“The endless theme of my life is my longing for love. I just can’t get enough love.”
TRQ: Helmut Berger, Born May 29, 1944
Actor Helmut Berger, famous for his portrayals of androgynous and sexually ambiguous characters in European films, was born in Bad Ischl, Austria. He grew up in Salzburg and after high school, moved to London so that he could pursue his acting career.
In London Berger worked part-time jobs and enrolled in drama classes. Soon he appeared in commercials and fashion shoots. However, it was once Berger moved to Italy in 1964 that he met director Lucino Visconti, who had recently made Vaghe Stelle Dell. Young and strikingly attractive, Berger captivated Visconti and was invited to live with the director the day after they met. Personally and professionally, Berger’s life would be forever impacted by Visconti.
Berger immediately became the center of Visconti’s work, and his first role was in the Le streghe (The Witches, 1967). Despite publicly proclaiming his bisexuality, Berger initially kept his relationship with Visconti private to undermine the rumours that the relationship was one of convenience or based on the young actor’s career ambitions. Friend and lover, Visconti over time also became Berger’s teacher. Under his guidance, Berger learned to speak fluently in English, was exposed to the worlds of art and literature. He met the conductor Leonard Bernstein, opera singer Maria Callas, as well as models and musicians. He had an affair with ballet dancer Nudolf Nurejew after meeting him, but refused to leave Visconti for the dancer.
In 1969 Berger gained recognition for his role in The Damned as the gay character Martin von Essenbeck, heir to a manufacturing fortune in Nazi Germany who also happens to perform in drag as Marlene Dietrich and have orgies with Nazi soldiers. Berger’s performance in a film that focused on sexuality and politics, that was also based on the real-life Krupp family, made him a star, earning him a Gold Globe nomination.
Berger followed with the title role in an adaption of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray (1970). That same year, he became the first man to make the cover of Vogue and he played the lead in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which went on to win an Oscar. In 1972, Berger played Ludwig II of Bavaria in Visconti’s Ludwig, which is generally considered a career- defining role. His ability to portray psychological complexity earned praise from both audiences and critics.
He started working with famous photographers such as Andy Warhol, Helmut Newton, Mary Ellen Mark and David Bailey. By 1973, Berger was acting in films alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Henry Fonda, in Ash Wednesday. In 1974, Berger joined Burt Lancaster in Visconti’s Conversation Piece, a film echoing the relationship he had with Visconti. Sadly, this would be Berger’s last movie with Visconti, who was already in deteriorating health during the making of the movie. Visconti died in 1976. Berger would later name this film as his favorite.
One year after Visconti’s death, Berger attempted suicide, which he had planned in preparation for the anniversary of his partner’s death. He was found by his cleaning lady and just barely survived. Berger turned to drugs and alcohol, and has said that he had never fallen in love with anyone after Visconti.
During the 1980’s Berger worked primarily in small television roles, but in 1990 he re- emerged in The Godfather Part III. Two years later he appeared in Madonna’s controversial Sex book and the accompanying “Erotica” music video.
At the time Madonna claimed that “I think androgyny, whether it’s David Bowie or Helmut Berger, has really influenced my work more than anything.”
Afterwards Berger continues to retreat from view both privately and professionally, though he did release his autobiography, Helmut Berger – Ich, die Autobiografie in 1998. In the book he claims to have had affairs with not only Nureyev, but also Linda Blair, Jerry Hall, Bianca and Mick Jagger. In 2014 he appeared in the Saint Laurent, a film biography of the fashion designer directed by Bertrand Bonello.