It is always gratifying to come across a film star autobiography which doesn't read like the ghosted soap-opera drivel so many of them turn out to be. Although British film actor Dirk Bograde is not as famous on this side of the Atlantic as some of his peers, he soon may become so, mainly on the basis of his literary output. "Snakes & Ladders," the latest installment of his life story, is a graceful, witty, colorfully detailed rememberance of people, places and experiences. It also is an introspective, thoughtful discussion of acting as a profession, art and industry; of his rise to fame and fortune as one of England's foremost matinee idols, and of his consequent growth and struggle to become a serios film artist.
Unlike so many performers who have been unburdening their souls lately, Bogarde had a happy childhood. This probably is why he calls his second book of memories "Snakes & Ladders" - the children's board game known here as Chutes and Ladders. A game of chance, the term has entered the British vernacular, coming to mean "a life of ups and downs." Especially apt for the life of a film actor. But, the reader senses that for Bogarde, whose life has had countless turnings and many more ups than downs, the title is probably a talisman of his halcyon country childhood, recalled so lovingly in the earlier memoir, "A Postillion Struck by Lightning."
"Snakes & Ladders" spans 30 years, beginning where "Postillion" ends, with his induction at age 19 into the army and World War II. It culminates with two events at age 49 - his creation of the role of Von Aschebach in Thomas Mann's "Death In Venice," under Italian film director Luchino Vosconti, and his relocation from England to a rural life in Provience, France. The pages are filled with vivid conversations, descriptions, character assessments, all attesting to his intense powers of concentration, observation and memory. They also underscore the value of keeping daily journals and writing copious letters.
Born Dirk van den Bogaerde to a photographer-artist father who was art editor of the (London) Times and of Belgian descent, and an ex-actress mother of Scots background, Bogarde became infatuated early with the idea of becoming an actor. This desire never dimmed despite his father's attempts to steer him towards a newspaper career, and despite the army, which put an end to his tenuous toe-hold in the lowest ranks of the Old Vic. Demobilized at 26, he started all over again, cleaning lavatories and painting scenery in off-off-West End theaters.
His word portraits, anecdotes and self-observations of this period are as pithy, amusing, unrelenting and thought-provoking as those of his war years. Clearly, he was stockpiling a wealth of faces, characters, bodies and voices to carry him through the more than 55 films that lay in his future. Clearly, too, his ego, which he admits is, and must be, large in order to function and survive as an actor, is well balanced by a wry self-mocking inner eye.
But, it is the richness of his reflections about his gradual discovery of the anatomy of acting, about his life and the people in it - friends and foe alike - that are the most stimulating, and that credit the reader with more interest in ideas than gossip. The dialogues, the experiences, the vignettes are fascinating: his struggle to survive the war; the shock of experiencing joy in killing; his friendship with Gooley, a cockney hooligan; his poignant relationships with Judy Garland and Kay Kendall; his matchmaking between Alan Jay Lerner and Rex Harrison; his worship of directors Luchino Visconti, Joseph Losey and Lewis Milestone; his attachment to his family.
This is a warm, intelligent, probing, and revealing work occasionally marred by poor editing and confused organization. If one can be a Renaisasance man without being able to drive an automobile, play tennis, understand math, science, mechanics or Morse code, then Dirk Bograde may aspire to such a title. An actor of breadth and versatility, he now proves with this second memoir that his sensitive prose was not a one-shot fluke, and that he is a fine, substantive writer, as well. Furthermore, the pen-and-ink drawings on the inner covers attest to a not inconsiderable artistic talent. Actor, writer, artist, country farmer: one wonders what he will turn out next. Undoubtedly, he will tell us in a third installment.