'The public understood he was essentially gay'

Bogarde's roles changed with his audience, writes David Thomson
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DIRK BOGARDE holds a very, very special and rather strange place in British film.

In the Fifties he was almost the principal boy of British film. He passed himself off as the standard polite, gentle, unthreatening male lead in adventure films, war films and romances.

Audiences of that time loved him. The movies he appeared in played him as a perfectly acceptable heterosexual romantic lead: in the war films he was tough and adventurous, presented as a British ideal.

Very few people picked up on the fact that there was a distinct gay undertone. It says something about British audiences of the time.

He had the good fortune to break out of that prison, and it came through the film Victim, where he played a gay character, and through meeting with Joseph Losey, who directed him in The Servant. For the first time, Bogarde's ambivalence was exploited and used by film.

By 1963, when that film came out, there was a new awareness and audiences understood. What followed was a decade in which he was a very interesting actor indeed, working on fascinating films like The Damned, Death in Venice, Darling, The Night Porter and Providence.

He was suddenly playing completely different parts, and more complicated and sexually interesting roles. He was a much happier man once it was clear what kind of person he was. The pressure on him from Rank, in terms of the roles he was expected to play in the early Fifties, probably made life very difficult for him.

When he started his career, homosexuality was a dangerous thing to own up to and to be recognised by the public. In a way, Bogarde helped us appreciate something better than we might have done without him. The public understood he was essentially gay and his best work reveals that.