theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Film star, Shakespearean actor and director John Fraser, is perhaps most widely known for his highly-praised portrayal of Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) in the movie The Trials of Oscar Wilde opposite Peter Finch’s Oscar. It is some years since he made a major movie and, as he himself points out, despite roles in international block-busters he was never a major star on the Hollywood scene. Nevertheless, at the recent launch of Close Up, his new volume of biography, with a platform presentation at the National Theatre, he drew a full house with people clamouring for returns, and at the reception subsequently, a huge queue waited for him to sign their copies, making it impossible for me to talk to him afterwards. Instead he invited me to visit it him in the attractive Holland Park flat which his partner Rod, a painter originally from South Africa, keeps on in London. This is their London base, though they now both spend most of the year in Italy.
Although the glamorous film star looks have matured in the intervening decades, Fraser has lost none of his charm in the passing years, and his eyes still have a wicked twinkle. He has already been a pensioner for some years but he rejects the idea of retirement. Nonetheless, he takes life at an easy pace these days in his Italian hillside and it is some time since he has appeared in a play or movie. He has enjoyed a very successful career, thank you very much! he says — and the emphasis, I think, is very much on ‘enjoyed’. He is not looking for work, and now does not even have a theatrical agent, but that does not mean he is not open to offers should the right ones come along. Mind you, they would have to be good ones, like the schoolteacher role his friend Richard Griffiths is currently playing in Bennett’s The History Boys at the National Theatre.
But, he modestly suggests, he’s no longer the sort of well-known box-office name that today’s managements and directors would think of. Tell that to the fans who were queuing up to buy his book and get him to sign it! But he is not pining to be yet another King Lear and there are no regrets about parts unplayed; he is now happy putting his creativity into writing. It does not demand early morning calls at distant studios, gruelling tours or long runs and can be leisurely pursued from the comfort of his house and garden. With five books now behind him he is already at work on two others.
Although it was films that brought him more money — though not that much: you don’t have to be a millionaire to live in Italy — it was his theatre work that brought him most satisfaction, especially the annual tours taking Shakespeare overseas, which he led for fifteen years as actor and director with Gary Raymond and Delena Kidd. These provided him with some of his favourite roles: Malvolio, Shylock, Polonius, for instance.
Playing to audiences who might like the sound of Shakespeare but have a refined command of English, it was not appropriate to offer bare boards productions — yet they toured with the whole show packed into a couple of trunks. He is proud of the way in which they were lavishly costumed and would create a colourful and evocative set with a bamboo revolve, poles, and swathes of multi-hued silks. In an earlier book, The Bard in the Bush, Fraser described one tour to Africa, and his new volume of autobiography includes more stories of the London Shakespeare Group in Japan, China (where every ticket sold for their Twelfth Night, 10,000 having to be turned away), India, Malaysia and Iraq as well as Africa and Europe. This travelling company of friends worked together for low and equal remuneration, an echo of the basically socialist principles to which Fraser has adhered throughout his life.
Despite playing leading roles in movies with such international stars as Hedy Lamar, Bette Davis, and Sophia Loren, Fraser is not the kind of person to have been happy as part of the Hollywood glitterati, however easily he may have moved among them. Nevertheless, it was as a handsome young film star that he initially made his mark and this brought problems with it.
As a young man Fraser realized that he was attracted to other men at a time when in Britain homosexual acts were illegal. In these more liberal times it may be difficult for younger people to understand just how difficult that could make life. It was not a sense of guilt that made Fraser wish he was not gay: in those days schoolboys grew up being told that ALL sex was sinful, and masturbation sure to lead to blindness if not insanity. Marriage and even then a degree of continence were expected of the respectable. I’m sure that when he became a young actor, he must have found more tolerant attitudes and others with his predilections in theatre companies; but it is worth remembering that actor-manager Donald Wolfit was not alone in declaring that he would never employ a poofter in his company. (How could he have been so blind when there were several there already and one, to my knowledge, far from reticent about it.)
Of course, some gay men were known to and open with each other and some of their straight friends were no doubt aware of their orientation. Some well know personalities were widely known to be gay, at least within the profession, and there was often gossip about others, but discretion was always essential — after all, you did not want to end up in jail. In the 1950s, in Britain and the USA, there were anti-gay witch-hunts with several well-publicized cases, among them the recently knighted John Gielgud. For a young star being groomed for his looks and appeal to women, even a whiff of swinging the other way could have been professionally damaging and alienated not only Hollywood and the British film moguls to whom he was now under contract, but the large female audience to which he was essentially appealing.
Fraser went so far as to consult a psychiatrist in the hope of changing his orientation. After all, he liked women; he just wasn’t keen on going to bed with them. He made the effort (and can be very funny about these fumbled experiments) but had to resign himself to being what, in those days, was often called ‘a confirmed bachelor. Singledom was not something he wanted. He had already had a first deeply loving and very happy relationship but it was unthinkable that they could set up home together. In those days it would have been impossible to ‘come out,’ and even today he does not think that anyone should be unwillingly outed. Indeed, he points out that even someone now so actively and publicly gay as Sir Ian McKellen did not declare himself until his career was well past that of the good-looking jeune première and he had moved on to mature roles.
He is, however, highly critical of those who actively and unnecessarily deny their sexuality and especially of Dirk Bogarde, whom he knew well, and of whom he writes revealingly in his book. Bogarde persistently denied that he was homosexual and in so doing, and this is what annoys Fraser, denied his close and loving relationship with Tony Forwood, his partner for many years whom he never publicly acknowledged as anything more than his business manager, although Forwood had left a wife and children to be with him.
About his own sexuality Fraser is now totally open and he writes about his loves as a natural part of his life. He has no regrets about what he says about Bogarde but was in two minds as to whether he should reveal details of his relationship with Rudolph Nureyev, especially since Nureyev is no longer here to give his side of the story. He is equally honest when writing about his other lovers, though he does not always give their real names and told me there is one major relationship he has omitted because they would be too easily identifiable and might be embarrassed at it being made public. As for his life today: he and his painter partner have now been together for twenty-seven years — a solid relationship that is still going strong. I was introduced to the equally delightful Rod before I left and I am not surprised that they make such a good partnership. That we should all be so lucky!
Howard Loxton © 2004
Originally published on R&V on 12-12-04
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