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Bogarde, Dirk (1921-1999)

Actor, Writer

Main image of Bogarde, Dirk (1921-1999)

Son of the Dutch-born art editor for the London Times and a frustrated-actress mother, Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde studied as a scenic designer and worked as a commercial artist, as well as being an unpromising drama student before the war.

He first appeared on the stage in 1939 and as a film extra in Come on George! (d. Anthony Kimmins) in the same year. During World War II, he served with the Air Photographic Intelligence Unit, had a brief stint as a totally unqualified schoolmaster, was a stage success in The Power Without Glory (1947), then went on to become perhaps the most popular and interesting actor in the history of British films.

Bogarde's career of nearly seventy films can be mapped through several key titles. After several films for Gainsborough, none of them making much impact, he played the charismatic young thug in Ealing's The Blue Lamp (d. Basil Dearden, 1949), bringing a violent sexuality to the role that came near to unbalancing the film's sober intentions. He would often, in fact, suggest unsettling currents at work in otherwise modest and/or hundrum films such as Boys in Brown (d. Montgomery Tully, 1949), Cast a Dark Shadow (d. Lewis Gilbert, 1955), The Spanish Gardener (d. Philip Leacock, 1956) and Libel (d. Anthony Asquith, 1959), all of which are more compelling for his finding ways of undermining their generic aspirations with his equivocal, watchful intensity.

No doubt it was the astoundingly popular Doctor in the House (d. Ralph Thomas, 1954) which initiated the 'Idol of the Odeons' phase, with his Simon Sparrow providing a sanely likeable centre for this skilful ragbag of jokes about the medical profession, and he reprised the role in three of the sequels. As a romantic hero, in comedy (For Better, for Worse (d. J.Lee Thompson, 1954)) or drama (The Wind Cannot Read (d. Thomas, 1958)), in and out of costume (Simba (d. Brian Desmond Hurst, 1955); A Tale of Two Cities (d. Thomas, 1958)) or uniform (The Sea Shall Not Have Them (d. Gilbert, 1954)), in films good and bad, he could do little wrong with audiences during the 1950s. For his own part, he grew heartily tired of his image and deliberately sought to change it.

In 1961, he starred as the gay barrister in Victim (d. Basil Dearden), the first mainstream film to tackle the issue of homosexuality, and, whatever concessions it made to box-office (and the film's courage at the time is worth stressing), its breakthrough status remains. Bogarde, whose own sexuality was always held to be ambivalent, took a calculated risk, probably lost his teenage fans but gained entrée to the more serious roles he craved.

As his once-strikingly handsome looks began to change, he acquired a certain sly, furrowed gravitas, which film registered with rapt attention. His association with US blacklist-fugitive director, Joseph Losey, had begun with an enjoyable melodrama, The Sleeping Tiger (1954), but it was The Servant (1963) which marked the emergence of the new Bogarde - that is, as a great character actor. He played the film's eponym with a riveting aura of opportunism, adducing weapons of sex and class hatred in a blackly comic tussle for power.

He made three further films for Losey, including the masterly Accident (1967), and thereafter became, in his own words, "a European actor", memorably associated with Luchino Visconti (Death in Venice (Morte a Venezia, Italy/France, 1971) is the key work here), Alain Resnais (Providence, France/Switzerland, 1977), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Despair, Germany/France, 1978), and Bertrand Tavernier for whom he made his eloquent swansong, These Foolish Things (Daddy Nostalgie, France, 1990).

He ceased stage work in the mid-50s and did very little television: he was the British film actor and star par excellence, sometimes making bricks out of straw but also making impressive houses out of bricks. His experiences with Hollywood film-making were uniformly disastrous - his views on, say, Song Without End (US, d. Charles Vidor, 1960, as Liszt), were almost litigiously frank.

In his last two decades, he became a popular author of novels and, covering both his career and his life in France with his friend and manager Anthony Forwood, six highly regarded volumes of autobiography. The latter, like his TV interviews, tell the reader just as much as this complex, private man was prepared to reveal.

Biography: The Films of Dirk Bogarde by Margaret Hinxman & Susan d'Arcy (1974)

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Cinema

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Accident (1967)Accident (1967)

A fatal car accident triggers an intense psychological drama

Thumbnail image of Blue Lamp, The (1949)Blue Lamp, The (1949)

Classic Ealing police drama that introduced PC George Dixon

Thumbnail image of Boys in Brown (1949)Boys in Brown (1949)

A progressive Borstal governor tries to reform his boys

Thumbnail image of Darling (1965)Darling (1965)

Julie Christie gives an Oscar-winning performance as an amoral socialite

Thumbnail image of Doctor in the House (1954)Doctor in the House (1954)

Hugely popular medical comedy, the first in a long-running series

Thumbnail image of Gentle Gunman, The (1952)Gentle Gunman, The (1952)

Muddled but intriguing Ealing IRA thriller

Thumbnail image of Ill Met By Moonlight (1957)Ill Met By Moonlight (1957)

Dirk Bogarde-starring drama based on a true story of WWII Crete

Thumbnail image of Servant, The (1963)Servant, The (1963)

James Fox and Dirk Bogarde's savage attack on the British class system

Thumbnail image of Simba (1955)Simba (1955)

Love story set amidst the Mau Mau's uprisings in Kenya

Thumbnail image of Singer Not The Song, The (1961)Singer Not The Song, The (1961)

Dirk Bogarde and John Mills star in a bizarre gay Mexican western

Thumbnail image of Sleeping Tiger, The (1954)Sleeping Tiger, The (1954)

Joseph Losey's British debut stars Dirk Bogarde as a young criminal

Thumbnail image of Tale of Two Cities, A (1958)Tale of Two Cities, A (1958)

Dirk Bogarde stars as an idealistic lawyer in this Dickens adaptation

Thumbnail image of Victim (1961)Victim (1961)

Dirk Bogarde stars in the first serious British film about homosexuality

Thumbnail image of Vision, The (1988)Vision, The (1988)

Dirk Bogarde uncovers sinister motives behind a new satellite TV channel

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Social Problem FilmsSocial Problem Films

British cinema and postwar social change

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Losey, Joseph (1909-1984)Losey, Joseph (1909-1984)

Director, Writer, Producer