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Oscar Wilde comes alive on screen

by Tavo Amador

Oscar Wilde comes alive on screen

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was a brilliant, successful playwright, poet, novelist, and essayist. His 1895 conviction for homosexual sodomy shocked English society. It cast a long, frightening shadow that kept many gay British writers, like E.M. Forster, in the closet. Wilde's wife, Constance, and their two sons also suffered from the scandal. Wilde, however, has been well-represented on screen. Following is a selective list of movies based on his life and works.

In 1960, two sympathetic pictures depicting his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie") and working-class male prostitutes were released. Gregory Ratoff's "Oscar Wilde" starred Robert Morley as the Irish-born author, with John Neville as Douglas, and a superb Ralph Richardson as driven prosecutor Edward Carson. Morley looks right, but the ending is marred by a melodramatic outburst of hysterical laughter. Ken Hughes' "The Trials of Oscar Wilde" features Peter Finch, John Fraser as Bosie, and James Mason as Clark. Finch is excellent, and the courtroom scenes are suspenseful.


Better, however, is "Wilde" (1997), starring Stephen Fry and beautiful Jude Law as Bosie. Law shows how Douglas manipulated Wilde into filing the disastrous lawsuit against his father, the unstable Marquess of Queensbury (Tom Wilkinson), after he publicly labeled him a "Somdomite" [sic]. Vanessa Redgrave is Wilde's mother. Sensitively directed by Brian Gilbert.

Rupert Everett wrote, directed, and stars as Wilde in 2018's "The Happy Prince," an imagining of the author's sad, final days in Paris. Colin Firth plays Reggie Turner, Emily Watson is Constance Wilde, Colin Morgan is Bosie, and Edwin Thomas is the loyal Robbie Ross.

"Lady Windermere's Fan" (1892) is Wilde's upper-class comedy about marital infidelity and maternal sacrifice. Two silent versions were made, one in 1916, and a second, directed by legendary Ernst Lubitsch, appeared in 1925, starring Ronald Coleman. Otto Preminger's disappointing "The Fan" (1949) wasted lovely Jeanne Crain in the title role and Madeleine Carroll as Mrs. Erlynne, but has a terrific George Sanders as Lord Darlington. Dorothy Parker and Walter Reisch adapted the play.
"An Ideal Husband" (1895) deals with political blackmail and honor among the wealthy. Alexander Korda's 1947 version, adapted by Lajos Biro, starred a lively Paulette Goddard as Mrs. Cheveley, Michael Wilding as Viscount Arthur Goring, Diana Wynward as Lady Gertrude Chiltern, and Glynis Johns as Miss Mabel Chiltern. In 1999, Julianne Moore, Rupert Everet, Cate Blanchett, and Minnie Driver headlined an entertaining version directed by Oliver Parker. That same year, Bill Cartlidge directed and adapted Wilde's play, which featured James Wilby, Sadie Frost, and Jonathan Firth.

Also from 1895 is Wilde's masterpiece, "The Importance of Being Earnest," a dazzling farce about mistaken identity, impersonations, and avoidance of social responsibilities. In 1952, Anthony Asquith filmed it with a legendary cast. Gay matinee idol Michael Redgrave (father of Vanessa and Lynn) is a splendid Earnest, Edith Evans is brilliant as the formidable Lady Bracknell, Margaret Rutherford is a hilarious Miss Prism, and the marvelous Joan Greenwood is delicious as Gwendolyn. Fifty years later, Oliver Parker helmed Rupert Everett and Colin Firth as Algy and Earnest, respectively, with Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell, Frances O'Connor as Gwendolyn, and Anna Massey as Miss Prism. A little-seen 2011 version is of interest because of Brian Bedford's Lady Bracknell, a role he also performed on stage.


Wilde's once-notorious 1891 novella "The Picture of Dorian Gray" remains disturbing. The 1945 movie, directed and adapted by Albert Lewin, is powerful. Painter Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore), smitten by beautiful Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield), paints his portrait and gives it to him. Gray wishes that he could remain young forever while the painting ages. His wish comes true. George Sanders is superb as Lord Henry Wooten, who narrates the story. Angela Lansbury is extraordinary as the innocent Sibyl Vane. Anyone who would deliberately hurt her has to be a monster. Lewin is faithful to Wilde's story, which never spells out Dorian's debaucheries, although they seem to have a homoerotic element. With Donna Reed and Peter Lawford. Superb cinematography by Harry Stradling, Sr., wonderful art direction by Cedric Gibbons and Hans Peters, and impeccable set design by Edwin B. Willis.

Versions made in 1973, 2005, and 2007 have failed to catch the public's imagination, and have been little seen. In 2009, Oliver Parker directed Toby Finlay's explicit adaptation "Dorian Gray," with Colin Firth an effective Lord Henry Wooten, Ben Barnes as Dorian, Ben Chaplin as Basil, and Rachel Hurd-Wood as Sibyl. A modern-day retelling appeared in 2018, directed by Andrew Fisher and Khian Bartlett, with a screenplay by Adrian R. Castro. T.J. Sloan played the title role, Erik Reedy was Lord Henry, Caroline Rexrode was Sibyl, and Michael Vedra, Basil.

"Salome," Wilde's 1891 French-language drama based on the Biblical story, wasn't translated into English until 1894. In 1922, bisexual Alla Nazimova starred in an extravagant silent production, written by Natacha Rambova, and officially directed by Charles Bryant (but Nazimova helmed much of it). The sets and costumes were extraordinary. In 1988, Ken Russell directed "Salome's Last Dance," a very loose, dreadful adaptation of the play, with Glenda Jackson as Herodias, and Imogen Millais-Scott as the seductress. In 2013, a glorious Jessica Chastain shone as "Salome," Kevin Anderson was John the Baptist, and Roxanne Hart was Herodias, but the film was fatally marred by a scenery-chewing performance by Al Pacino as the obsessed King Herod. Pacino also directed.

Over a century has passed since Wilde's great literary triumphs were overshadowed by his conviction, which resulted in a two-year incarceration, beginning in 1895. His "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" appeared in 1897. While in prison, he penned the touching "De Profundis," a long letter to his beloved Bosie. The first half recounts their turbulent affair, "the love that dare not speak its name," as he said at his trial. The second half outlines his newfound spirituality. His brutal imprisonment contributed to his premature death. But he remains a fascinating, flawed figure, one whose artistic legacy is undiminished.


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