Pre-search: Dirk Bogarde in non-contemporaneous writing and the what (sources), why (the importance), and how (methodology) of star studies

I engaged in other pre-search before the Dirk Bogarde collection of magazines arrived.  This involved investigating how much, and in what way, Bogarde appears in written work produced after his main period of stardom. This is not necessary for the cataloguing of the BFI’s collection of magazines and, since it is often retrospective, may in fact cover quite different ground to the contemporaneous material in the collection.  However, contemplating it points out current approaches to Bogarde, as well as highlighting potential gaps that my research can fill. I searched for the keywords ‘Dirk Bogarde’ in the ‘usual’ databases. For me, this comprises Google Scholar, Jstor, Ebsco, Muse, Proquest, as well as the FIAF periodical plus. I also consulted the University of Kent’s Templeman Library catalogue. The academic material on Bogarde ranged from him being centrally placed in a thesis considering his import as a British novelist to smaller mentions in relation to film.  Much of the latter considered Bogarde in the context of British film, and European film, with another key topic being several of the auteurs with whom he worked (e.g. Joseph Losey, Luchino Visconti).

I hope to furnish more detail on, and critical engagement with, these subject areas at a later date, but for now provide a brief outline of the common themes covered in work which focuses on Bogarde in film. Much of this comments on Bogarde’s ‘queerness’ either in relation to his characters, his real-life sexuality, or both. Queer studies is a large, vibrant and complex field of scholarship. Unfortunately, I do not have the space to go into detail about it here, and for now will define ‘queer’ as meaning seemingly non-conformist behaviour in relation to ‘traditional’ views on gender and/or sexuality. Robert Shail’s ‘Masculinity and Visual Representation: A Butlerian Approach to Dirk Bogarde’ in the International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, 6, 1-2 (2001). He examines Bogarde as an important British male star who transitioned successfully from the 1950s into the next decade when masculinity was perceived by some to be in crisis (p. 96). He utilises Judith Butler’s theory on gender construction to especially argue for the importance of her focus on fantasy, ‘masquerade’ and performance (p. 104).  The last aspects allow for a subversion of dominant ideology (p. 105) – i.e. an awareness of the constructed nature of gender means we can question the ‘usual’ view of masculinity proposed in popular culture. Film stars are of course vehicles for conveying to audiences which appearances and behaviours are desirable for them to adopt.  Significantly film stars’ assuming of alternative personalities is routinely highlighted as they are openly acknowledged to, and rewarded because they, pretend to be other people.

Such theatricality is especially cited by John Style’s chapter ‘Sidney Carton – More Faithful to the character than Dickens Himself?’ in Books in Motion: Adaptation, Intertextuality, Authorship (2005). This is in relation to A Tale of Two Cities (1958) as Style claims that this quality conveys the outsider status of Sidney Carton during the French Revolution (p. 83).  Similarly, Bogarde’s ambiguity, leading to interpretations of him as ‘queer’ if not necessarily gay, is said by Glyn Davis to be key to Bogarde’s success in bridging the gap between British and European cinema. In the chapter ‘Trans-Europe Success: Dirk Bogarde’s International Queer Stardom’ (in Queer Cinema in Europe, 2008) Davis he examines The Damned and Death in Venice.  The film Victim (1961) is the most consistently mentioned by all 3 writers, unsurprising given its subject matter and their focus on the matter of what constitutes ‘queer’. In addition, the film is dealt with briefly by Paul McDonald’s chapter ‘Why Study Film Acting?’  in More Than a Method: Trends and Transitions in Contemporary Film Performance (2004). McDonald notes the ‘gentlemanly poise’ Bogarde brings to the role, but highlights a particular explosive moment which plays against this constraint: the moment when Farr admits his homosexual desires to his wife (pp. 33-34).

In addition to detailed scholarly consideration, more mainstream books with wider concerns (and planned to appeal to the general public) are well worth mentioning. These contribute to our view of a star. Broadly speaking these can be separated into two types: those dealing mostly with films and those which attempt to sketch Bogarde’s personality. In the former category, Margaret Hinxman and Susan d’Arcy contributed the picture based and plot summary filled The Films of Dirk Bogarde in 1974. Robert Tanitch’s 1988 Dirk Bogarde: The Complete Career Illustrated also covered his theatre career, television roles, and some of his later film appearances.

The other type of book is the biography. Despite Bogarde’s many volumes of memoirs perhaps signalling his wish to tell his own story, since his death at least 2 biographies have been published: Sheridan Morley’s unauthorised Dirk Bogarde: Rank Outsider (2000) and John Coldstream’s Dirk Bogarde: The Authorised Biography (2004). It is useful to ponder the difference between the authorised and the unauthorised biography, especially since the ‘official’ status of Coldstream’s book is signalled in its title. This is likely to have been approved by Dirk Bogarde’s estate and family. It is perhaps even the case that the writer was given greater cooperation than that available to other writers, able to access personal papers, as well as friends and family. The fact that Coldstream later edited Bogarde’s personal letters can be seen to support this point of view. Having the seal of an authorised biography can be a double-edged sword.  On the one hand it perhaps supplies a writer with more material, and indeed better sales figures since some readers may respond more favourably to a book which has been endorsed by an actor’s estate. On the other, there is also the question of how much control those endorsing a book have over its content.

