He was never a household name by any stretch, but 50 years ago there was a lad who was widely dubbed “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World,” which is now the name of a documentary about the now-old boy, Bjorn Andresen. It’s a sad, cautionary tale, after a fashion, as Andresen has spent a lifetime trying to divest himself of that sobriquet–one that is no longer true, of course, but that will rise again thanks to this cautiously insightful look at a singular, and quite melancholy, figure.
“Too much, too soon,” is a familiar lament applicable to many flash-in-the pan showbusiness personalities, and so it was for this teenager back in 1970, when just the sixth boy the eminent Italian director Luchino Visconti looked at for the key role of Tadzio in his film adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice turned out to be The One.
Early scene-setting reveals Andresen as an aging man in borderline dire straits, looking shockingly decrepit at only 65 and sporting a full head of long hair stretching well down his back. He looks like a more handsome Gabby Hays. Smoking away, he shares a filthy apartment overrun with countless bugs and you can only wonder where he’d be today without a Scandinavian social support system. We learn right off the bat that, lacking proper parents, he was largely raised by a grandmother.
All the more fortunate, then, that he should be discovered by one of the most famous directors in the world. No end of behind-the-scenes footage spotlights the 15-year-old, seemingly carefree Andresen cavorting on the beaches of Venice while the director applies himself to filming the story of an eminent artist who, at the end of his life, becomes fixated on the youngster he encounters on the Lido. It was a story that had preoccupied Visconti for years and the film gratifyingly offers generous bits of time to the imperious maestro both in action on location and speaking about his subject.
At the same time, the film can’t help but note that, from the director on down, “The whole crew was homosexuals.” Visconti laid down an edict that, “No one was to look at little Tadzio,” and went out of his way to stress that the story was “neither sexual nor erotic. It’s a higher form of love. Let’s say, ‘Perfection within love.’ ” We see the director showing his discovery precisely what to do in a given shot, and the boy complies, willingly and without difficulty.
There was a London royal world premiere in March 1971, with Queen Elizabeth in attendance, followed by the Cannes Film Festival two months later, where, starting with the gala post-screening party toplined by Visconti and leading actor Dirk Bogarde, the widespread “gay lust” for the beautiful boy took off. This was followed by an equally intense reaction to him in Japan, where he cut pop records, appeared in many commercials and became the nation’s “first idol from the West.” Another section alludes to an arrangement in the mid-1970s where a man set up the 21-year-old in a beautiful Paris apartment and 500 francs per week pocket money. “I felt like some kind of wandering trophy,” Andresen says, but all the while “I wanted to be somewhere else, and be somebody else.”
Despite the acclaim and attention stemming from Death in Venice, Andresen didn’t appear in another film until 1977, and he never acted in anything you’ve ever heard of until taking a small role in Midsommar two years ago. His life, from all the evidence, is a sad affair, and the film only partly suggests why this is the case. His face, surrounded by the abundant hair, has a ravaged beauty, but he’s almost painfully thin. He tends to hold back and not assert himself in public or group situations.
More than that, he seems afflicted with demons that have nothing to do with his one-time celebrity, and the filmmaking team of Kristina Lindstrom and Kristian Petri gently tries to lure them into the open, with limited success. The man is reticent on some issues and won’t address others; it’s clear there are some demons he has either put to rest or simply doesn’t want to confront.
That said, the most traumatic incident he has faced–the death of a young son in his bed in the 1980s–seems to have perhaps permanently shut him down emotionally to a considerable degree. Officially, the cause was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, but the way Andresen recounts it makes is sound as though he felt personally responsible. “But my diagnosis is lack of love,” he says. “I wasn’t up to it.” After this he fell into a deep alcoholic depression and, despite his openness on many topics, he seems noticeably ineffectual, a shell of a man in many ways.
It is, in the end, quite a sad story. No one, including the subject, draws a direct link between Andresen’s one moment of fame to the despondency of his later years, but one feels there still might be some pieces missing, that the early highs had something to do with the later dramatic lows. And the unasked question is whether the subject feels his life would have been happier if he had never met Luchino Visconti and been considered the most beautiful boy in the world.