Acclaimed filmmaker Luchino Visconti scoured Europe in 1970 to find the ‘perfect beauty’ to play the lead in his upcoming film Death In Venice.
The successful candidate would have to have the ravishing looks an audience could believe would be sufficient to drive Dirk Bogarde’s character, an ailing and ageing composer, to distraction.
But Visconti wasn’t looking for a woman, he was looking for an adolescent boy. He found what he was looking for, casting a 15-year-old Swede, Björn Andrésen, to play a sailor-suited Polish boy named Tadzio.
A year later, in London, for the film’s world premiere in front of the Queen and Princess Anne, Visconti proclaimed Andrésen to be ‘the world’s most beautiful boy’, a stunning accolade echoed by some film critics who hailed his blond-locked, almost unearthly beauty as on a par with Michelangelo’s David.
He became an overnight superstar — the world’s most fawned-over face — only for his fame to become a ‘living nightmare’ that scarred him for life.
Visconti’s ‘most beautiful boy’ remark may have been primarily a marketing stunt but it became a millstone around Andrésen’s neck for decades.
For as revealed in a new documentary film, The Most Beautiful Boy In The World, that delves deep into a desperately tragic life, Andrésen would have been much happier if he’d never met Visconti, whom he describes as a ‘cultural predator’ who cynically exploited and objectified his youth and looks.
Björn Andrésen, a 15-year-old Swede, pictured playing a sailor-suited Polish boy named Tadzio in Death In Venice. He became an overnight superstar — the world’s most fawned-over face
The documentary revives unsettling questions about the ethics of a production that has become a cult gay film. Bogarde was openly homosexual as was Visconti, who said his male lovers included Italian director Franco Zeffirelli and Umberto II, the last King of Italy.
He was 63 when he made Death In Venice (based on a novella by German writer Thomas Mann, also gay) with a mostly gay crew, too. But Andrésen wasn’t gay — and even if he had been, he had only just turned 15 when he auditioned.
Far too young, he says, to be turned into a sex object whom Visconti took to gay nightclubs and who later became a trophy for rich Paris men who lavished him with presents and meals so they could parade him around.
To make matters worse, he was an orphan — a shy child whose grandmother had a fatal addiction to fame that made her the last person who should have been trusted to protect him.
Having spent years battling alcoholism and depression, Andrésen remains a troubled soul. He now lives alone in a squalid flat, chain smoking, bickering with his long-suffering, on-off girlfriend and getting into trouble with his landlord for leaving his gas stove on.
Death In Venice is hardly a film one envisages Hollywood making now. The documentary includes footage of Visconti sizing up lines of boys who filed past him during a Europe-wide quest for a Tadzio that lasted years.
‘How old is he? Older right?’ Visconti asks a Swedish-speaking casting director as Andrésen poses self-consciously for them at a casting call in Stockholm one chilly day in February 1970. ‘Yes, a little. He’s fifteen,’ the casting director replies. ‘Fifteen? Very beautiful,’ Visconti observes. ‘Could you ask him to undress?’
Andrésen is obviously taken aback but eventually strips down to his trunks, as a photographer snaps away and a delighted Visconti makes clear he has found exactly what he was looking for.
It was a defining moment in Andrésen’s life and not a good one, he and his family now say.
‘It felt like swarms of bats around me. It was a living nightmare,’ says Andrésen of the fame and attention for which he was woefully underprepared. ‘I was a sex object — Big Game.’
Curse of fame: Björn Andrésen with Dirk Bogarde in the film. Andrésen’s relationship with Bogarde isn’t tackled in the documentary, although the former told the Mail in 2003 that the star was ‘always very courteous . . . very kind and very British’
Now 66, he’s still striking — albeit nowadays looking more like a rake-thin wizard with a nicotine-stained beard and white hair that comes half way down his back.However, as the haunting documentary reveals, Andrésen’s life had been marked by tragedy some years before he came into the orbit of Visconti.
His bohemian mother, Barbro, never told him the identity of his father (he still doesn’t know) and made no secret that she wanted more from life than being mother to Björn and his half-sister.
