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Helmut Berger, Austrian actor and muse of Visconti, dies at 78

Helmut Berger, a golden-haired star of European cinema known for playing sinister but seductive characters in the films of Italian master Luchino Visconti, his partner for more than a decade, died on May 18 at his home in Salzburg, in Austria. He was 78 years old.

His death was announced in a statement by his agent, Helmut Werner, who did not cite a cause.

Mr. Berger, an Austrian actor blessed with piercing blue eyes, coiled intensity and an uncanny knack for projecting menace and charm with a single look or gesture, rose to prominence in the late 1960s. 1960 and 1970, when he starred in three feature films. by Visconti and became an international sex symbol.

The German press hailed him as “the most handsome man in the world”, while one of his co-stars, British actress Charlotte Rampling, was more dismissive, describing Mr Berger in a BBC documentary as “a ski waiter with a fat ass”. .” He’s been photographed naked by Andy Warhol, featured on the cover of British Vogue (fully clothed, this time) and traveled with Brigitte Bardot, Bianca Jagger and Eliette von Karajan, emerging as one of the jet’s most flamboyant members. set even though he largely avoided the American film scene.

Hollywood was a “plastic world”, he insisted, although he made an exception to appear in American films, including the drama “Ash Wednesday” (1973), as a playboy who seduces Elizabeth Taylor, and “The Godfather Part III” (1990), as a Vatican banker who attempts to swindle the Corleone family.

Mr Berger said he owed “everything” to Visconti, whom he met during a 1964 visit to Volterra, Italy, where the filmmaker was filming the drama “Sandra”. Mr Berger, who was learning Italian at a nearby college and had turned 20 that spring, had taken acting lessons in London and wanted to see how a film set worked. The manager, 38 years her senior, was happy to help.

They soon struck up a relationship, and in 1969 Mr. Berger delivered his breakthrough in Visconti’s “The Damned,” a lyrical drama that followed a family of German industrialists in the 1930s, with Hitler poised to shore up his power.

Mr. Berger, who appeared alongside Rampling and Dirk Bogarde, portrayed the patriarch’s psychotic grandson, who assaults his younger parents and rapes his own mother. Her character is featured in drag, playing Marlene Dietrich with the aid of a top hat, boa and stockings before her performance is cut short by news that a fire has broken out at the Reichstag .

New York Times film critic Vincent Canby wrote that Mr. Berger gave “the performance of the year”, calling the film “a spectacle of such greedy passion, such uncompromising feel and ‘a shock so obscene it makes you realize how small, safe and ordinary it is’. most movies are.

Mr Berger went on to win a David di Donatello award, the Italian equivalent of an Oscar, for starring in Visconti’s historical epic ‘Ludwig’ (1973) as the titular ‘Swan King’ of Bavaria, qu he described as a closeted homosexual. , irritable and tragically isolated. (“I’m a night person like him,” Mr. Berger told German magazine Gala in 2012. “That’s the only thing we have in common.”)

He appeared in 70 films and TV shows in all, including as the whimsical lead character in “Dorian Gray” (1970), an Oscar Wilde adaptation set on the streets of London; as the frail son of a wealthy Jewish family in Vittorio De Sica’s “The Garden of the Finzi-Contini” (1970), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film; and as a petty criminal who embarks on an affair with a novelist’s disgruntled wife (Glenda Jackson, on-screen married to Michael Caine) in “The Romantic Englishwoman” (1975).

Mr. Berger also worked one last time with Visconti in “Conversation Piece” (1974), which paired him with American actor Burt Lancaster. He was still the filmmaker’s partner when Visconti died in 1976 from a stroke. Mr Berger fell into a depression and attempted suicide, later saying he was saved when his housekeeper discovered him by chance, arriving home that morning instead of 5pm as foreseen.

Over the next few decades, Mr. Berger seemed to increasingly struggle with drug and alcohol use, becoming better known to some viewers for his talk show appearances than his acting. He appeared drunk at some interviews and film festivals, and was charged with cocaine possession in Italy, where he was acquitted by an appeals court in 1987. Some of his misadventures were chronicled in a 1998 autobiography, simply titled “Ich” (“I”), and in a 2012 photobook, “Helmut Berger: A Life in Pictures”.

The latter opened with a statement of defiance, written in French: “I do not regret anything”.

“That says it all,” Mr Berger told Gala, before lamenting that the freewheeling spirit of the 1960s and 1970s no longer seems to exist. “There is no more dolce vita today. I caught just the right moment.

Helmut Steinberger – Berger was a stage name – was born in Bad Ischl, an Austrian spa town, on May 29, 1944. He grew up in Salzburg, where his parents ran a hotel, and said he ran away from home, fleeing an abusive father who “never hit me”.

Mr Berger lived in England, supporting himself with a job as a waiter and then a model, before moving to Italy and making his screen debut with the help of Visconti, who cast him for a small role in “The Witches” (1967), an anthology film of five comic stories.

At times, her relationship with the filmmaker was strained.

“I always did what he wanted. Well, at night I would sometimes sneak out the back door,” said Mr Berger, who was bisexual and recalled dating American actress Marisa Berenson while “He was still with Visconti. “I had stashed the key to the back entrance. After that, when I slept all day, he first thought I was sick and he sent me home. a psychoanalyst. Later he found out exactly what I was doing. But he never said anything.”

In 1994, Mr. Berger married Francesca Guidato, an Italian actress and model. They separated more than two decades ago but never divorced, according to her agent. Complete information about the survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Berger starred as a criminal genius in the French miniseries “Fantômas” (1980), appeared as a Brazilian business tycoon in season four of “Dynasty” (1983) and played the creator aging fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent in the French film “Saint Laurent”. ” (2014). He also ventured onto the stage in Berlin, starring in Catalan screenwriter and director Albert Serra’s play “Freedom” in 2018 and starring in a film adaptation the following year.

Shortly after, he announced his retirement from acting, telling German tabloid Bild: “I danced at all the parties. Now is the time to say goodbye and enjoy the rest of my life with a nightcap in hand.

He wanted to spend his “rest of time away from the public,” he added, with a nod to the German-American actress he once personified on screen: “That’s what Marlene Dietrich did at the end of her career”.


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