Gay Icons Afterthought: Was He the Most Beautiful Boy in the World?

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Gay Icons Afterthought: Was He the Most Beautiful Boy in the World?

Post by fountainhall » Fri Dec 21, 2018 9:02 am

Out of the early morning darkness a steamer slowly emerges from the mist, its single chimney belching out thick black smoke. On the soundtrack we hear the start of the hauntingly beautiful Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. During this long opening shot, the camera follows the steamer as the sky gently lightens. Eventually the director cuts to a fifty-ish figure wrapped up on deck seemingly unsure of what the he is doing and what the future will bring. Soon we realise he is sailing into the fabled city of Venice. This successful, widowed and disciplined composer whose life has been a constant search for the expression of beauty in music, has lost his muse. He has come to Venice to re-find both himself and that beauty.

As the film unfolds, he does indeed find both, but in such an unexpected manner it will so change and unbalance his life that reason abandons him. On a lonely beach in front of his hotel on Venice’s Lido, hideously made-up to appear more youthful, he eases into a deckchair. Before him wading slowly into the calm, sunlit, shimmering water is the silhouetted vision that embodies the beauty he has discovered. He tries to reach out, but his heart gives out. He slumps to his side. He dies alone in the afternoon summer heat, dressed in a three-piece white suit, a pale orange rose in his buttonhole, his lips painted red, black hair dye streaking down his cheek as the strains of the lovely Adagietto come to an end.

The film is the 1970 adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella “Death in Venice” by the great Italian director Luchino Visconti. The lead role of the composer, Gustav von Aschenbach, is played by British actor, Dirk Bogarde. The vision he has seen, that essence of beauty, is in the form of a tall, slim, mid-teens beautiful boy with flowing golden hair named Tadzio.


At first glance the film appears to be about love, the love that grows in an older man for the beauty of a younger. In essence, though, it is much more about aging, loss, loneliness and decay. Von Aschenbach can no more accept his decay as a composer than he can growing old. And the older man that he now is can not accept the loneliness he knows he will feel if Tazio is no longer part of this new world. That, I think, is what is condensed into that last lingering scene.

When the film was released, many gays gasped at the sight of the 15-year old Swedish actor, Björn Andrésen. Was it any wonder that Aschenbach was smitten by him? Who wouldn’t be?

Visconti conducting the audition with Björn Andrésen (unfortunately only with Japanese subtitles!)

“Death in Venice” was soon being screened around the world. In Japan, Andrésen was sought after for a series of television commercials and was mobbed almost as the Beatles had been mobbed just a few years earlier. It is claimed that he was one reason why many anime artists changed their depictions young men and made them more effeminate.

Immediately most assumed Andrésen had to be gay. After all, for years it had been known that Visconti was gay. Within the business, the rumours were that the unmarried Dirk Bogarde was gay (after his death it was revealed he was indeed gay and had a life partner). Most of the crew working on the movie were gay. During the year’s search to find the right actor to play the role, surely Visconti would lean towards a young gay man?

In the Thomas Mann original, Tadzio represents merely a Platonic ideal of beauty. Visconti changes that in his movie. He makes Tadzio such a beautiful boy it is as though he has just walked out of a Botticelli painting. Aschenbach clearly looks at Tadzio with an increasingly intense, if initially misunderstood, passion. The camera lingers as he first sees Tadzio join his aristocratic Polish family in the hotel dining room. Eventually, Tadzio looks back at him, the look extending a little too long. Several times during the film Tadzio has a habit of placing one hand on a hip that has just a hint of camp about it.

Björn Andrésen as Tadzio

Eventually Achenbach cannot avoid close contact with the boy when they walk towards each other in the hotel corridor. As they pass, Tadzio turns to the older man. Here and in other scenes there is the faint glimpse of a “come hither” look. After deciding not to leave Venice in the face of a growing cholera epidemic, Aschenbach returns to the hotel. He meets Tadzio again on the beach when the boy is swinging between the poles of an awning. Yet again Visconti has Tadzio pause and look directly, almost knowingly, at Achenbach who in turn cannot draw himself away.

In yet another scene he tries to persuade the mother to take her family away from Venice because of the epidemic. In doing so he slowly stretches out his hand towards the boy’s head, stopping just before actually touching his hair. All the hints seem just a little too obvious.

Scenes from “Death in Venice”[/youtube]

But this most beautiful boy was confused when making the movie, for Andrésen was not and never has been gay. He often said that “Death in Venice” destroyed his film career, so identified had be become as a homosexual youth. He talked of his discomfort at the looks he got from older men when Visconti took him and the film crew to a gay bar.

“The waiters at the club made me feel very uncomfortable. They looked at me uncompromisingly as if I was a nice meaty dish.”

Being immortalised as a beautiful boy became more of a curse. "I felt like an exotic animal in a cage," he says. And because it happened so early in his life, it distorted all his experience for years afterwards. "Even today," he said in an interview 16 years ago, "I don't know how to flirt. When you have only to snap your fingers... there's a lot of social training you miss out on as a celebrity."

Despite that concern over the gay label, he revealed to El Mundo Magazine that he did have one gay experience later in the decade.

"People were discovering the gay thing and then in the world of entertainment homosexuals became very popular in Sweden. It seemed very modern, something that was fashionable. I think we have to try everything. I did it more or less to say that I'd tried it, but it's not really my cup of tea."

Copyright: Warner Bros

After “Death in Venice” his career as a young actor declined, partly through mismanagement by his agent. His desire had always been to become a musician. Classically trained he can play a piano concerto when required but rock music was his love. For decades he struggled in a rock band and playing occasional parts on stage. He lived in Stockholm with his wife and daughter, but tragedy has dogged him. He lost a young son to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. As a result his hitherto happy marriage broke up. Eventually he was reunited with his wife and daughter. In 2003 he was particularly incensed when Germaine Greer published a book titled “The Beautiful Boy” with his photo on the front without first obtaining his permission. Although she had obtained approval from the photographer, Andrésen was shocked she had not consulted him. Had she done so, he would not have approved, he says adamantly. It is as though he is doomed forever to remain “the beautiful boy”.

Now at 63 he has adopted the look much more of a hippy than a man content at leaving middle age. For the world at large, though, he will forever remain a vision of a certain type of young male beauty.

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Re: Gay Icons Afterthought: Was He the Most Beautiful Boy in the World?

Post by ceejay » Thu Dec 27, 2018 3:39 pm

Actually, I was the most beautiful boy in the world. My mother told me (and everyone else) so.

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Re: Gay Icons Afterthought: Was He the Most Beautiful Boy in the World?

Post by windwalker » Thu Dec 27, 2018 6:16 pm

What, ceejay? My mother told me I was the most beautiful boy!

I do recall a critic of Death in Venice referring to Tadzio as a "street hustler" or something similar, the way he played Achenbach.

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Re: Gay Icons Afterthought: Was He the Most Beautiful Boy in the World?

Post by Gaybutton » Thu Dec 27, 2018 7:23 pm

You gents were fortunate. Me - well . . . see the following:

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