‘Death in Venice screwed up my life’ – the tragic story of Visconti’s ‘beautiful boy’
Björn Andrésen was the striking child star of the classic film, the perfect embodiment of youthful beauty. Fifty years on, he is still haunted by the exploitation that continued long after filming stopped
Thu 15 Jul 2021 06.00 BST
Björn Andrésen was just 15 when he walked straight into the lion’s den, being cast as Tadzio, the sailor-suited object of desire in Luchino Visconti’s film Death in Venice. Its release in 1971 made him not merely a star but an instant icon – the embodiment of pristine youthful beauty. Sitting alone in Stockholm today at the age of 66, he looks more like Gandalf with his white beard and his gaunt face framed by shoulder-length white locks. His eyes twinkle as alluringly as ever but he’s no pussycat. Asked what he would say to Visconti if he were here now, he doesn’t pause. “Fuck off,” he says.
No one who sees The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, a new documentary about Andrésen’s turbulent and tragic past, will be surprised by that answer. Visconti, he tells me, “didn’t give a fuck” about his feelings. He wasn’t alone in that. “I’ve never seen so many fascists and assholes as there are in film and theatre,” says Andrésen. “Luchino was the sort of cultural predator who would sacrifice anything or anyone for the work.” He makes his feelings about Death in Venice itself equally plain: “It has screwed up my life quite decently.” Although he is an accomplished pianist, no one seems very interested in that side of him. “Everything I ever do will be associated with that film. I mean, we’re still sitting here talking about it 50 years later.”
The documentary includes footage of his audition, where he looks angelic but intimidated, not least when Visconti’s interest in him becomes suddenly inflamed. The director issues a string of escalating demands: smile, walk round the room, remove your top. At that last one, the young Andrésen lets slip a nervous laugh, wondering if he has misheard. Soon, though, he is down to his trunks, shifting awkwardly as Visconti and his assistants evaluate his body.
When he strolled into that audition, he was no stranger to the camera. His grandmother, who was raising him after the death of his single mother four years earlier, was a regular Mrs Worthington, dispatching him to auditions practically as soon as he could walk. He is happy to have starred in Roy Andersson’s 1970 debut A Swedish Love Story (“I was there at the start of his career!”) and wasn’t too perturbed making Death in Venice. “It was a cool summer job,” he says. It also sounds incredibly lonely. Visconti was an imposing figure who warned the crew to keep their hands off the boy during shooting, then dragged him off to a gay club after filming had finished.
Andrésen’s relationship with Dirk Bogarde – who played the ageing composer smitten with him – was nothing more than “neutral”. In his 1983 memoir An Orderly Man, Bogarde described him with a mixture of fascination and pity. “He had an almost mystic beauty,” he wrote. To preserve Andrésen’s complexion and poise, “he was never allowed to go into the sun, kick a football about with his companions, swim in the polluted sea, or do anything which might have given him the smallest degree of pleasure … He suffered it all splendidly.”
It felt like a swarm of bats around me – it was a living nightmare
Bogarde’s one complaint concerned the “slabs of black bubble gum which he would blow into prodigious bubbles until they exploded all over his face.” Andrésen shrugs at the detail: “I don’t remember that.”
The late actor got at least one point right: “The last thing that Björn ever wanted, I am certain, was to be in movies.” If Andrésen didn’t already feel that way, the hoopla surrounding Death in Venice convinced him. The London gala premiere, at which he met the Queen and Princess Anne, was a breeze compared with the film’s unveiling at the Cannes film festival, where he was mobbed by carnivorous crowds. “It felt like swarms of bats around me,” he recalls in the documentary. “It was a living nightmare.”
For Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri, the directors of The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, the footage from the Cannes press conference was uniquely revealing. The assembled hacks are shown laughing obsequiously at Visconti’s jokes about Andrésen losing his looks. The young man simply appears bewildered. “There was no compassion or empathy,” says Lindström. “He had the feeling of being used,” Petri adds. “He was packaged as an object.”
Andrésen agrees. “I don’t think it’s ethically defensible to let a 16-year-old bear the burden of advertising the damn film,” he says. “Especially not when you come back to school and you hear, ‘Hi there, angel lips.’ A guy who’s in the middle of his own teenage hormone tempest doesn’t want to be called ‘beautiful’.” He thinks the adoration inhibited his development. “When you snap your fingers and you’ve got 10 chicks running after you, there’s no need to learn any social skills for dealing with the opposite sex.”
Worse was to come. In Japan, Andrésen was dragooned into public appearances and musical turns, and plied with pills to help him survive the punishing schedule. In his early 20s, he found himself in Paris on the promise of an acting job. He was installed in an apartment by an older man and paid a generous stipend. Meals and gifts came his way from assorted male admirers; one composed love poems in his honour. The film is cagey about what happened during that year in Paris. “He didn’t talk about it,” says Petri, “and we didn’t want to dig any further than was necessary. He does say now that he doesn’t regret much, except for his time in Paris.”
There is a pervasive, necessary sadness to the documentary: we see Andrésen discovering details about his mother’s suicide, and reflecting on the death of one of his own children. But what endures is its subject’s dry humour and buoyant, philosophical spirit. He is also a generous soul: though the movie makes clear that there was a dereliction of duty on his grandmother’s part, he is reluctant to add to the criticism. “Maybe she wasn’t the sharpest blade in the box,” he tells me. “But I got over it. I don’t have any demons left. I kicked them all out. I haven’t had a demon since …” He thinks for a moment. “1992.”
He can pinpoint it that specifically? “Yes. I was sitting in my kitchen and they hopped out one by one. I gave them name and number and said, ‘You’re fired.’ ‘What?’ ‘You heard me.’ And that was it.” He claps his hands together briskly as if wiping them free of dust and dirt. What did the demons represent? “All kinds of anxieties and horrors and memories. I still have the memories but they don’t frighten me. I’m scared of very little these days. Too old for that.”
Andrésen is pleased with The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, if perhaps foggy on his reasons for agreeing to it, other than his friendship with the film-makers. “I’m not after attention,” he says. “I got an overdose of that 50 years ago.” The directors have their own ideas about why he let them follow him for the six years it took to make the picture. “After being a public figure for so long, I think it was nice for him to take back the story of his life,” says Petri. “We didn’t want Visconti experts or other talking heads discussing him.” Lindström nods enthusiastically: “I think Björn also liked that we wanted to do a cinematic film, and to do it beautifully, like Death in Venice.”
Andrésen is still acting, and still insisting it’s not the life he chose, though he did tell Lindström recently: “OK, I’m an actor.” She smiles at that: “At 66, he finally said it!” He had a memorable role three years ago in Midsommar, as an elderly man who sacrifices himself at a pagan ceremony: he jumps off a cliff, then a bystander finishes the job by smashing his head with a mallet. “Being killed in a horror movie is every boy’s dream,” he laughs. It seems like a supremely perverse joke – to take the face that has bewitched millions of viewers and then destroy it. Perhaps The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is doing something similar, minus the mallet. Its message is clear: Tadzio is dead. Long live Björn Andréson.
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is in cinemas 30 July