Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Larger than Life

By Hadley Hury

JUNE 29, 1998:  A hundred years after Oscar Wilde achieved stunning popular and critical success as the playwright of his era and was, simultaneously, publicly demonized and imprisoned as an abominable sexual monster, his life and work have never been more in the sun. Not that he ever went away. All of his plays are good and have enjoyed a constant life throughout our century. The Importance of Being Earnest is a period piece that has thus far managed to transcend time, a classic of style and substance in which Wilde perfectly satirizes, on the one hand, late-Victorian manners and morals, while with the other he opens the structural door to modern farce. Propelling Wilde into the limelight now is a surge of biographical interest, and the man himself, who once said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,” would probably be the last to object.

In the past two years, London and New York have seen the staging of three plays based on Wilde’s life: One, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, explores the social ideology of his downfall at the hands of moral injustice and jealous Philistines; a second focuses more on his love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas; and the third, The Judas Kiss, written by the British master of betrayal, David Hare, and currently playing on Broadway with Liam Neeson as Wilde, seeks to illuminate both emphases.

Now we have director Brian Gilbert’s and screenwriter Julian Mitchell’s powerfully realized film Wilde, featuring a fine performance by Stephen Fry as the playwright; Jude Law handling the unsympathetic, and therefore difficult, role of Lord Alfred, or “Bosie,”as he was called, with finesse; and exceptional support from Jennifer Ehle as Wilde’s wife Constance, Tom Wilkinson as Bosie’s father the Marquess of Queensberry, and Judy Parfitt and Vanessa Redgrave in perfectly etched cameos. Mitchell has based his script primarily, and quite faithfully, on the seminal biography by Richard Ellmann as well as more recent research, and Gilbert brings the sensational story to the screen thoughtfully and with an unerring sense of balance and dramatic imagination. The cinematography of Martin Fuhrer is superb, as is the production design by Maria Djurkovic.

Wilde always said that he “put his talent into his work but his genius into his life,” a statement which, when considered in light of the denouement of that life, is burgeoning with just the sort of irony Wilde unavoidably found in life and which he refracted, in turn, with such graceful wit and verbiage: He was a brilliant conversationalist and an extraordinary epigrammatist. Born in Dublin, his father was a prominent surgeon and his mother a strong-willed bohemian aristocrat who espoused liberal politics and wrote poetry. Wilde moved to London and had his first real success with the publication of the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and a heralded lecture tour of the United States and Canada. With his beautiful wife Constance and their two sons, he created a comfortable, loving home. Within a few years, however, he was forced to confront his homosexual orientation, which led to a double life that seems to have fueled his art even as it set the stage for – if not tragedy – certainly one of the most resonant enactments in modern art and society of that favorite refuge of the envious: “Lo, how the mighty are fallen.”


Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde.

In 1892, on the opening night of his hugely successful play Lady Windermere’s Fan, the playwright was reintroduced to Bosie, an effete but attractive 22-year-old Oxford undergraduate he had met a year previously. They embarked on a tempestuous relationship in which, over time, Wilde increasingly had to content himself with a devotional belief in unconditional love. Bosie was a pill – amoral, shallow, self-absorbed, vain, capricious, and whining. In 1895, his father, Lord Queensberry, himself a cold, violent, curmudgeon by everyone’s estimation, was taken to court when Wilde, at Bosie’s tragically ill-advised urging, sued Queensberry for libeling him as a “sodomite.” As homosexuality was itself illegal, the Marquess was able to destroy Wilde’s case at the trial by calling as witnesses young male prostitutes who testified to having had encounters with Wilde. Wilde lost the libel case and was immediately arrested by the crown; he had essentially no defense against charges of homosexual conduct.The enormity of the great artist’s public humiliation and his two-year sentence of hard labor broke him; Oscar Wilde died in France less than three years after his release from Reading Gaol.

Fry bears a strong resemblance to Wilde and evinces equal measures of the writer’s wittily assured public persona and his private hunger for a more direct, self-effacing, human connectedness. The actor conveys Wilde’s delight in his mental powers and creativity as well as his occasional weariness at having to live up to them, and he handles with a fine understatement the man’s segues between colliding realities, triumph and execration. Law, who somewhat resembles Helmut Berger (in a role Berger might well have played 25 years ago), tackles head-on his thankless task as the utterly unsympathetic Bosie and manages to do something quite good with it. His interpretation of this disastrously praetorian pretty-boy has just the right shading and just enough touches of humanity to make it arresting.

Wilde is an intelligent, emotionally subtle, impressionistic treatment of an extraordinary life, a life in conflict – with the artistic process, with the meanings of morality, and with itself. Whatever Wilde might think of the film, it’s unlikely he would find it presumptuous, trivializing, or simplistic. Gilbert and Mitchell have approached their work in the spirit of one of Oscar Wilde’s most famous aphorisms: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” – Hadley Hury


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