I am watching “Death in Venice” (Luchino Visconti, 1971). Dirk Bogarde is enjoying a feature spot on the Criterion Channel—11 movies, including those of his stunningly dark characters in “The Servant” and “The Night Porter”. I am old enough to have gone to the cinema in the era of double features—the featured film, “My Fair Lady” for example, followed an opening second feature, a B movie. One that I adored, (not paired with “My Fair Lady”), but a B movie nonetheless, was “Sebastian”, starring Bogarde as an Oxford professor who runs an all-female decoding agency for MI6.
In “Death in Venice”, Bogarde’s portrayal of Gustav von Aschenbach, an ailing author floundering in Venice and on Lido, while obsessed with a beautiful Polish boy, Bogarde channels an alarming pathos. Aschenbach’s sexual preferences are murky; he is largely encamped with aesthetics. The boy’s beauty is aesthetically pleasing to Aschenbach’s tastes. It is only toward the end, of both the novel and Aschenbach’s life, that the author realizes this aesthetic is of the erotic sort.
Dirk Bogarde was no stranger to playing challenging characters both straight and gay, evil and good. In the 1961 film “Victim”, he portrayed a married barrister trying to save his young male lover after the man embezzles money to pay off his blackmailers. Bogarde has been a decadent valet (“The Servant”), sadistic naval officer (“H.M.S Defiant”) and a handsome artist in love with Jean Simmons (“So Long at the Fair”).
As far as “coming out”, Bogarde never did, technically. It was a matter of “everyone knew”, largely because he never married and shared his life for 40 years with British actor Anthony Forwood. The stigma was fierce for Dirk, especially because anti-homosexuality laws in the U.K. were viciously enforced until 1967.
Since today’s blog appears to be about two British actors who were and are gay, I’m going to briefly profile another favorite British actor who is gay: Rupert Everett.
Like Dirk, Rupert writes novels and is a musician; he might be best known for singing back-up for Madonna. My first memory of him was his performance in the film “Another Country” (1984), where he portrayed a gay student in a boarding school, participating in the secret language of gayness with his friends while the Spanish Civil War was raging in Spain. He is especially delightful in the films “An Ideal Woman” and “The Importance of Being Ernest”.
While Bogarde’s movie career began with roles of handsome, romantic young men, Everett’s got a big boost in quirky indies. Born 50 years after Bogarde, Everett had the comfort, if one could call it that, of coming out. Despite his worries that this move derailed his career, after he appeared in the brutally vicious film “The Comfort of Strangers” (1990), movie offers came his way. He does, however, warn other actors about his decision to disclose his sexuality, because he felt some doors in Britain were shut on him forever. Prejudice against LBGT groups runs chronically deep.
Interestingly, Everett is quite active in obtaining rights to work for prostitutes in the U.K. At the same time he claims he abhors the trend of same-sex marriage. I can hear his polished English cadence as he denounces this, because Everett is best when he is portraying a self-satisfied, privileged bitch. To this end, in his latest film “The Happy Prince”, he takes on the role of Oscar Wilde contemplating his life shortly before his death in 1900.
The wonderful thing about movies is being able to see these fabulous men any time I feel like it. Sigh.