Star of the Month

Star of the Month: Dirk Bogarde

Star of the Month: Dirk Bogarde

Wednesday Evenings | 17 Movies 

Many film stars have had difficult pasts, secrets and tragedies that formed their inner personalities, private relationships, even their creative talents. For English actor Dirk Bogarde (1921-1999), there were unhappy early years, sent away by his parents to live with relatives in Scotland; the profound impact of his service in World War II, particularly the horror and revulsion he felt upon entering the just liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; and a lifetime of having to hide his homosexuality and deny his decades-long relationship with another actor, both to avoid criminal charges in his home country and to preserve his career. 

While most actors, particularly in Hollywood, were able to hide those secrets behind a veneer of charm, sophistication and romantic appeal (and Bogarde had plenty), there was an edge of sadness, bitterness and regret that crept through his wide-ranging performances over the course of 40+ years on screen. Bogarde’s greatest achievement may have been how he used that edge to pull himself out of the dead end of matinee idol stardom to seek greater artistic challenges and take on risky, offbeat roles in art films and dark dramas later in his career. This TCM tribute, divided into four thematic sections, provides a glimpse into the complex nature, unique appeal and transformative career of the man that Sophie Monks Kaufman, writing for the BBC, called “a truly dangerous film star.”

“Doomed from the Start,” the opening night of the series (September 6) draws primarily from the period when Bogarde was one of the leading heartthrobs of British cinema. A popular leading man beginning in the late 1940s, he was showcased in romances, thrillers and period pieces, achieving major stardom in a series of comedies playing young Dr. Simon Sparrow in five movies over ten years. But not all his roles during this time were lighthearted fluff. The first films showing on this night revolve around doomed romances his characters are too tortured and helpless to save.

Two of these films were studio releases at a time when Bogarde was first considered for Hollywood stardom. (That he never quite achieved that status can be explained both by his growing disinterest in big-budget mainstream roles and his refusal to enter a marriage of convenience the way other closeted Hollywood stars had done.) In Song Without End (1960), he plays that most romantic of all composers — and a matinee idol himself — Franz Liszt. Taking liberties with the Hungarian virtuoso’s life, the story follows his scandalous and ultimately frustrated love affair with a married noblewoman, ending with his decision at the age of 53 (Bogarde was 39) to abandon public performance in favor of a life of religious devotion. The production started out fraught with difficulties, not least because Bogarde and co-star Capucine (in her first US picture) hated director Charles Vidor. Vidor died midway into shooting and was replaced by the more amenable George Cukor, who substantially reworked the production.

In The Angel Wore Red (1960), his second Hollywood film that year (but the first to be released), star Ava Gardner takes the fall as a prostitute politicized during the Spanish Civil War. Bogarde plays an ex-priest she falls for and shelters. I Could Go on Singing (1963) is primarily a British production starring Judy Garland as a self-destructive singer bearing a rather queasy similarity to her real life. Bogarde plays a respectable surgeon who raised the son born of their long-ago affair. Both the production and the finished movie had the highs and lows expected of a Garland film by that time, but thanks to the friendship and mutual understanding, not to mention on-screen chemistry, between the two stars, it’s an intermittently powerful and revealing portrait of a troubled diva. 

The most unusual of the night’s offerings, The Spanish Gardener (1956), uses Bogarde’s swarthy good looks (make-up enhanced) and ambiguous sexuality in the title role of a story about the young son of a British diplomat who idolizes the family’s lovable teenage gardener (Bogarde was 35). The ending of A.J. Cronin’s source novel was changed to a less tragic one, and the book’s unmistakable undertones of sexuality were removed (and yet still somewhat apparent).

A slate of war films makes up the second night of the series, “In the Army Now” (September 13), including the World War II epic A Bridge Too Far (1977). Bogarde is all stiff upper lip as part of an international ensemble cast featuring Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier, Gene Hackman, James Caan and many others. He gets greater acting opportunities as the cruel officer (that edge again) in Damn the Defiant! (1962), about a mutiny during the Napoleonic Wars, starring Alec Guinness.

Bogarde stretches even farther in a triple role in the courtroom drama Libel (1959) as two escaped POWs (one an aristocrat, the other an actor) and a disfigured man confined to a German asylum. He very effectively conveys either the confusion of a man whose memory has been damaged or the guilt and deception of someone who is not who he claims to be. The generally gripping story (no one does legal drama like the British) also features Olivia de Havilland as the country gentleman’s wife who begins to doubt him.

The other two films in this section are based on true stories. Ill Met by Moonlight (1957), released in the US as Night Ambush (1958), concerns the 1944 abduction of a German commander on Crete. This was the final film the writing-directing-producing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made under the aegis of their production company The Archers, responsible for such classics as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). Bogarde plays one of the kidnappers, Major Patrick Leigh Fermor, who went on to become a noted travel writer. The Password Is Courage (1962), takes a more lighthearted view of the war, with Bogarde having fun as a real-life hero ironically named Charlie Coward, whose exploits included sabotage, multiple escape attempts and posing as a wounded soldier in a German field hospital, bamboozling the Nazis into awarding him their Iron Cross.

