Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2004-2005

Dirk Bogarde: The Authorised Biography, by John Coldstream

reviewed by Mansel Stimpson

In 1978 the late Alexander Walker, who may have been well placed to make a judgement, gave a radio broadcast in which he assessed Dirk Bogarde’s second volume of autobiography, Snakes and Ladders. “A sad book and also a reticent book,” he said. “I think he stands somewhat back from the edge of truth.” That was a view that gained ground, not least among Bogarde’s many gay admirers, when further autobiographical memoirs appeared wherein the actor-writer’s long-term companion Tony Forwood, usually referred to by his surname, was demoted to the role of manager.

However, following Bogarde’s death in 1999, things gradually changed. Most significant of all was the Arena documentary televised in 2001, The Private Dirk Bogarde. Supported by the Bogarde family and by friends, this programme confirmed the importance of the relationship that many people regarded as akin to a good marriage and it was open about the homosexuality that Dirk had always denied. Or had he? He himself, talking in 1995, had stressed the difference between evasion and lying, and he clearly saw his autobiographical works as illustrating the former and not the latter.

Whether you subscribe to that distinction or not, what was not said in those books added to the justification for a biography of the fair-minded and balanced kind now before us. Furthermore, Coldstream’s work makes it clear that, on grounds other than those of sex and sexuality, Bogarde’s non-fiction books have to be taken with more than a pinch of salt.

Again and again the so-called truth was anything but – which means that either Bogarde came to believe what he wrote or he dramatised events to create a good story that would add impact to his writing. The most striking example concerns the suicide of his friend Capucine. Falsely claiming that her body lay out of doors undiscovered for some time, he adds that when she was found the flies had started on her lips. This savage yet highly effective line makes Coldstream see evidence of hatred in it, yet Bogarde’s chosen words suggest a scene out of Luis Buñuel, as though inserted simply to prove his skills as a writer.

In general, despite a flight of fancy at the close, this well-written biography can be described as detailed but non-speculative. The portrayal of the family background and early life leads on to a comprehensive overview of all that Bogarde did as an actor. Coldstream mentions such forgotten movies as The Fixer, praises the fine acting in the little-shown Libel, despite the melodramatic material, and usefully reminds us of Joseph Losey’s King and Country, which in 1967 Bogarde regarded as his most satisfactory film to date.

The personal life is more elusive, but Coldstream is good on the important friendships with women who, by post or in person, were confidantes and friends, or even, like Norah Smallwood, mentors (“love affairs without carnality”). Comments from others show us this complex man in different lights: Patricia York, wife of Michael, saw in Bogarde self-hatred and self-pity; David Warner refers to an ice-thin veneer of unhappiness; Helena Bonham-Carter identified in the older Bogarde a fundamental lack of self-acceptance. This makes it less surprising that there is reason to believe that in midlife Bogarde may have volunteered for homosexual aversion therapy.

However, Coldstream never fully addresses the puzzle I emphasised when talking about Bogarde to the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, namely his seeming compulsion to take on gay roles that were self-revealing even while he was at pains to hide his private life. We do learn, however, that late on, when already established as a writer (this second career also being fully studied here), he rejected further gay roles, turning down Another Country and a proposed remake of Laura, in which he was offered the Clifton Webb role. More significant, however, is the revelation that his tendency to write dialogue for his films went far beyond the famous example of I Could Go On Singing and extended to the key husband-and-wife confrontation scene in Victim, where his additions to the script, although small, added immeasurably to the impact.

This is a book not without occasional errors – Wilfrid Hyde-White again has his name shown incorrectly, Ignorance Is Bliss was a comedy programme mocking quiz shows but not a quiz show as such and either Coldstream or Bogarde himself would appear to misquote a line from Judy Garland’s Born In a Trunk. What matters, however, is that the record is now clarified, even if many mysteries remain, and not least it is good to have a book that pays deserved tribute to Tony Forwood. But it’s apt to leave the last tribute to Tony to his partner by ending this review with a quote from Dirk Bogarde himself: “We had a terrific fifty years together and nothing can take any part of that away.”

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Created : Sunday, 2005-02-13 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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