He recalls standing behind her as a little boy as she stared silently out of a window and thinking: ‘When I grow up, I’m going to save Mum.’ He never got the chance —when he was ten she disappeared and police found her six months later in woods after she’d apparently taken her own life.
The children went to live with their maternal grandparents in Stockholm and the family never mentioned their mother again.
Young Björn never wanted to act but instead hankered to be a pianist. His grandmother, who wanted at least one of the children to be famous, had other ideas.
He’d already appeared in a film, a 1970 Swedish romantic drama, when he auditioned for Death In Venice. He was paid $4,000 for his role in the film.
Despite the frequent lingering glances that Andrésen and Bogarde exchange in the film, Visconti publicly played down any notion there was anything sexual between them. ‘It’s a love story, one that’s pure. It’s neither sexual nor erotic,’ he said unconvincingly.
Andrésen’s relationship with Bogarde isn’t tackled in the documentary, although the former told the Mail in 2003 that the star was ‘always very courteous . . . very kind and very British’. Bogarde, the only foreigner who bothered to find out how to pronounce his name properly, instructed Andrésen how to bow to the Queen when he met her.
Two months later, the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. After the festival’s main banquet, Visconti and his friends took Andrésen to a gay nightclub where he felt that waiters and guests leered at him and he drank himself in a stupor ‘just to shut it out’.
Much to his discomfort, he became a sex symbol and — for some — a gay icon. He received sackfuls of fan mail from besotted teenagers and grown men alike.
He later visited Japan where he was mobbed by fans in scenes comparable to Beatlemania and, in fact, recorded a couple of songs.
Back in Europe, he continued acting but struggled to shake off his ‘world’s most beautiful boy’ moniker. In 1976, he came to Paris for a film. It never came to anything but he stayed a year despite being penniless.
A string of rich men paid for everything, showering him with expensive meals and gifts, providing him with a flat and giving him 500 francs weekly pocket money.
‘I must have been bloody naive because it was sort of like: “Wow! Everyone’s so nice,” ’ he says now. ‘I don’t think they treated me out of the kindness of their heart . . . I felt like [a] wandering trophy.’
The documentary doesn’t tackle the question of whether he ever succumbed to any man’s advances. He told the Mail 18 years ago that he felt a fleeting confusion about his sexuality in his 20s and had one homosexual experience. ‘I did it more or less to be able to say I’d tried it but it’s not really my cup of tea. It wasn’t more serious than that,’ he said at the time.
Andrésen pictured now, in his 60s. His acting career proved so unsuccessful that he repeatedly broke off from it to work as a music teacher
He insists he’s always preferred women, although even here he has had trouble. After growing used to clicking his fingers and having girls come running, he admits he never learnt how to flirt.
Even so, he managed to get married to a poet named Suzanna Roman after they had a daughter, Robine, in 1984. However, tragedy again struck three years later when their nine-month-old son Elvin, died. Andrésen had been lying in bed beside him, insensible after a night out drinking, while his wife took their daughter to kindergarten.
Although it was a cot death, he blames himself for the tragedy, saying he’d been an inadequate father. ‘Their diagnosis is sudden infant death syndrome but my diagnosis is lack of love,’ he says. The family collapsed. ‘I descended into depression, alcohol, self-destruction in all ways imaginable — it was an ego trip. Poor me, me, me.’
Andrésen’s acting career proved so unsuccessful that he repeatedly broke off from it to work as a music teacher. He disappeared from public view so completely that some thought he was dead until he re-emerged in 2003, when a photo of him was used to illustrate the front cover of The Beautiful Boy, Germaine Greer’s ode to the beauty of young boys.
Andrésen publicly complained he’d never given permission and said, having been exposed to it, adult lust — by men or women — for adolescents was nothing to celebrate.
He still suffers from depression and, judging by the film, is often tearful.
If ever there was living proof that beauty can be a curse it endures in the shape of the boy whose childhood was stolen by a highly manipulative film director.
The Most Beautiful Boy In The World is in cinemas from July 30.