Exposed despite a life in disguise

Dirk Bogarde

March 25, 2005

I'm still in the shell, and you haven't cracked it yet, honey!" This mildly bitchy taunt was tossed at Russell Harty by Dirk Bogarde during a televised spat in 1986. It goes to the heart of the man. The words illuminate the actor and writer's lifelong habit of disguise and its unconscious flip side, self-revelation. Bogarde spent his life playing a complex game of camouflage - with his public, with his friends and even with himself. But in doing so, he unwittingly exposed far more about himself than he could ever have wanted.

The above comment is a prime example. He might have gloated about the impossibility of finding the "real" Bogarde, but he also alerted the audience to the fact that there was something hidden to be found, and the campness of the expression revealed what this thing might just be.

But it was not only in interviews that Bogarde gave himself away while trying to maintain his mystique - it is there in his acting and his writing, too. As he himself said: "The lines are wide enough to read between."

John Coldstream has produced an engrossing, entertaining biography that attempts to read between the lines of its subject's life. But, as he admits, what he finds is often contradictory and confusing. The Rank matinee idol turned European art cinema darling turned bestselling author literally invented his own life, telling different people different facts about himself and often retreating behind the shield of fiction.

Coldstream's achievement lies in bringing such an opaque, complex man so vividly to life.

Bogarde's layers of disguise were an attempt to hide his terror - of other people, of losing control and, most important, of being revealed as gay.

Bogarde denied his homosexuality all his life, famously reducing the man with whom he lived for 40 years - his manager Tony Forwood - to a fringe role in his autobiographies. (This literary dismissal, combined with the painful honesty with which he later wrote about Forwood's death, is another example of Bogarde's unintentional self-revelation because the perceptive reader knows exactly what is going on.) Apart from Forwood, Coldstream can find evidence of only one other lover, although he tantalisingly suggests a secretive penchant for leather, rubber and the erotic throb of a Harley-Davidson. This was evidently a man whose sexuality did not sit easily with him.

But the key to Bogarde lies not so much in his self-denial - which was hardly surprising, since he became a star when homosexuality was illegal and widely despised - but in his courageous choice of film roles. Having found fame in the 1950s as the pin-up hero of the cosy Doctor comedies, Bogarde chose to take the lead in the first British feature film to deal with the "homosexual problem", Victim . In 1961, this was a brave and risky career choice, and one that helped to pave the way for the decriminalisation of homosexuality six years later. It also launched Bogarde's career as a serious actor, beloved of the greatest directors of European cinema. Emboldened by the film's success, Bogarde went on to darker territory in career-defining roles ( The Servant , Death in Venice , The Night Porter ), most of which were either homosexual or flirted with deviant sexuality.

Coldstream claims to be uninterested in analysing his subject, preferring to let Bogarde come alive by his own words and actions. But he does have a theory of sorts, and it is one that he allows his interviewees to express.

The theory is that Bogarde, unable to deal with his homosexuality, dealt with emotional and physical frustrations on screen; that he increasingly chose roles - homosexual or not - that allowed him to express feelings that he could not otherwise give vent to; and that in these roles he gave career-best performances. Of course, it is not ground-breaking to suggest that actors hide behind their roles, but it is rare for an actor to fit this bill so precisely.

In spite of the endless camouflage that Bogarde hid behind, Coldstream coaxes his subject blinking into the open. What is surprising is exactly how recognisable and even understandable he is: contradictory, cantankerous, kind, rude, angry, generous but, above all, shy and fearful.

Coldstream imagines Bogarde looking down on him, chuckling at his attempts to pin him down. He is too modest. It is far more likely that Bogarde would be mightily annoyed with the accuracy of his portrait.

Robin Dashwood is a television drama and documentary director at the BBC.

Dirk Bogarde: The Authorised Biography By John Coldstream

Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 611
Price - £20
ISBN - 0 297 60730 8

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Reader's comments (1)

There are always other possibilities outside the theories in this book.