Dirk Bogarde: An ebullient raconteur and a prolific correspondent
It is a well-documented fact that Dirk Bogarde was an obsessively private man, which may seem a little odd given his professional undertakings both as an actor and later a writer. He also regarded any writing about him, other than that which he himself chose to publish, as a wlatsome intrusion into his closely guarded personal life. Thus this may have him turning in his grave but having just finished ploughing through a colossal selection of his epistles – most of which span over two pages and have every capacity to incite antagonism in orthodox strongholds – I feel inclined to rave. Bogarde made his theatre-acting debut in 1939 in J. B. Priestley’s play Cornelius and thereafter went on to star in more than 60 films. He embarked on a writing career in 1977 with an autobiographical volume of prose called A Postillion Struck by Lightning. He went on to write more autobiography as well as novels, poems, book reviews and innumerate letters. Bogarde was an ebullient raconteur and mischievously amusing even though his obdurate frankness certainly had its nuisance value. The letters are full of penetrating wit, jubilation, ecstasy, disappointment, despair, sympathies and admonitions, genuinely vernal raptures, occasional bouts of spite and capricious episodic ellipses, transections, changes of tempo and grammatical errors. In fact, the letters fluctuate from the ideal to the tangible, from the inevitable shipwreck of romanticism to the hard rocks of reality; a subtle shift which underlines the lambent sparkle of Bogarde’s unique vernacular and sense of humour.
His lapses in literary convention are more than compensated by the industrious internal force which propelled him to write. This force inevitably lead him to take on a parallel profession in the latter part of his life – that of a writer – and while successfully juggling the two Bogarde was also a compelling interlocutor and a prolific correspondent. When he wrote the innate shyness, which beset him in public, was cast aside and thus the recipients of his letters were cordially invited into this very private man’s inner life and imagination. All the above reasons for reading Bogarde’s letters are merely a small part of why I enjoyed them as much as I did. It is the otherwise uncharted anecdotes, observations and snapshots of unrecorded history which he relays so generously and so candidly that kept me strapped to my seat. Below are some excerpts, transcribed exactly as they appear on the page bar names and peoples occupations added for ease of reference.
About Death in Venice directed by Luchino Visconti:
“Death in Venice starts April 1st outside the Hotel des Bains on the Lido. Visconti is scouring Stockholm, Warsaw and Budapest for his Tadjio…he has left instructions to have the WHOLE of St. Marks re-dressed as it was in 1911…we are shooting in Panavision which has added millions to the slender budget…I have 18 changes…and we shoot also in the Tyrol and in Munich…because the true story of DIV was that Mann, an old friend of Viscontis, was travelling on a train from Venice to Munich in 1910…and in a compartment was a strange being in full slap…desperately unhappy, his died, dyed, hair streaky…his false eyelashes coming off in his tears. They spoke…It was Gustav Mahler…and he had just fallen in hopelessly love with a child of thirteen in Venice…and so from there it went.”
To director Joseph Losey about trying to persuade Julie Christie to star in The Go Between:
“I am sad about ‘Go Between’…I spent a lot of time with Julie and did what I could to persuade her to do it…she longs to work with you, and she liked the script…and she KNOWS that she SHOULD do it, but it’s that sodding Warren (Beatty)…and unless you offered him the part of Tom and let him play it bare assed, I cannot think that he’ll let her do it…”
To Losey, expressing disapproval of his decision to accompany Richard Burton to the Oscars:
“You ARE a naughty fellow…you know, full well that you are deeply loved by me…and that you always will be. No matter what. But you are a solitary…there is no helping you…you eat love like candy and vomit it straight up again: like a dog. It doesn’t matter a scrap as long as your ‘lovers’ are patient, and have a sense, however wild, of humour…but when you say that you are going to California to ‘help Burton’ get his Oscar, as if it were some noble deed…so ‘ that my usefulness is not entirely gone.’ Jesus! What are you doing for the Welsh bastard? How can you help him get an Oscar for an indifferent performance that has already, sickeningly, been purchased by Hal Wallis (American movie producer)? Why lend yourself to that stuff?”
About a forthcoming project with French film director Alain Resnais:
“The Resnais script (‘Providence’)….due to start in January…is extraordinary…a Marienbad about de Sade. Original. Confusing. Brilliant and uncommercial. We just will have to wait and see if anyone will give us the lolly. I don’t mind working for nothing so long as the Katzes and the Hymes and the Shinklehubbers (movie executives) cut their salaries! But they bloody well don’t! There they all are at the Colombe…fat and bulging and spending our profits…Ugh!”
To fellow thespian Ian Holm about acting:
“Self-respect, for a man, after a certain age is terribly important in Actors. Does one want to be a Burton? An O’Toole? Or a Lesley Phillips!! Besides…the parts that don’t pay well are usually the most interesting I find. I got pennies, literally, for ‘Death in Venice’…we had to pay our own expenses even…but what a chance to act for the Cinema! It was worth paying to be in it…even if it is an unholy flop…So, dear Ian, most respected Sir, and adored friend…play your hunch and piss off out of Ratty-Land (Terrance Rattigan’s play Bequest to the Nation which Holm was appearing in at the time). It does no good to ones soul…unless one happens to be K. Moore…and soulless.”
There is something extremely intriguing in reading small, if inconsequential, revelations of things one is familiar with. I think, personally, it panders to my inquisitive nature, particularly to my interest in cinema. What’s more, it aids in the construction of the greater picture of this most fabled industry as well as the individual behind the actor on the screen. I first encountered Bogarde as a stern yet bewitching Nazi in The Night Porter, a film which tends to inspire extreme feelings at either end of the spectrum. I personally thought it unlike anything I had seen before and a genuinely brilliant depiction of love at its most macabre, but even then the censors and the public were divided as Bogarde documents:
“The film itself seems to have both shocked, as we hoped, and moved and excited, as also we hoped. People are either smalled completely or sent mad with rage…anti-Jewish (we didn’t know!) or pro-Fascist…(I had a faint feeling that I knew THAT one.) And because the film was made by a Communist everyone got very Political. No one found it vulgar or obscene…like the Italians who have swiftly banned it because of a scene with Charlotte on top of me, instead of the other way round! Anyway we open on the 3rd in Paris…in ten movie houses…and then we shall know. There seems still no chance of it reaching England. And I suppose that if it did that Whitehouse (Mary Whitehouse, president of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ association) lot would have screaming fits and we’d all be arrested. It is odd. Nothing happens that doesn’t happen between and ordinary man and woman in love…and who enjoy sex…but there you go. There is one shot of two soldiers buggering each other, very very graphically…and to which the Italian censors haven’t even turned a hair…yet because Charlotte straddles me…I give up.”
It is precisely this sort of insight that the letters offer allowing the reader to draw comparisons between the public persona and the private man. As in his letters, elsewhere Bogarde also comments about The Night Porter in the same vein, saying: “…under all the welter of polemic there was just a very simple, very moving story of two people, a man and a woman who had come together in Hell, had discovered an extraordinary love there in the mud and the filth of the camp, rather like a tiny flower thrusting through the brutality and degradation of a battlefield.” It is perhaps this professional, and personal, integrity and his artistic conviction alongside his charming, droll and candid nature that make his letters so riveting.