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Bogarde and Losey: Not-Camp Pioneers

Bogarde and Losey: Not-Camp Pioneers

Innuendo was never more enticing—or complex—than in Accident, the 1967 Joseph Losey film starring Dirk Bogarde. Those two names should be catnip to gay filmgoers precisely for Losey and Bogarde’s sly and intense exploration of sexual undercurrents in masculine relationships. Gentlemen of a cautious generation, they were also artistes who detested blatancy and so gave cinema some of its most fascinating—scintillating—depictions of eroticism. They could even eroticize a tea kettle—as when Bogarde playing Stephen, a seething, angry philosophy prof, helps his wife (Vivien Merchant) prepare tea for a trio of visitors (Stanley Baker, Jacqueline Sassard, Michael York) to their secluded manor.

You should know Losey and Bogarde as pioneers of an inquiring, groundbreaking sensibility that unnerved the status quo before the civilized world got used to the term “queer.”

Accident followed Losey and Bogarde’s 1964 art house hit The Servant, which analyzed the power struggle between a British aristocrat (toothsome James Fox) and his climbing, conniving employee (Bogarde). It was a role-play classic from a top-form script by Harold Pinter, then newly celebrated for contributing sarcasm, ambiguity and verbal danger to modern British theater drama. Pinter didn’t compose outright comedy but found an ideal cinematic wit in Losey, an American expatriate whose European exile (somewhat between Stanley Kubrick and Richard Lester) and eccentric worldview was ideally expressed through the affectation of British attitude and styles of behavior.

The great Dirk Bogarde was Losey’s perfect interpreter—formerly a matinee idol to postwar female moviegoers attracted by his debonair dark-haired refinement and to males for the intellectual aggression inside his discrete manner. Bogarde was the forerunner of the ambisexual stud popularized by British Glam Rock—the model for David Bowie’s entire film career yet with the suavity of Gary Grant (or what “enlightened” fans thought to be the real Cary Grant, Grant of the innuendo.)

As an alternative to the Brando-inspired brute realism of British kitchen-sink dramas, Bogarde, Losey, and Pinter effected class critique via the nation’s stifled sexual impulses. Accident looks coolly at uncontained emotions among the educated classes: three men pursuing an exotic woman and challenging each other’s masculinity. The uncanny casting pits self-conscious Bogarde against his virile colleague Baker (who has Morrissey’s drawn mouth and vicious tongue) and both older gents against young student York, a ripe, nearly androgynous and deeply envied innocent. (“He really is a magnificent athlete that boy.”)

Bogarde’s Stephen has sold-out; dishonest with whomever he competes, except himself. Losey reveals his misery in an extraordinary scene of Bogarde walking through his house, ending up in a bathroom, draining the tub and squeezing a washcloth as though an attendant at his own class’ debauchery. His subtly shocking self-reproach is nearly as moving as what Bogarde later portrayed for Visconti in Death in Venice. Bogarde mastered the lost conscientious art of insinuation.

Insinuation was never so tepid as in the modern sexual confusion of the new teen sex drama Palo Alto with its puerile sexual openness, a world away from the closeted values of Accident but similarly fine. Based on a short story collection by James Franco and directed by Gia Coppola (Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter), Palo Alto is, strangely, a product of modern sexual tease. Not just post-Innuendo, it shows teenagers floundering in post-Stonewall, post-sexual liberation confusion. Gia Coppola’s sensitivity is not refined like Losey’s but she makes Franco’s often inscrutable, often puerile suggestiveness seem genuine.

The male sexual tension of macho Baker winking at effete Bogarde to acknowledge their wanton familiarity is coarsely updated when Palo Alto’s skateboarders (Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff) fight-off sexual advances from a stoned adult (Chris Messina) or question a street tough named Skull (Keegan Allen): “What would you rather be: The Pope or Pablo Escobar? Gay or a girl?” The answer is authentically contemporaneous and gender-defensive: “I’m going in, she’s being gotten.”

Palo Alto is worth seeing but it proves our culture left behind whatever it is that makes Accident a not-camp near-masterpiece. No one today can direct comparable sexual undercurrent—sex that expresses spiritual desperation, as in a Daisy Chain reference—a quality that distinguished the Losey, Bogarde, Pinter triumvirate but lost in the era of Girls and Apatow/Franco “frankness.”

Accident makes a comeback this week at New York's Film Forum through May 29 and June 13-19 at Laemmle Theater in Los Angeles. Rialto Pictures tours it nationally for an eventual DVD restoration.

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