The Search for Tadzio

‘The Most Beautiful Boy In The World’ chronicles the casting of 1971’s ‘Death In Venice’

Whenever moviemakers go rabbiting across continents in search of a young unknown to cast in some critical part, there’s a strong whiff of publicity stunt.

Surely, a few well placed words to professional talent agents in New York, London and LA, and friends with kids the right age would yield several suitable candidates.

Director Luchino Visconti‘s search for a boy to embody Tadzio in his 1971 adaptation of Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, Death in Venice definitely had that circus-y element.

Early in Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s documentary, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, we see a large room crammed with Tadzio hopefuls ranging in age from 13 to 15.

Anyone who’s read or seen Death in Venice would have no problem thinning this herd. Tadzio’s ethereal beauty is his main characteristic. Anyone with a moon face, a snub nose, freckles, a bit of baby fat, a weak chin, an underbite, an overbite, or prominent ears hadn’t a snowball’s chance in hell…though they might have been perfect for the role of funny best friend, were Death in Venice another sort of story.

For those unfamiliar, it’s a tale of a middle aged man’s obsession with a youth he admires mostly from afar, on a seaside holiday in an area where an epidemic is brewing. Visconti, who was gay and, unusual for the time, uncloseted, insisted that the attraction was not sexual or inappropriate, but something more rarified – a deep reverence for the purest beauty.

Perhaps that’s in the eye of the beholder.

The rapturous passage with which Mann introduced Tadzio, “a long-haired boy about fourteen years old” before Visconti took the wheel is too long to reproduce here, but the 15-year-old Swede picked from legions of contenders, Björn Andrésen – now 56 and the subject of this documentary – ticked all the boxes save one.

He face was “pale and reserved, framed with honey-colored hair.” He possessed a “straight sloping nose” and  “lovely mouth.” He even managed an “expression of sweet and godlike seriousness, (that) recalled Greek sculpture of the noblest period,” weathering the camera’s prolonged gaze without squirming or succumbing to any nervous impulse to cut up. (When he smiles on command during his screen test, you kind of want him to stop, because the resemblance to toothy teen sensation Leif Garrett, breaks the spell.

Andrésen wasn’t a “pampered favorite child made this way by a doting and moody love”–presumably maternal. The documentary goes into his personal circumstances in depth, providing 21st-century audiences with some insight into his difference from other boys. It brought an added dimension to screen presence, and read the way Visconti wanted it to.

The footage of Andrésen’s screen test is, as you might expect, queasy-making. He wasn’t asked to act or improvise as the 11-year-old Brooke Shields when she auditioned for the title role in Pretty Baby, just pose, with and without his shirt. Visconti, his antennae up, makes overt appraisals of the boy’s appearance in a language he can’t understand.

A different time, as they say, but it wasn’t an immediate free for all. The esteemed, and intimidating director issued an edict declaring the boy was “off-limits” to everyone on the production during the shoot. Good thing, as Andrésen makes it clear his well being was not the primary concern of his grandmother and defacto guardian, who was bedazzled to be given a cameo in the film.

These days, advocacy groups like the National Network for Children in Entertainment and Employment (NNCEE) make sure the duty to child performers extends throughout the film’s release. Visconti basically threw Andrésen to the wolves.

“He was even more beautiful back then,” Visconti’s boasts at a Cannes press conference, the newly 16-year-old Andrésen seated beside him, smiling gamely. “He has aged now, you can see he’s at an awkward age.” The reporters were no doubt doubly amused that the subject of those remarks didn’t get the joke. How could he? Unlike the maestro, he didn’t speak French.

Later in the documentary, Masatoshi Sakai, the Japanese music producer who had a hand in turning the teenage Andrésen into a pop sensation in that country, expresses a similar sentiment, but with infinitely more compassion.

Everyone, he suggests, comes to a place where they are the most beautiful they will ever be, and how lucky that the camera was there just as Andrésen was at his most sublime.

Lucky for everyone but Andrésen, who continued to be treated as an object, though the documentarians and their subject leave some of that to the imagination. He survived, but there’s clearly some damage, and an abiding sadness, compounded by personal tragedy.

The most beautiful boy in the world has become a bit of a curmudgeon, a stringy chainsmoker, bad at taking care of himself, overly reliant on his capable long-suffering girfriend. Even without the extraordinary early history, he might make for an entertaining documentary subject. He seems to have come to terms with the idea of himself as a performer. (Those who white knuckled their way through the sacrifice of the elders in Midsommar are in for a treat. He played the man who goes off the top of the rock, and the movie-set realities of that scene are a far cry from what showed up onscreen. It’s also fun to see him taking cell phone snaps of his own prosthetics.)

One of the most moving sequences in the film involves a trip to records bureau, on a quest to discover the identity of Andrésen’s biological father. He also examines police reports on the death of his mother, four years before he played Tadzio. A female worker gently explains that she removed some photos as a precaution, not wanting disturbing images of someone he loved (and strongly resembles) to ambush him. He leafs through the file alone, save for the presence of the documentary crew, whose microphones picking up tiny whimpers of distress. When its time to go, the worker, discreetly noticing his misery, offers to see him to the door, where she enfolds him in a warm, maternal embrace.

This boy was beautiful, and tragically lacking a mother bear.

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Ayun Halliday

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.

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