RICHARD KAY: How stars of both genders were bewitched by Helmut Berger trends now
As an entrance, it was electrifying. Dressed in the androgynous top hat and stockings in the style of Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, he strode on to the screen radiating an erotic and dangerous glamour.
That Helmut Berger’s own life could match the sordid debauchery he brought so vividly to The Damned, the controversial 1969 film which told the story of a German arms manufacturing family and their ties to the rise of the Nazis, was incidental.
In the film, Berger was the heir whose emotional tumult concludes with the rape of his mother and the forced suicide of her lover, played by Dirk Bogarde.
One critic described viewing the catalogue of murder, incest, rape, suicide, transvestism and child molestation as feeling he had ‘spent the afternoon in the reptile house at [London] Zoo’.
Miss Dietrich, however, was thrilled, complimenting Berger, who spent weeks perfecting his impression of her, and sent him a picture of herself inscribed: ‘Who’s prettier? Love Marlene.’
Austrian actor Helmut Berger pictured in 1969
Helmut Berger (right) with English actress Charlotte Rampling (left) in 1984
Uncomfortably for the former screen siren, the answer unquestionably was Berger. With his blue eyes, golden hair and taut, athletic body, the actor who has died aged 78, was dubbed ‘the most beautiful man in the world’. It was a label that was to define him and, ultimately, destroy him.
He was the first man to appear on the cover of Vogue, photographed by David Bailey with his then girlfriend, the actress Marisa Berenson. But appearances were deceptive.
For more than 20 years the Austrian-born star cut a self-destructive swathe through the international jet set, taking lovers of both men and women. Among his more famous liaisons were ones with Rudolf Nureyev, who he found ‘sexually hyper-active’ but whose love of vodka and garlic repelled him, and the film stars Ursula Andress and Britt Ekland, to whom he proposed marriage after her split from Rod Stewart.
His other paramours included Linda Blair, star of The Exorcist; the French model and actress Nathalie Delon (with whom he claimed he enjoyed a threesome with Maria Schneider, the actress later traumatised by her performance in the explicit Last Tango In Paris); and Anita Pallenberg, lover of two Rolling Stones, Keith Richards and Brian Jones.
But along with the sex, there were the drugs. During the 1970s he snorted so much cocaine he commissioned the jewellery house Bulgari to make him a straw out of gold which he wore around his neck on a chain. He also kept a golden razor blade for cutting lines of the drug.
In the world before Aids, Berger was the symbolic figure of bisexual promiscuity. After a ‘wild’ affair with Linda Blair in Hollywood’s louche Chateau Marmont hotel, he confided how he had also had sex with her brother. ‘He seduced me,’ he recalled. ‘It was a great family affair . . . I hope that God will not damn me.’
Helmut Berger and American actress Linda Evans on the set of hit TV show Dynasty
Helmut Berger with Bianca Jagger, the ex-wife of Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, in Cannes in 1975
Years later, ruminating on his lust for sex, he said: ‘When I was young, I wanted to be seduced. Now, I take all the pretty young men into my bed and say, “Rock me, babe.”
Without sex, he added, ‘I get nervous and hysterical. I take a cold shower’.
He cared little for the niceties of convention.
‘I am tainted by the beautiful things of life,’ he wrote in a memoir. ‘But to all those who only want to see me as an agent provocateur and eccentric I can only say: with every day of my life the number of people I don’t give a damn about grows and grows.’
One such might have been Al Pacino, with whom he fought on the set of The Godfather Part III — Pacino thought Berger’s English not good enough for the movie. Berger, an old-style 1960s hellraiser who had been jailed for brawling in bars and with police on the streets of Rome, put up his fists.
He had, after all, caroused with Richard Burton, whom, he noted, was jealous when he shot a love scene with Elizabeth Taylor, and he slept — platonically — with both Bianca and Mick Jagger.
But his most notorious relationship in which the seeds of both his success and destruction were sewn was with Luchino Visconti, the Italian director of The Damned and other art-house films such as The Leopard, who was both Berger’s mentor and lover.
Austrian film star Helmut Berger pictured in 1970
Mick Jagger and Helmut Berger pictured at a Paris hotel in 1975
They met in Perugia, Italy, in 1964 where Berger, the 20-year old son of Austrian innkeepers, was studying Italian and Visconti was making a film starring Claudia Cardinale.
The director noticed the handsome language student and aspiring actor sitting in a pizzeria. Visconti leant him a scarf because he seemed cold, and invited him to lunch.
Soon, they were living together in Paris and at Visconti’s homes on the island of Ischia and in Rome.
The director tried to keep his relationship with this beautiful boy secret, not least from his servants. The two maintained the artifice by having separate bedrooms. After going to Visconti’s room at night, Berger would be told to leave afterwards and sleep in his own bed.
Then almost 40 years Berger’s senior, Visconti became not just the younger man’s lover but also a father figure and teacher.
He educated him about art and music. He introduced him to the conductors Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan, the soprano Maria Callas and to Nureyev, who wanted to live with the young actor but couldn’t offer the security Visconti gave him.
‘For a short time Nureyev was his lover and Visconti his husband and father,’ a biographer noted warmly.
Helmut Berger pictured in 1973
Helmut Berger poses at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles in 1983
Helmut Berger with American actress Linda Blair in Beverly Hills in 1976
For his part, Berger, who liked to sneak out to visit nightclubs while Visconti