February 17, 1934– Alan Bates:
“I think actors are privileged. Acting feeds you.”
My little 15-year-old brain simply fried after seeing Ken Russell’s adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s 1920 novel, Women In Love (1969). I had caught it at a movie theatre in Spokane, along with my high school theatre nerd friend, Richard, and on the trip home we couldn’t speak. Back at his place, alone together in his room, we discussed how the film had changed our minds about so many things, and we swore in that moment that we would adopt the clothing and affectations of the British Edwardians, and that we would each find a way to somehow wrestle naked with a beautiful hairy man by firelight.
Women In Love explores the hearts and minds, personalities and philosophies, of four intelligent, educated young people at the beginning of 20th century, and their romantic relationships, heterosexual and homosexual, plus themes of friendship, love and desire. I experienced the film several times in the theatre. I played a certain scene over and over in my head, and I could never quite erase the images. Oliver Reed and Bates seemed like excellent choices for a new hobby, Nude Wrestling With British Film Stars.
Women In Love is a powerful film with very strong homoerotic undertones. It was also one of the first films to boldly show full frontal male nudity. The plot subtly hints at a strong “special” relationship between the two leading male characters, Gerald and Rupert. That very physical wrestling scene continues for almost full five minutes with both men wearing absolutely nothing! I will always be grateful to Russell, Bates and Reed for that. At 15-years-old, this was quite interesting and definitely strange to me, but certainly memorable, an added twist to an already curiously beguiling film. In an interesting tid-bit, the Academy Award nominated screenplay was written by Gay Hero, Larry Kramer, author of The Normal Heart and one of my favorite human beings.
Soon after graduating from the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in 1956, Bates made his stage debut in the West End production of John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger, a role which made him a star. Four years later, he had his first film role in The Entertainer opposite no less than Laurence Olivier. He soon starred in films like Whistle Down The Wind (1961), King Of Hearts (1966), and The Fixer (1968), which brought him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Yesterday’s #BornThisDay Honoree, John Schlesinger, directed Bates in some great performances: A Kind Of Loving (1962), Far From The Madding Crowd (1967), and An Englishman Abroad (1983), a rather perfect television film in which Bates portrays real life English spy, Guy Burgess. Bates worked in many genres: Comedies, Dramas, Rom-Coms, Musicals, Period Pieces, and starred in such disparate fare as: Georgy Girl (1966), Zorba The Greek (1964), The Go-Between (1970), An Unmarried Woman (1977), and he was crazy good opposite Bette Midler in her screen debut, The Rose (1977).
Bates worked on stage, screen, and television in a career that lasted 45 years. I saw him on stage in the Broadway production of Simon Gray’s rather dark comedy Butley (1971) opposite Jessica Tandy, where he is astonishing as a gay English professor who finds his life crumbling around him. The script contained a favorite line:
“I’m a one-woman man, and I’ve had mine, thank God”.
Bates had a long working relationship with the plays of Gray, appearing in the author’s productions of Otherwise Engaged (1975), Stage Struck (1979), and Life Support (1997), plus the film version of Butley (1974) directed by Harold Pinter. Bates was also a frequent collaborator and premier interpreter of the works of Pinter, including the original casts of The Caretaker (1960), The Collection (1962), and One for The Road (1985).
Besides Butley, he played gay characters in 1983 revival of Osborne’s A Patriot For Me, and on screen as Mr. Jennings in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001), Sergei Diaghilev in Nijinsky (1980), and as writer J.R. Ackerley in We Think The World Of You (1988)
Bates was married to fellow actor Victoria Ward from 1970 until her death in 1992. They had twin sons born in 1971: Benedick, an actor, and Tristan. Tristan died from a heroin overdose in 1990 when he was just 19-years-old while in Tokyo on a modeling job. Bates blamed his son’s addiction and death on his absences while filming, and he grieved terribly, never quite recovering.
Bates had numerous, often tortured, relationships with other men during his life, including a long affair with Olympic skater, John Curry. Curry died in Bates’ arms, gone from HIV in 1994. Bates rigorously avoided questions about his personal life in interviews. He worked hard at his image as a ladies’ man, but in fact he had sexual relationships with many of the male actors that he worked with.
Tellingly, his sexual liaisons began around the time that he rolled around in front of that roaring fire with Oliver Reed. The first was with 25-year-old actor Nickolas Grace, an affair which began in 1971 when Bates was 37-years-old and they appeared together in a production of Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Grace wrote:
“We were very close and very loving in an intense affair that was one of the most important relationships of my life.”
So close, that Grace even became a good friend to Bate’s wife and the children. Their affair lasted a decade.
In 1982, Bates had been introduced at a party to a 22-year-old artist, Gerard Hastings. Their attraction was immediate. At first, they met only occasion, enjoying their assignations in a rented room near Bates’s London home. Bates was never able to tell his sons the truth about their relationship, even though Hastings helped the twins with their homework and played games with them. His intense romance with their father lasted for five years. Hastings:
“He appreciated women for companionship and men for sexual fulfillment. His erotic fantasies mainly involved men. He called attractive young men ‘haunches of venison’, for example. Yet sometimes, oddly, he seemed to feel very uncomfortable about his sexuality, and felt it necessary to reaffirm his masculinity, or his idea of masculinity. He actually turned to me one day and said, ‘Of course, you know I’m not gay’. By this, I don’t think he meant that he was bisexual, but that he did not consider his homosexual tendencies as homosexual per se, just as sexual escapades. He hated being categorized. As a result, Alan could be very hypocritical about his sexuality, and eventually this didn’t help us.”
In 2003, Bates took his final curtain call, gone from that fucking cancer at 69-years-old; the same age that cancer took David Bowie and Alan Rickman last year.
I have always been a fan of Bates’ rumpled, malleable features, and his explosive versatility. Bates was an impossibly beautiful and talented man. Ten of my favorites of his performances on film:
The Caretaker (1963)
The Three Sisters (1969)
Separate Tables (1982)
We Think The World Of You (1988)
The Cherry Orchard (1999)
Duet For One (1986)
Hard Times (1994)
Zorba The Greek (1964)
King Of Hearts (1966)
Gosford Park (2001)
For more information try: Otherwise Engaged: The Life Of Alan Bates (2007) by Donald Spoto.