English actor and writer Sir Dirk Bogarde, born March 28, 1921, always refused to come out. In fact, he always denied he was gay. Yet, he accepted gay roles in groundbreaking films including the first English-language movie to use the word ‘homosexual’.
Dirk Bogarde had barely begun his acting career at the beginning of World War Two. His consequent wartime service left him profoundly disturbed. The actor found it difficult to discuss the horrors he witnessed even decades later.
“After the war, I always knew that nothing, nothing, could ever be as bad… Nothing could frighten me anymore… Nothing could be as bad as the war, or the things I saw in the war.”
Following the war, the young actor quickly hit his stride as a handsome matinee idol. The popular star made over 30 films before 1960. But despite his public persona as a dashing lady’s man, Dirk Bogarde was gay. In the early fifties, he began a relationship with fellow actor Anthony Forwood. The pair lived together for decades until Anthony’s death in 1988.
In the early sixties, Dirk Bogarde became a free agent when his long contract with the Rank Organisation ended. He accepted the lead role in 1961’s Victim, playing a closeted barrister fighting for justice for a young lover who hanged himself after falling prey to blackmailers. Male homosexuality remained illegal in England at the time.
Bogarde’s friend and biographer John Coldstream wrote, “This was a way of getting out a message. He couldn’t go on a chat show and say, ‘Look, I’m living with Tony Forwood’.”
Death in Venice
The role cost the actor both fans and other roles. It destroyed any chance of a Hollywood career though his longtime refusal to enter a marriage of convenience already made that an unlikely possibility. He increasingly took more challenging roles including that of the troubled and sickly composer Von Aschenbach in Death in Venice.
Undoubtedly a masterpiece, Death in Venice is nevertheless disturbing both for Von Aschenbach’s and the camera’s lusting after the 14-year-old child star. Recent revelations of the boy’s mistreatment by the director and others makes the movie even more troubling.
Bogarde, however, turned in a tour de force. He is unforgettable for an almost wordless portrayal of a man on the brink of personal disaster.
In the late seventies, Dirk Bogarde virtually abandoned acting in favour of writing. He penned 15 best sellers along with innumerable newspaper articles and reviews.
Knighted in 1992, he died in 1999 but not before destroying his personal papers.
Friends explained his refusal to come out despite relentlessly exposing himself through his movie roles as a consequence of the social and legal mores of his lifetime. During much of Dirk Bogarde’s life, homosexuality remained illegal. His sexuality endangered not only his movie career but also his freedom.
His friend actress Helena Bonham Carter also thought Bogarde did not want to highlight that he’d (understandably) lied about being gay for so long.
“He would always make out that he was a macho heterosexual. He was conscious of keeping the mystery, weaving the webs. But he was really a hunk of self-denial.”
Willem Arondeus, March 27 <— On this day —> March 29, Heinrich (Dora) Ratjen
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