July 22, 2017

Dirk Bogarde In The Victim Risked Everything to Change How Gays Were Being Treated



     




Introduction

The turn of the 1960s was a time when British cinema revolutionized its attitude: it decided to face up to the issues of the day. Few problems were more controversial in public opinion than the legal status of homosexuality. The producer Michael Relph and director Basil Dearden wanted to make a film on the subject – tellingly called Victim – which would highlight the injustices facing contemporary gay men. 

They had a fight on their hands to get it made. But the film they delivered was such a damning indictment of the status quo that it actively contributed to a change in the law.

Four years earlier, the Wolfenden Report had been published, recommending the decriminalization of gay sex between consenting adults in private, and lighting the first touchpaper for legal change since the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885

(Telegraph)  

In this relatively enlightened age, it’s horrifying to consider how gay people were treated by society just half a century ago. Back then, being closeted was not an option but a necessity. As the 1960s dawned, homosexuality was still deemed an illness and a crime across the globe. Those caught and convicted often went to prison, and then were ostracized, their lives ruined.

Some key moments in the struggle for gay rights are well-documented, including 1969’s infamous Stonewall Riots in New York City, where gays rose up angrily to resist police brutality. However, other quieter but no less courageous actions also advanced the cause, in other parts of the world.

Dirk Bogarde, a superb actor and renowned British movie star of the ‘50s and ’60s, performed a little-known act of heroism when he agreed to play a closeted homosexual barrister who’s being blackmailed in Basil Dearden’s gripping drama, “Victim” (1961). This would be the first feature film to address the topic of homosexuality openly, the first film where the word “homosexual” is even uttered. 
What’s more extraordinary about Bogarde’s decision was that unlike several other actors who’d turned down the part (James Mason and Stewart Granger among them), he was actually gay, and many in the industry knew it. Thus he was really putting his livelihood and reputation in peril.

Still, the respect this gifted actor had earned over fifteen years in the film business, combined with a gradual softening in attitudes towards the issue, allowed Bogarde to survive the experience with both his career and dignity intact.

That respect was well-earned. Dirk Bogarde was born into an upper-middle class family in 1921. His father was the art critic for The Times. At first intending to pursue the same line of work, young Derek (as he was then known) studied commercial art before switching over to drama.

 


Dirk seized with relish on the role of Melville Farr, the successful barrister with the beautiful wife, because Victim (1961) had something important to say about a society in which the blackmailing of homosexuals was commonplace. When the film was made, Lord Wolfenden’s Committee had reported on the merits of qualified reform, but the legislature was slow to respond.
Six years later, the Sexual Offences Act was passed, partially decriminalising homosexual acts in private between consenting males aged 21 or over. In 1968 the Earl of Arran, who had introduced the legislation in the House of Lords, wrote to Dirk, acknowledging the part the latter had played in helping to change the climate for the better. The brief but gratifying letter is reproduced on these pages by kind permission of the writer’s son, the 9th Earl.(dickbogarde.co.uk)
The Second World War intervened and very soon Derek was in the thick of it as an intelligence officer. Eventually awarded seven medals and attaining the rank of Major, Bogarde was present at the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen death camp, a horrific experience he likened to “peering into Dante’s Inferno.”

After the war, he returned to acting, and was signed to a long-term contract in 1948 by Britain’s J. Arthur Rank studio. Derek (re-christened Dirk) would make pictures there for a dozen years, most memorably starring in three of their wildly popular “Doctor in The House” comedies, about the wacky goings-on in a dysfunctional hospital.

By the time “Victim” came along, Bogarde was at a crossroads. He had just survived an ill-fated foray in Hollywood, where he made two indifferent features and vowed never to return. His contract at Rank was also wrapping up. It was at this juncture that he resolved to focus on serious art house films going forward. (This decision may actually have emboldened him to do “Victim,” as the fans most likely to be alienated would not flock to the movies he now wanted to do anyhow.) 
Notably, his taking on the role of Melville Farr in “Victim” was not an occasion for him to come out. It would take another quarter century before Bogarde would acknowledge that his relationship with longtime companion and manager Anthony Forwood was more than platonic.

For Bogarde, his private life was just that. Still, he saw no reason not to do “Victim,” because he knew it would make a very good film (he was right), and because it shed light on an injustice that he felt, at long last, needed addressing.

Though its highly controversial subject matter guaranteed a limited release, the film helped spur debate on whether homosexuality should remain a crime in England. It may well have accelerated its decriminalization in 1967. 

Dirk Bogarde would make his most memorable and enduring films over the following decade, in collaboration with directors Joseph Losey (1963’s “The Servant,” 1964’s “King and Country”), John Schlesinger (1965’s “Darling”), and Luchino Visconti ( 1971’s “Death in Venice”).

Having dabbled in poetry years before, Bogarde decided to take up writing in the late ‘70s and became prolific, penning a series of well-received novels, essays and memoirs. On paper, the actor’s innate reserve melted away, and this new career reportedly gave him immense satisfaction.

Sir Dirk Bogarde (he’d been knighted in 1992) died at age 78 in 1999, ten years after Anthony Forwood’s passing. A heavy smoker, he succumbed to a heart attack after previously enduring two strokes.