The programming really gets compelling on September 20 with “All Things Arthouse.” These are the types of films Bogarde increasingly sought out in his career, and his efforts paid off handsomely. Each new role took him farther from placid movie star appeal into darker and more complex territory.

Julie Christie, in her Oscar-winning role, is the star and main attraction of John Schlesinger’s critical and commercial success Darling (1965) as a jet-setting model who toys with the affections of two men out of boredom, caprice or just plain carelessness. Bogarde plays a bookish TV director who leaves his wife and children for her, gets betrayed himself and exacts his final cruel revenge when they are reunited. The film’s reputation has dimmed in recent years with some critics finding its cynical modishness overdone and ultimately empty, but it was very influential for a time and well worth catching for its flashy style and jaundiced look at Swinging London at the height of its 1960s trendiness. 

Late in his life, Bogarde wrote of his ongoing disdain for Germany, the result of atrocities he said he witnessed in the war. Perhaps this feeling informed his work in two films that carry their view of Nazi decadence and brutality far over the top. In The Damned (1969), he plays a scheming social climber who becomes head of a weapons company based loosely on the notorious Krupp steel and arms dynasty. Directed and co-written by Luchino Visconti (Senso, 1954; The Leopard, 1963), the film opened to worldwide (but not unanimous) acclaim, with Bogarde’s heightened performance epitomizing lethal Faustian ambition amid lurid depictions of moral and sexual depravity. Not surprisingly, German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder called this his favorite film. (Fassbinder later cast Bogarde in the lead of his Nabokov adaptation Despair, 1978.)

The Night Porter (1974) takes the cruelty and degradation even further with Bogarde, as a former SS officer, and Charlotte Rampling, as a concentration camp survivor, replaying their bizarre sadomasochistic wartime affair in late 1950s Vienna. The controversial film continues to sharply divide critics as to its artistic merits, although audiences of the time found it titillating enough to make it an art house hit. Critics were equally divided about Bogarde’s performance. Some claimed his talents rose above the lurid material, others said he relied too heavily on his old acting tics and tricks.

Little fault can be found with Bogarde’s devastating performance in Death in Venice (1971). Working with Visconti again, he appears as a famous composer, based partially on Mahler, taking a rest cure in the city and becoming obsessed with the serene beauty of a teenage boy. Scholars are still debating whether the obsession is essentially sexual or more a case of an artist becoming enthralled by a vision of ideal beauty and purity. The story is mostly faithful to Thomas Mann’s 1912 novel, but the main character’s occupation in the book — an author — was changed, allowing Visconti to use Mahler’s late Romantic music to great effect. According to Bogarde’s biography, executives at Warner Bros. were reluctant to distribute the film stateside, fearing it would be banned as obscene, but relented after a successful gala premiere in London attended by Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Anne.

While it may be intriguing to consider how much the publicly closeted Bogarde may have related to that film’s subject matter, it’s hard not to believe he didn’t bring his personal experiences and feelings to his role in Victim (1961), showing on the final night of the month-long tribute, “Dirk Goes Dark” (September 27). The first British film to explicitly name homosexuality and treat it sympathetically at a time when it could still bring imprisonment in that country, the suspenseful story finds him as a successful married lawyer blackmailed over his sexual relationship with a young working-class man. Although the film depicts tragic ends for at least two of the blackmailers’ victims, Bogarde’s character stands up to the criminals, promising to testify against them despite knowing it will destroy his career.

Also included in this final night’s line-up are the noir Cast a Dark Shadow (1955), in which he murders his wife, and Our Mother’s House (1967), another thriller in which he only appears in the second half. The film is centered instead around a group of children, and Bogarde, who considered the production one of the happiest of his career, related in his autobiography how the seven young cast members left him a note on his first day: “Let's hope you're as good as you're cracked up to be. You'd better be. Sincerely, The Children.”

The darker side of Dirk Bogarde was on full display in at least two of the five films he made with director Joseph Losey. The Servant (1963), with a script by Harold Pinter, was an intense exploration of the power struggle between a wealthy and ineffectual man (James Fox) and his scheming manservant (Bogarde). In Accident (1967), also written by Pinter, he is an Oxford professor who trashes his quiet life over a fatal attraction for a female student.

Despite his often dark, tormented screen image, Bogarde proved to be a witty, elegant and delightfully literate author in a writing career begun in 1977, which eventually produced 15 best sellers, including memoirs, novels, poetry and essays. He lived, quite contentedly by all accounts, with his life partner, Anthony Forwood, for nearly 40 years until Forwood’s death in 1988.