bogarde's sexuality, should have an obvious answer to anyone with a passing interest in the actor. What's more shocking is how few of Bogarde's films we remember now, or are even able to see. He's an actor who easily slips from the mind, although he made over 60 films, and we are most familiar with the minor comedies; another sign of the low esteem with which we continue to regard our film heritage.

Branded "Britain's most eligible bachelor", Derek Niven Van den Bogaerde was of Dutch Belgian ancestry, but distilled the essence of Englishness. He also became a world-class star through the embodiment of those attributes stars have since relinquished; shyness, erudition, integrity, grace, intelligence, wit, gentility. Along with Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, his true personality was impregnable and elusive. His biographies, while packed with anecdotes, skate the surface of this privacy, relegating Tony Forwood, his partner for 40 years, to the sidelines. But Tony was where the happiness came from, an actor for whom the word "dashing" seems invented (he was once perfectly cast as Will Scarlet). First married to another sadly underrated star, Glynis Johns, Forwood rightly finds his place here as the great mitigating force in Bogarde's life.

The dilemma of Bogarde stems from the fact that he was not shallow enough to be a mere matinee idol. While he observed and annotated his life in diaries, he himself proved to be an anecdote-free zone. Hollywood never took to him; he was too spiky for them, too uncompromising, too honest to hide behind an arranged marriage. Physically he was unathletic, closer to a tenor than a baritone, exuding "sexy sadism", hardly the California type. On screen, he appeared more comfortable cracking a whip than delivering a kiss. His embraces suggested someone attempting to avoid throwing up.

Bogarde is important, though, because his career forms the bridge between two worlds of British cinema, that of the stilted postwar filmed play and the liberated emotions of 1960s drama. He was initially marked for roles that required wheedling neurotics, and enjoyed making So Long at the Fair because "for once I wasn't sharp or sly, or imbued with a reckless daring which springs from cowardice". Compared to a young Frank Sinatra, he had the same effect on teenage fans; they waited outside the stage door in droves, pressurising an actor already accused of taking his work too much to heart.

Bogarde was aware of how bad many of his roles were. His film Penny Princess was, he wrote, "as funny as a baby's coffin". He knew he lacked the physical force (and square shoulders) to be a Dean or a Brando, but was also convinced that "it was the thought which counted more than the looks".

His relationship with Joseph Losey began in 1954, with The Sleeping Tiger, when the actor recognised the director as another outsider, someone for whom he could "dig in and use certain aspects of his own life and his own character that he had never used before in films". It is Losey's sinister power-parable The Servant that has best stood the test of time, but if one is tempted to see a parallel in Dirk and Tony's relationship, the notion is disabused here. It's surprising how many of his roles now appear to have homosexual undertones, yet the commonly held belief that the "modest, tight, neat little thriller" Victim was a brave film for him to undertake is also dismissed, because Bogarde continued to keep his own identity in check. However, "After making Victim," says Sylvia Syms, "Dirk couldn't get arrested." The film was intended to support the recommendations of the Wolfenden report, but the emotional power of Bogarde's performance as a blackmailed gay barrister created passion from the relatively bloodless text. In America, the film was denied a seal of approval, with Variety damning the film as "Homo-Hailing".

Here the author has succeeded in creating an unfashionably traditional life story that perfectly fits its leading player. Biographies only tend to be definitive until the next one comes along, but there's no danger of Coldstream's erudite, moving analysis ever being superseded.

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