It is cruelly ironic that a man as besotted with language as Irish writer Oscar Wilde was brought low by a typo. Engaged in an affair with Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, he was so enraged by his paramour’s father leaving a card at his private members’ club Albemarle branding him a ‘somdomite’ that Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel.
It was an impetuous folly that backfired spectacularly. The subsequent legal battle led to a charge of gross indecency, and a ruinous two-year’s hard labour in Reading Gaol. A tragedy, undoubtedly, yet actor and writer Rupert Everett, the host of SBS On Demand documentary 50 Shades of Gay, who has made his directorial debut with Wilde biopic The Happy Prince, sees in his martyrdom the flame of a crusade.
“I think of Wilde as a Christian thinks of Jesus,” he offers with jolly blasphemy over the phone from London. “He was crucified so that we could be born. You know, homosexuality didn’t actually exist as a word before Wilde really. He was the first ‘out’ homosexual man in modern history. That is as important as Adam and Eve eating the apple in the way it gave us an identity, and from that moment, really, the road to gay liberation began.”
First enamoured with Wilde’s words when his beloved mother read him The Happy Prince as a young man – “it was the first time I really heard about love and the price you pay for it” – Everett became fixated when his budding career – breaking through in Marek Kanievska’s Another Country in 1984 then soaring in Australian director P.J. Hogan’s 1997 hit My Best Friend's Wedding opposite Julia Roberts – was, he suggests, derailed by being out and proud.
“If you wanted to achieve world domination, which I always did as a young actor, it hadn’t crossed my mind that I had a fatal flaw in that fantasy, which was being gay,” he says. “It was not possible. So, Wilde gradually became immensely inspiring to me, I suppose, because I felt the story of him was still going on, the story of us now.”
Like the indomitable spirit of Oscar Wilde, for all of Everett’s challenges he has maintained his resilience, and his British sense of humour.
“Well, I started off in Glasgow, that’s what did it. Ha-ha!,” he laughs down the line. “I spent my early career in a theatre there and Glasgow’s an amazing city. In Glasgow you learn to stand up for yourself and I loved it. … Show business is not for sissies, it’s a tough business and you have to be prepared for that, and you have to be prepared to fight non-stop, really, because it doesn’t get given to you on a plate. Sometimes it does, but not always. You have to work hard.”
After appearing in Oliver Parker adaptations of Wilde’s An Idea Husband and Earnest, plus the St. Trinian's films, the seed planted by his mother eventually grew into a ten-year quest to realise The Happy Prince, focusing on Wilde’s final years in European exile and ultimately his penurious death in Paris.
In a career-best performance, Everett takes the bent but unbowed lead and also penned the script. I wonder if his admiration placed undue pressure on Everett, placing words in Wilde’s mouth?
“It did, but in a way writing an original story with no references is much harder, because you have a lot to copy and steal when you are dealing with somebody like Wilde,” he chuckles. “There are so many letters.”
In an elegiac dream flitting between happier days and those infamous wallpaper-cursing last rites, Everett casts his Earnest co-star Colin Firth as loyal friend Reggie Turner. But it’s the tussle between Wilde’s adoring literary agent Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and the preening, weasel-worded Bosie (Colin Morgan, The Fall) that tears at the heart. I found myself willing against history that Wilde would favour the former.
“That’s exactly what I wanted you to think,” Everett notes. “We are so into the idea of being in love, of something perfect, and I think that the affair between Bosie and him was really not a love affair. It was an act of snobbery, in a way. The real love was right there in front of him with Robbie and he couldn’t see it.”
Thomas is a stoic presence, transfixing even, I suggest, and Everett agrees. “He’s one of those actors who can just do nothing and still be absolutely riveting. He has got an amazing face and eyes.”
Emily Watson, likewise, is artfully deployed in a pained turn as Wilde’s unfortunate wife Constance, with Everett stressing the importance of their bond despite their shameful estrangement. “For me she is our greatest actor,” he suggests. “She gives such a detailed performance, she is unbelievable.”
For the film he describes as a “19th-century road movie”, Everett worked with cinematographer David Johnson and production designer Michael Howells to achieve something akin to Death in Venice director Luchino Visconti’s luscious vision, “because he is a great stylist.”
With the lion’s share of the financing coming from Germany, much of the movie was shot in Bavaria. “It doesn’t even have any architecture that is relevant, so everything about that was a challenge, but that was the thing I enjoyed most about it really, the design aspect and finding places that I could shoot in.”
Relishing taking control of his career as a filmmaker for the first time, Everett hopes more will follow in The Happy Prince’s footsteps. “Once you have been in control of your own destiny, it’s very difficult to go back, in a way, because despite how nerve-wracking it can be, it’s really exciting to be an actor-manager.”
Loathe to predict what Wilde would have made of the LGBTIQ community’s considerable progress in recent years, including the global march of marriage equality, Everett, who is not a fan of the institution, notes that the poet, novelist and playwright was very much a man of his time, so wouldn’t have framed his predicament in quite the same way we do now. His legacy, however, is clear, he insists.
“Through all his suffering, he was never a victim, and this is so important for me,” he says. “He went into exile ruined, and created his own constitution on the street corner, replacing the movie stars and royalty with gigolos and petty criminals, holding forth in exactly the same way, continuing on with his life without giving a f*** what anyone else was thinking and that is, I think, the spirit we have to move on with today.”
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Watch 'The Happy Prince'
Saturday 24 July, 9:35pm on SBS (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
UK, Germany, Italy, Belgium, 2018
Language: English, French, Italian, Latin
Director: Rupert Everett
Starring: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Colin Morgan, Edwin Thomas