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Ever, Dirk: The Bogarde letters, Ed John Coldstream

The Hollywood legend may have had his bêtes noires, but was filled with zest for life

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 biography, fiction and journalism. In addition, he crammed hundreds of postcards and letters with gossip, complaints, indiscretions, generous praise and venomous opinions. Not bad for someone with the primary career of a screen icon; but it's gratifying to see how deeply Bogarde cared about the quality of his work and his friends rather than his public status. His enduring popularity is probably down to his likeable vulnerability.

Coldstream wrote the actor's definitive biography and has now completed the picture with these letters, or rather, partially completed, because Bogarde was famously "private" in a time when the word was synonymous with "homosexual". For such an honest man – his writing is seamed with the frankest opinions – it is uncomfortable to be aware of his public denials concerning his life-partner, Tony, but this was an act of self-preservation. As a Rank star he was making 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.

The public's 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, and with the British film industry in terminal decline, he was living and working abroad, at which point the letters commence.

"I have decided to give the Movies a rest," he says – a sentiment rephrased frequently – "I DETEST the work ... and most of the time I detest the people. The fact that I have been chosen by Resnais, or Visconti, or Fassbinder helps tremendously ... but really, when all is said and done, it is what my Father always said, 'No job for a man'."

Bogarde combined the most individual and stereotypical characteristics of actors. His frothy observations, insecurities and general waspishness are largely balanced by his unsentimental criticism. He always knows how to lift the spirits, even if some of his writing feels as if he simply blasted words at the page with a shotgun. In his correspondence with Penelope Mortimer, Kathleen Tynan, Tom Stoppard, Dilys Powell and Joseph Losey (whom he held in great respect despite the turbulence of their relationship) the Bogarde voice bounds out, sometimes ranting, often shouting in glee or annoyance, littered with atrocious spelling, 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 needing to repair 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, and loathed America. "I never want to set foot in their immature, undiplomatic, plastic, mutilated land again ... I do think, however, that they write super Musical Shows, make reasonable ice cream and sometimes make Excellent Movies."

He sobbed himself to a fit during E.T. and skipped Attenborough's Gandhi because "I was in India during the Congress Riots and hated his bloody, cunning, little guts", but was never comfortable discussing politics, and was best connecting with friends he loved. His letter to Patricia Losey after the death of her husband Joseph has the kind of celebratory honesty in which anyone would take comfort. Bogarde points out that Losey made four great films and ends with: "Clever sod! Shitty bugger! HOW I shall miss him."

Contradictory but rarely contrary, Bogarde complained that he had never understood a single script sent to him by Resnais or Losey, but that it all came clear in the end. About the making of Resnais's Providence, he points out that John Gielgud was just as flummoxed: "I'll say it, but I haven't the foggiest notion of what it means."

He was as concerned about leaving his garden as he was about filming, and both loathed and loved adjudicating at film festivals, summing up his jury duty at Cannes thus: "If I have to look at another pubic hair or another shot of a cow being slaughtered, a horse being drowned, or a fat man having his orgasm I'll choke." Beneath the protests, it sounds like he loved every minute.