He deserves to be remembered as a great actor and writer, and also a gallant, principled man who accepted a part other actors were afraid to play, at great risk to himself. In doing so, he helped change the world for the better.
(Best Movies By Farr)


~~~More
A seriously handsome, bona fide star who had made 35 films by the age of 40, Dirk Bogarde was both British and knighted and made more arrestingly bold choices than any actor of his generation, taking name-above-the-title roles in The Servant and Accident with Joseph Losey, Death in Venice and The Damned for Luchino Visconti, The Night Porter for Liliana Cavani, Providence for Alain Resnais and Despair for Rainer Werner Fassbinder. All that from a man who as early as 1958 was the biggest draw at the British box office – pulling bigger audiences than Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn and Elvis Presley. 

In addition, by the time of his death, in 1999, he had reinvented himself. He published six novels, plus collections of correspondence and criticism, and, crucially, seven best-selling volumes of memoirs throughout which he staunchly claimed to be straight. Actress Glynis Johns, a contemporary most famous as the suffragette mother in Mary Poppins, tartly observed, "I never believed more than one sentence of what Dirk wrote." She should know: she was once married to Tony Forwood who had divorced her and subsequently lived with Bogarde as his "manager" for almost 40 years.

Bogarde's position was, initially, understandable. Born in 1921, for his first 46 years homosexuality was against the law. Any man caught in "homosexual acts" faced imprisonment. That prohibition was ruthlessly policed. In 1955, 2,504 men were arrested for "homosexual offenses", ie, about seven people every day. Even Ian McKellen, 18 years younger, didn't come out until 1988 when he was 49. Bogarde never did.

Although fully entitled to privacy, his blanket denials on television, radio and in print post-1967 legalization became, for me, increasingly hard to stomach. Posthumously, the man behind the painstakingly maintained mask was uncovered in home movies and commentaries from family and friends in a BBC documentary The Private Dirk Bogarde (2001) and John Coldstream's biography. The great irony of Bogarde's position, however, is that no other screen actor has given such affecting and extraordinarily powerful gay performances.

Even now (it's changing somewhat) the industry regards playing gay as being potentially career-damaging, an act so "brave" that your Oscar virtually comes with the contract – step forward William Hurt for Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1985), Tom Hanks for Philadelphia (1993), Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote (2005), Sean Penn for Milk (2008). Probably the only reason Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal didn't win for Brokeback Mountain was that their dual presence canceled one another out.

Regardless of the authenticity – or lack thereof – of those performances by straight actors, they pale beside the still astonishing impact of Bogarde's shockingly truthful performance back in 1961 as a barrister embroiled in a secret gay affair in Victim.

Bogarde plays married barrister Melville Farr who discovers that a blackmailed young man who loved him has hanged himself in police custody rather than reveal their relationship. Realizing Farr's intention to uncover the plot, the blackmailers threaten to expose him. In the central scene – whose dialogue was rewritten to more explicit effect by Bogarde himself – Farr is confronted by his distressed wife (played by Sylvia Syms).

Shot in high-contrast black-and-white, edged with the darkness of a sitting-room at night but trapped in a fierce spotlight, Bogarde is mesmerizing. Crisply suited, dry-voiced and on the edge of tears, he painfully stifles the emotion threatening to destroy him. With the camera locked in close-up, he lifts his chin ever so slightly in defiance, his eyes widening into a glare of triumph that costs him everything.

"You won't be content until I tell you, will you, until you've ripped it out of me. I stopped seeing him because I wanted him. Can you understand – because I WANTED him."

I can still remember being transfixed – and terrified – by that moment when I first saw it by accident on television one night. It was the 1970s, I was a guilt-ridden, fiercely closeted teenager and I had never, ever seen or heard a man on screen or off express such piercing desire for another man. I felt physically torn between an absolute need to keep watching and the cramping fear that my parents would come in and instantly understand why I was watching something so incriminating.

Bogarde always maintained that the camera photographed thought. Nowhere is that more true than in that scene. It wasn't just this teenager who recognized the staggering truth behind that performance and its implications for the actor.

In a television interview to promote the film, he was asked the not-so-veiled question: "You must feel very strongly about this subject to risk losing possibly a large part of your audience by appearing in such a bitterly controversial film?"

With manufactured insouciance, Bogarde counters, "I don't think so, no. This is a marvelous part and in a film I think is tremendously important because it doesn't pull any punches: it's quite honest. I don't have to use any old tricks for the fans, it's a straightforward character performance."

Necessarily disingenuous as that was, in hindsight, it's also seriously unconvincing due to his immensely camp "who me?" manner, his left eyebrow arched, his fingers playing with his ear and chin.

Being able to pinpoint a scene that changed a career is rare, but that's what that Victim scene did. And having just engineered his release from his constraining 14-year-old contract with the Rank Organisation, Bogarde accelerated to an international reputation taking on increasingly complex roles with adventurous directors. Contrarily, the finest of those performances were in roles amplifying his hidden sexuality.

He was memorably vicious as the vicious Barrett, the manservant manipulating imperiled, upper-class James Fox into sex-and-power games in Losey's superbly elliptical (and Pinter-scripted) The Servant. And, in 1971, he crowned his career with Death in Venice, playing a man who falls fatally in love with the ideal of beauty exemplified by a beautiful boy. With almost no dialogue, the film amounts to a 125-minute reaction shot. As casting director Michelle Guish observed of Helen Mirren the day after the first Prime Suspect aired, no other British actor could have played that role that well because no one else had that depth of screen experience.

Was it arrogance that pushed the controlled Bogarde to the brink of self-exposure in this and other defining roles? He destroyed almost all of his personal papers, so we'll never know. Whatever conclusion we try to draw, the screen evidence survives.

Independent

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