Dirk Bogarde: Denial and daring...a star with a secret never told

David Benedict on an actor, soon to be celebrated at the BFI, who let his choice of roles do the talking

Hot Hollywood agent Diane is in crisis: her cute movie star client Mitchell is on the rise, on magazine covers and, to her horror, on the brink of coming out. It's time for straight-talking. "Are you British? Do you have a knighthood? If not, shut up!"

The laugh that gets in Douglas Carter Beane's 2006 play The Little Dog Laughed reveals its truth. Take Sir Ian McKellen and Rupert Everett out of the picture and now try naming another out gay male movie star. You can't? That's because there aren't any. None. With secrecy and the fear of discovery still engulfing gay actors in 2011, is it any wonder that the career – and life – of the entirely closeted Dirk Bogarde was a conundrum and a contradiction?

A seriously handsome, bona fide star who had made 35 films by the age of 40, Bogarde was both British and knighted and made more arrestingly bold choices than any actor of his generation, taking name-above-the-title roles in The Servant and Accident with Joseph Losey, Death in Venice and The Damned for Luchino Visconti, The Night Porter for Liliana Cavani, Providence for Alain Resnais and Despair for Rainer Werner Fassbinder. All that from a man who as early as 1958 was the biggest draw at the British box office – pulling bigger audiences than Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn and Elvis Presley.

In addition, by the time of his death, in 1999, he had reinvented himself. He published six novels, plus collections of correspondence and criticism, and, crucially, seven best-selling volumes of memoirs throughout which he staunchly claimed to be straight. Actress Glynis Johns, a contemporary most famous as the suffragette mother in Mary Poppins, tartly observed, "I never believed more than one sentence of what Dirk wrote." She should know: she was once married to Tony Forwood who had divorced her and subsequently lived with Bogarde as his "manager" for almost 40 years.

Bogarde's position was, initially, understandable. Born in 1921, for his first 46 years homosexuality was against the law. Any man caught in "homosexual acts" faced imprisonment. That prohibition was ruthlessly policed. In 1955, 2,504 men were arrested for "homosexual offences", ie, about seven people every day. Even Ian McKellen, 18 years younger, didn't come out until 1988, when he was 49. Bogarde never did.

Although fully entitled to privacy, his blanket denials on television, radio and in print post-1967 legalisation became, for me, increasingly hard to stomach. Posthumously, the man behind the painstakingly maintained mask was uncovered in home movies and commentaries from family and friends in a BBC documentary The Private Dirk Bogarde (2001) and John Coldstream's biography. The great irony of Bogarde's position, however, is that no other screen actor has given such affecting and extraordinarily powerful gay performances.

Even now, the industry regards playing gay as being potentially career-damaging, an act so "brave" that your Oscar virtually comes with the contract – step forward William Hurt for Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1985), Tom Hanks for Philadelphia (1993), Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote (2005), Sean Penn for Milk (2008). Probably the only reason Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal didn't win for Brokeback Mountain was that their dual presence cancelled one another out.

Regardless of the authenticity – or lack thereof – of those performances by straight actors, they pale beside the still astonishing impact of Bogarde's shockingly truthful performance back in 1961 as a barrister embroiled in a secret gay affair in Victim.

Bogarde plays married barrister Melville Farr who discovers that a blackmailed young man who loved him has hanged himself in police custody rather than reveal their relationship. Realising Farr's intention to uncover the plot, the blackmailers threaten to expose him. In the central scene – whose dialogue was rewritten to more explicit effect by Bogarde himself – Farr is confronted by his distressed wife (played by Sylvia Syms).

Shot in high-contrast black-and-white, edged with the darkness of a sitting-room at night but trapped in a fierce spotlight, Bogarde is mesmerising. Crisply suited, dry-voiced and on the edge of tears, he painfully stifles the emotion threatening to destroy him. With the camera locked in close-up, he lifts his chin ever so slightly in defiance, his eyes widening into a glare of triumph that costs him everything.

"You won't be content until I tell you, will you, until you've ripped it out of me. I stopped seeing him because I wanted him. Can you understand – because I WANTED him."

I can still remember being transfixed – and terrified – by that moment when I first saw it by accident on television one night. It was the 1970s, I was a guilt-ridden, fiercely closeted teenager and I had never, ever seen or heard a man on screen or off express such piercing desire for another man. I felt physically torn between an absolute need to keep watching and the cramping fear that my parents would come in and instantly understand why I was watching something so incriminating.

Bogarde always maintained that the camera photographed thought. Nowhere is that more true than in that scene. It wasn't just this teenager who recognised the staggering truth behind that performance and its implications for the actor.

In a television interview to promote the film, he was asked the not-so-veiled question: "You must feel very strongly about this subject to risk losing possibly a large part of your audience by appearing in such a bitterly controversial film?"

With manufactured insouciance, Bogarde counters, "I don't think so, no. This is a marvellous part and in a film I think is tremendously important because it doesn't pull any punches: it's quite honest. I don't have to use any old tricks for the fans, it's a straightforward character performance."

Necessarily disingenuous as that was, in hindsight it's also seriously unconvincing due to his immensely camp "who me?" manner, his left eyebrow arched, his fingers playing with his ear and chin.

Being able to pinpoint a scene that changed a career is rare, but that's what that Victim scene did. And having just engineered his release from his constraining 14-year-old contract with the Rank Organisation, Bogarde accelerated to an international reputation taking on increasingly complex roles with adventurous directors. Contrarily, the finest of those performances were in roles amplifying his hidden sexuality.

He was memorably viscous as the vicious Barrett, the manservant manipulating imperilled, upper-class James Fox into sex-and-power games in Losey's superbly elliptical (and Pinter-scripted) The Servant. And, in 1971, he crowned his career with Death in Venice, playing a man who falls fatally in love with the ideal of beauty exemplified by a beautiful boy. With almost no dialogue, the film amounts to a 125-minute reaction shot. As casting director Michelle Guish observed of Helen Mirren the day after the first Prime Suspect aired, no other British actor could have played that role that well because no one else had that depth of screen experience.

Was it arrogance that pushed the controlled Bogarde to the brink of self-exposure in this and other defining roles? He destroyed almost all of his personal papers, so we'll never know. Whatever conclusion we try to draw, the screen evidence survives.

'He Who Dared', a two-month Dirk Bogarde retrospective, begins at the BFI Southbank on 3 Aug

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