Homosexuality appears to have been discovered in May of 1960 when, thanks to a suddenly relaxed Movie Production Code, two quite reputable British films rushed into the marketplace huffing and puffing and telling the same sad story—Oscar Wilde, starring Robert Morley, and The Trials of Oscar Wilde, starring Peter Finch.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was a 19th century Irish playwright, novelist, essayist and poet—a torrent of brittle, urbane, witty words that elevated Victorian society—so it’s ironic that the one word that brought him down was misspelled.
The premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest on Valentine’s Day of 1895 made him the toast of Londontown. Four days later, he really was toast. The Marquess of Queensberry, livid that his son (Lord Alfred Douglas, hereafter referred to as “Bosie”) had a sexual relationship with Wilde, left his calling card at Wilde’s club, the Albemarle, inscribed: “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite.” Reacting with righteous (if massively misguided!) indignation, Wilde sued Queensberry, who had only to threaten to produce a few male prostitutes in court to prove the truth of his charge and get Wilde sentenced to two years of hard labor in prison for “gross indecency.”
This is where David Hare begins his 1998 play, The Judas Kiss, now being revived at the BAM Harvey Theatre through June 12. It’s something of a Before/After snapshot.
Act One finds Wilde holed up at a swank suite in London’s Cadogan Hotel, awaiting arrest, waving away the advice of his former lover and loyal friend, Robbie Ross, to flee the country while he can. Act Two finds him broken into bits by prison, resuming his affair with the unfaithful and unworthy “Bosie” in a rundown hotel near Naples.
“I love this play,” admits Rupert Everett, who stars. “It’s a beautiful and very moving and very intuitive portrait of a character—a prose poem about Oscar Wilde. If you’re any kind of die-hard Wilde fan, that April afternoon in the hotel is an iconic moment. What went on there, why didn’t he leave—those are riveting, historical questions.”
Everett, who was one year old when Morley and Finch were in movie houses waging the Wilde war that here is fought during intermission, isn’t the same dashing and strapping matinee-idol who Broadway-debuted seven years ago in Blithe Spirit.
“Well, this helps,” he trumpets late in the interview, pulling down his bulky sweater to reveal a chest of foam rubber. “It’s my fat suit. I haven’t gone to seed that much.”
Add some false teeth, a flowing wig, stoop posturing and vintage costumes, and voila! it’s the Oscar of old—certainly, closer than others who’ve played the part.
That, he has made a study of. “In the cinema they were all favorites of mine, for different reasons. Robert Morley’s was one of the great ones. I loved Peter Finch’s, but, like Stephen Fry’s, his leaned toward the family-values version of Oscar.” Liam Neeson, who brought The Judas Kiss to Broadway, while “a brilliant actor,” was “a heavyweight Oscar, and you need a lightweight to move fast across the ideas.”
There are those who say Everett isn’t right for the role, too. “That’s the reason I’m doing this play. I wrote a screenplay about Oscar’s last days eight years ago, and people would say, ‘Oh, I can’t see you doing Oscar,’ so I remembered David’s play and organized this production to show people I can do it. It’s been very useful.”
Critics were quick to concur. They’ve been strewing rosebuds at him from London to Toronto to Brooklyn, but does he know it? The question triggers a favorite Judi Dench anecdote: “Judi swans into the theatre, and people say, ‘Congratulations on the reviews. Have you read them?’ She says, ‘No, but I hear they’re mah-velous.’”
Evidently, his notices were equally encouraging. He starts shooting his Wilde movie in September in Germany, France, Italy and Belgium, directing it himself, with a cast that includes Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson and Tom Wilkinson. It’s called The Happy Prince, after a Wilde children’s story his mother read to him.
His fascination with the writer started there. “The thing about historical characters like Oscar—which makes reading and learning history quite complicated—is that they are what you want them to be after they’re dead. For example, all the biographies of Marie-Antoinette written by men up until the ‘70s were very against her. Then Nancy Mitford wrote a book about her, and suddenly you see a woman’s angle, and it’s different. Then, Antonia Fraser writes about her, and you see more of a woman’s angle. Oscar’s the same. For me, I feel that I understand him completely, and—it’s perhaps my own thing—I see him as a kind of Christ figure, in a way.
“As a gay person, particularly at my age, I believe that the gay movement started with Oscar Wilde. The thing that was talked about or dealt with or debated by society in general—the road we’re still traveling now—is very much one that he started. The Oscar Wilde scandal, the tragedy of his exile, started that, so his death is very much like Christ’s because, first of all, he was crucified and then immortalized.”