Monday, 28 March 2011

Sir Dirk Bogarde's 90th Birthday

It was 90 years ago today that actor and novelist Sir Dirk Bogarde was born. In his native Britain he would become the number one box office star of the Fifties and there he remains a household name. In the United States, Sir Dirk Bogarde is not a household name, yet chances are good that most Americans have seen at least one movie starring the actor.

Sir Dirk Bogarde was born Derek van den Bogaerde in Hampstead, London. Given his parents' occupations, it was perhaps inevitable that young Dirk would go into some artistic field. His father, Ulric van den Bogaerde, was art editor for The Times. His mother, Margaret Niven, had been an actress. As surprising as it may be, Sir Dirk Bogarde was not set to go into acting as a young man. After attending Allen Glen's School in Glasgow and University College School in London, he attended the Chelsea College of Art and Design with the intent of becoming a commercial artist. While he would work as a commercial artist and scenic designer in the Thirties, young Dirk would abandon art for acting.


Sir Dirk Bogarde studied acting with the Amersham Repertory Company, It was in 1939 that he made his debut on the West end in the play Cornelius. At the time he was billed as Derek Bogaerde. It would also be in 1939 that he would make his film debut, in an uncredited role as an extra in Come On George (1939). His acting career would be interrupted by World War II, in which he served in the Queen's Royal Regiment. Following the war, he returned to acting. It would be his agent who give him the name by which he would become known, "Dirk Bogarde." He was signed by the Rank Organisation, but it would be Wessex Films which would give him his first leading role. Stuart Granger had been set to star in Sin of Esther Waters. Mr. Granger would drop out of the production, after which Wessex Films cast Sir Dirk Bogarde in the role. Following Sin of Esther Waters the Rank Organisation signed Sir Dirk Bogarde to a long term contract.

Sir Dirk Bogarde would play a number of different roles for the Rank Organisation, but it would be the comedy Doctor in the House (1954) which would make him a star. The first of the "Doctor" series, Mr. Bogarde played Simon Sparrow, a role he would reprise in three more films. Appearing in such films as The Sleeping Tiger (1954),  A Tale of Two Cities (1958) , and Libel (1959), he became a major star in the United Kingdom, the number one box office draw of the Fifties in that country. He would continue with a string of successes in the Sixties, becoming one of the most respected actors in the world.

Sir Dirk Bogarde's success was most like due to his skill as an actor. It is true that he was a handsome leading man type. Indeed, when people think of a Dirk Bogarde character, it is a charming, sophisticated Englishman that is most likely to come to mind. That having been said, throughout his career Sir Dirk Bogarde played a variety of roles, many as different from each other as night and day. While he became known for playing the charming Dr. Simon Sparrow in the "Doctor" series, Sir Dirk Bogarde was capable of playing characters who were not at all likeable. This is most obvious in The Night Porter (1974), in which he played a former and still quite sadistic S.S. officer. He would also play a rather sadistic Nazi in the controversial film The Damned (1969). Here it must be pointed out that while these characters are not at all likeable, they are hardly cardboard villains. Like any other character, Sir Dirk Bogarde made them three dimensional. Indeed, Sir Dirk Bogarde could go from likeable to somewhat unlikeable in the course of one film. The Mind Benders (1963) features one of his most impressive performances. While Dr. Henry Longman is a fairly likeable fellow at the beginning of the film, he is not quite so likeable by the film's end (I cannot say more without spoiling the plot).

While Sir Dirk Bogarde is often regarded as a British Cary Grant or a British Rock Hudson, he was quite capable of playing the average Englishman. In the comedy Hot Enough for June (1964) he played Nicholas Whistler, who is not only a rather average Englishman but something of a slacker. When he finds himself in the middle of spy intrigue, he does not suddenly develop skills he did not realise he had, but instead reacts as the average person would--that is, he is bewildered, confused, and scared. In Accident (1967) Sir Dirk Bogarde played an Oxford professor going through a mid-life crisis. Sir Dirk Bogarde could quite as easily play such average Englishmen as he could the more villainous or heroic types.

Of course, Sir Dirk Bogarde played his fair share of heroes. Perhaps none is more notable than Sydney Carton in the 1958 version of A Tale of Two Cities. Here Sir Dirk Bogarde plays a man who was something of a reprobate and slacker, but who in the end finds it in himself to make the ultimate sacrifice. While Ronald Colman had played Carton in 1935 version, arguably Sir Dirk Bogarde's Sidney Carton is the most impressive. In The Password is Courage played Sergeant Major Charles Coward, a real life British officer who plotted an escape from a German prisoner of war camp during World War II.

Here it must be pointed out that Sir Dirk Bogarde was not only an actor. In later years he would also become a successful author. Starting with A Postillion Struck by Lightning, Sir Dirk Bogarde wrote several memoirs and autobiographies. In 1980 his first novel, A Gentle Occupation, would be published. It would be followed by five more.

Sir Dirk Bogarde was an extremely talented and versatile actor, who played a wide variety of roles in his lifetime. He was also a successful writer and novelist, proving that he had more talents than acting. It is a shame that he is not better known in the United States, as I rather suspect he was more talented than many better known actors here. Few actors could play a heroic figure in one film, a base villain in another, and an average bloke in yet another. Sir Dirk Bogarde played them all.

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