We should also consider what is included, and what is excluded, in the sources available to those writing about stars: archives. There are a few which relate to Bogarde. Prior to his death, Bogarde deposited his annotated scripts with the BFI and his literary manuscripts (1957 to 1993) to Boston University. The most useful resource, for several reasons, is the official Dirk Bogarde website. This is run by his estate (who gifted the magazine collection to the BFI) and is available to everyone online.  Its website is especially easy to navigate and thoughtfully encompasses the various aspects of Bogarde: Actor, Writer, Artist, Icon. It also includes a personal touch as it seems to be run by a member of Bogarde’s family: his nephew Brock (his father was Bogarde’s younger brother, Gareth). (You can see the page about this on the website here:  Such closeness to the subject of an archive raises some questions as to its objectivity since family member are likely to be more invested in putting across a particularly sympathetic view. This is true of all archives though, few of which are likely to be complete, and which must instead choose which material to keep and to make available. In fact, the Archives section of the official website includes several newspaper articles published after Dirk Bogarde’s death which are not especially complimentary, suggesting it is even-handed.

While similar sources (the what) are often available to both the biographer and the star study scholar (like me!), the intended audience/reader (the why), and our methodology (the how) differ. I’d like to reflect on that a little more as I come to the end of this blog post. Star Studies examines stars to shed light on them as ego ideals (the person we would like to be) and objects of desire (the person we would like to be with) for audiences.  While I like to think that academic work on stars is accessible to all, a star studies scholarship often has a more specific reader in mind – primarily other star studies scholars! It has its own way of doing things, as well as its own terminology, although these are diverse, and innovations are being made all the time.  In relation to terminology, the aspects of a star we see include a star’s ‘screen image’ – the fictional characters they play. It also encompasses the constructed personality of them in ‘real’ life – their ‘star image’ as conveyed by books, magazines, and other materials.  As I have noted in the previous 2 posts, we can never gain access to the ‘real’ person of a star (or indeed to anyone). Biographers, however, attempt to present a coherent view of a person based on various types of evidence regarding facts (date of birth, upbringing, education, career etc) as well as its subject’s opinions on various subjects as giving an insight into the type of person they are or were: happy, sad, funny, generous, selfish, or more likely a complex mix of all these and more.

For stars such an undertaking can be especially difficult. Their very purpose of being an ideal for the audience means that certain less palatable areas of a star’s life may be glossed over in information in the public domain. It also makes financial sense for stars to present as many things to as many people as is possible: a larger audience leads to higher box office for films. This is also aided by the fact there is often a plethora of information – there is not just one view of what a star is.  Star Studies is sometimes criticised for examining stars too closely and reading too much into their significance (both generally and as individuals as we try to pin down a star’s particular appeal). However, the very complex variety of material which circulates about stars, and how readers engage with it, needs to be carefully sifted through.

For me, it is important not just to acknowledge that all archives are partial, but to consider that even if we had access to all information, this will have been accessed and interpreted by diverse people in different ways.  This is affected by the time when people lived, where they lived, and how they lived: for example, did they much disposable time, income, or thought, to spend on entertainment?  Star Studies, while it may home in on a particular aspect, generally treats a star’s career as a whole. One typical (though by no means the only) star journey are supporting roles in early films, a rise to more central roles, stardom during which films were wrought around them, followed by decline.  Coverage in magazine is likely to follow a similar trajectory – small early mentions give way to more prominent appearances and this lessens as a star’s popularity wanes. In relation to Bogarde it is likely that a lasting impression to filmgoers of the time was made by his recurring role as Simon Sparrow in the Doctor series of films. These have not garnered much critical attention, including in relation to Bogarde’s appeal, since, as noted above, much scholarship focused on Victim (1961) and Death in Venice (1971). It is also true that those aware of Bogarde because of his work with Losey, for example, will have a partial view. Though this is more varied as it stretches across the film noir Sleeping Tiger (1954), the unsettling The Servant (1973), the anti-war King & Country (1964), the highly camp Modesty Blaise (1966) and the dramatic Accident (1967). These comments on popularity relates not just to films but to other material like magazines.   Luckily in the internet age we can access many of Bogarde’s films as well as a certain amount of magazine coverage.  We also need to pay attention to how we, as star studies scholars today, interpret material. Our purpose and social backgrounds and awareness are necessarily different from those who watched the films and read the magazines at the time.

Do leave a comment, or email me, Sarah Polley, on to add your thoughts – especially any related to academic work, archives, and star studies.

Next time I’ll write on the final aspect of my pre-search: how best to record the magazines so that I can both provide the BFI with the information required, and is of use to me as a researcher.

(By Dr Sarah Polley)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *