The Importance of Playing Oscar

Humiliated, disgraced and impaled for 100 years on the thorn tree of British hypocrisy, Oscar Wilde is back, and the love that dared not speak its name is now hoarse from shouting proudly in Dolby stereo. The road from Victorian pariah to posthumous martyrdom has been an arduous one, and before it ends we’ll travel every mile in books, plays, musicals, films, panel discussions and public debates in the groves of academe. Oscar’s reputation for wit and wisdom has been restored. His plays are being revived throughout the world. The Cadogan Hotel in London, where he was arrested for “gross indecency,” is now a tourist attraction, and his old suite of rooms at L’Hôtel, the chic establishment on the rue des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he died, broken and ruined in 1900 at the age of 46, must be booked one year in advance. Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde , the Off-Broadway play about the court battles that drove him to prison, is still playing to capacity houses, and David Hare’s new play, The Judas Kiss , has just landed on Broadway with the miscast Liam Neeson as the patron saint of Gay Liberation. In my opinion, none of this lather surpasses Wilde , a distinguished film of uncommon intelligence and artistry, skillfully written by Julian Mitchell and beautifully directed by Brian Gilbert, with a titanic performance by Stephen Fry as its centerpiece that is nothing short of miraculous.

Based on the superb biography by Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde , the film focuses on his life and writings while addressing the parameters of free speech in a world propelled by hypocrisy, pretentiousness and other socially driven double-standards. And while it gives us something to think about, its visual splendors are bountiful. Wilde combines the rich texture of a Merchant-Ivory canvas with a distinctly contemporary spin. The opening scene is so jolting you may think you’re in the wrong movie. In a tableau right out of Paint Your Wagon , cowboys on horseback kick up the dust in Leadville, Colo., as Oscar, on a lecture tour of the American West in 1883, is lowered into the famous Matchless Mine that served as the setting for the Douglas Moore-John Latouche opera The Ballad of Baby Doe . As he descends into the silvery hole amid the burnished naked bodies of the miners, he smiles such a beatific grin of lusty approval it becomes immediately clear that here is a man in his element. Indeed, he did try to be proper and settled, wearing a mask of propriety for a face like his own literary creation, Dorian Gray. Celebrated for his outrageous opinions at a time of protocol and conformity, he was married to a respectable woman, his “constant Constance” (beautifully played by Jennifer Ehle), a helpful and sympathetic companion who provided him with a peaceful home and two sons, and who stood by him loyally through all the scandals to come. Then there were the men, especially Robbie Ross (Michael Sheen), his Canadian-born protégé who introduced him to homosexuality and loved him unconditionally. The downhill slide began on the opening night of Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892 when Oscar met Lord Alfred Douglas, a cocky, handsome 22-year-old Oxford undergraduate fondly nicknamed “Bosie” (Jude Law) who became both his passion and his undoing. Bored, petulant, arrogant and unscrupulous, the amoral Bosie bilked his mentor for money, insulted him, dragged him to male brothels and flaunted their affair publicly to antagonize his father, the cruel, brutish Marquess of Queensbury, who goaded Oscar into suing him for libel only days after the opening of The Importance of Being Earnest made Oscar the toast of London. The facts of his slander suit, perjury, arrest and conviction for sodomy are all set forth cogently as Oscar was hauled from the courts, reviled and spit on by the same public that had clamored for tickets to his plays. But the tragic conclusion we take home is the fate of a man who was a fool for love, ignoring everyone’s warnings and sacrificing everything for a boy he defended as a vulnerable lad desperately needing a father figure, almost indifferent to the pain and suffering it would bring him. Bosie had youth and glamour and a reckless spirit, Oscar had wealth and charm and breeding, and he threw it all away on a pretty, spoiled brat who gave him very little in return. In a sense, Oscar orchestrated his own destruction, but you have to admire his guts. The film makes a strong case for his integrity, standing up to the British aristocracy to defend what he believed in by facing his own nature. But there is still the gnawing feeling that he didn’t do it to change the world. He did it to please his vain, prissy-mouthed lover. You are left with mixed feelings, wondering why Oscar didn’t just walk away from this brat, why he didn’t flee England when he had the chance (Vanessa Redgrave, marvelous as Oscar’s mother, has a fine scene in which she begs him to face the facts), why he never learned from his mistakes (even after his release from prison he reunited with Bosie in Naples, still hoping for a happy ending). With all of his weaknesses and flaws, he was an iconoclast with the bad luck to live in the wrong century.

In a lushly photographed film of passion and intensity, an exceptional cast excels in bringing the late 19th century to life. Jude Law literally crawls under Bosie’s skin to display the hedonism and self-absorption of a despicable, well-bred hustler, while Stephen Fry bravely encompasses all of Wilde’s conflicting traits, warts and all. His pudgy body, his sardonic humor, his eccentric and careless behavior, his moist-eyed beagle-dog looks in the presence of Bosie, the guilt he suffers for his wife and sons–it’s all here in a performance that comes blazingly to life. Saddest of all is his sense of overwhelming loneliness, which somewhat explains Oscar’s calamitous risks and humanizes the flaws of a tarnished genius. (The truth, pal, is that Oscar was horny.) The most amazing thing about Mr. Fry, however, is the physical resemblance. From the photos I’ve seen of Oscar, you cannot tell them apart. Rarely have I seen life and art so indistinguishably entwined in the same performance.

Every element in this fascinating saga conspires to erase the cobwebs from history in a film that is literate, profound and deeply moving. The prediction that his name would be execrated for the next thousand years seems laughable now. Oscar is a cult figure, a gay icon. If they were around today, nobody in the Hamptons would look twice at Bosie, while Oscar would be a smash on The Oprah Winfrey Show .

Les Mis Begs for a Single Song

Les Misérables , the 19th-century classic by Victor Hugo, has made it to the screen eight times already. With the famous 1935 version starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton still attracting hordes of TV viewers, I don’t see any need for a ninth chase through the Paris sewers, but here it is. With Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean, the innocent man sentenced to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to save his starving family, and Geoffrey ( Shine ) Rush as the evil police inspector Javert who devotes his life to tracking him down, the greatest manhunt in literary history still has a universal appeal. Uma Thurman is the wretched prostitute who sells her body to buy medicine for her sick baby daughter. Valjean vows to save the child and smuggle her to safety with the mendacious Javert in hot pursuit, and there’s one exciting, well-executed scene where he is forced to climb the walls of Paris, leap across rooftops with the waif on his back and get her to a convent for protection. Good thing he makes it, because the child grows up to be Claire Danes. Years pass and everything changes except the misery and suffering of the people and the relentless stalking by the fiendish cop. The second half of the film centers on the girl’s romance with Marius the revolutionary while the prying, snooping, spying Javert vows to hound them all to their deaths.

The story is told in a straightforward, no-nonsense costume epic style and the actors do a sober job of conveying the social injustices of a dark chapter in French history. Liam Neeson is a perfect victim–hiding his kindness and goodhearted generosity toward his fellow men behind a great bull of a physique, and while Geoffrey Rush is no Charles Laughton, he does have the right face for the villainous Javert–grim, rigid, plain as a chamber pot, hiding his self-righteousness behind the law. So the elements are all in place for a perfectly acceptable if somewhat unexciting nonmusical adaptation of Les Misérables . But in 1998, it cries out for song cues. Without the music and the big 11 o’clock number, it’s just The Fugitive with escargot.