Archive for January 3, 2020

Gone Wilde

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2020 by dcairns

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Gregory Ratoff’s OSCAR WILDE starts strikingly, as a documentary almost, with footage of Wilde’s grave in Pere Lachaise, but then we realise that Wilde himself (impersonated by Robert Morley) is providing the voice-over, which takes us out of standard docu terrain.

But things get troublesome fast — in the very first scene after the credits, the audience at the premiere of Lady Windermere’s Fan laugh at straight lines from Wilde’s speech, and worse, greet actual zingers with stony silence or, equally cluelessly, with appreciative applause. One starts to feel that if the filmmakers can’t tell when Wilde is being funny, this could be a bumpy 94 mins.

This confusion by the sound editor and/or director continues apace, and I rapidly surmised that Ratoff simply wasn’t paying attention. Morley delivers the carefully assembled bot mots with typical lipsmacking relish (he’s all swollen up with apothegms), but discusses an offscreen character’s appearance without so much as glancing at her, adding clairvoyance to Wilde’s many talents.

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Morley and John Neville not only lack chemistry, but biology and basic physics, and seem to be acting in different films even when united in the same frame — my eye started scanning for any tell-tale signs of split-screen photography. There’s no honest human interaction until a hysterical and fantastically repulsive-looking actor called Stephen Dartnell enters and he and Morley really tear up the room. It’s a miracle — dramatic life is zapped into the movie as if by defibrillation. A posthumous Shadowplay Award (a solid gold statuette of Perc Helton wearing Mickey Mouse’s shorts and gloves) to Dartnell, a true thespian Lazarus.

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Morley is also good in the quieter moments, whenever he’s not quoting Oscar Wilde. The error here has been to go hire a marvelous type — as with Stephen Fry’s later (mis)casting, whereas Peter Finch playing the same part is just a good actor, which is what’s needed. Morley is a good actor when he remembers his job and stops trying to be the type.

The script is by Jo Eisinger — yes, that one), though he’s adapting various sources including the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. This is the love that dare not speak its name without inverted commas, and that VO comes oiling again to get us across the trickier scenes without making the mistake of letting anyone write or act them.

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Ken Hughes’ THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE opens at the same moment as the Ratoff film, the first night of Lady Windermere, but correctly shows Wilde as already acquainted with Lord Alfred Douglas (the Ratoff film can be forgiven for dramatic compression, especially as it’s telling the exact same story with half an hour less running-time).

Hughes has the huge advantage of a sexy Wilde and a sexy Bosie (John Fraser), and an authentically swivel-eyed raving lunatic Marquess of Queensberry in the form of his favourite actor, Lionel Jeffries. The tragedy of Wilde required not only Wilde’s hubristic exhibitionism, but the opposition of an unhinged homophobe to break through the protective inhibitions of society. If Oscar’s enemies had been merely normal Victorians, they would have been too repressed to make a scene.

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The effect of Jeffries’ glowering, seething domestic despot intruding into scenes of London nightlife is rather as if a 2001 ape-man had shambled into a drawing room comedy, chewing raw capybara meat. What’s also good is that you feel, somehow, what a deeply UNHAPPY man this Marquess is. He’s in a hell created from his own twisted sense of values.

The world of the film is strikingly conjured by designer Ken Adam and cinematographer Ted Moore (with Nic Roeg as operator), at times a little studio-bound and lacking detail, it’s true, but spectacular in setpieces like the Cafe Royal ~

The bigger budget, Technicolor (for Wilde’s green carnation) and Technirama (for Finch’s portly bay window) give this one unfair advantages over the Ratoff, but it’s the performances that make the real difference. In particular, when Finch finishes a witticism and waits for the laugh, his face says, not “Aren’t I witty?” as Morley’s does, but “Aren’t I adorable?”

In other words, he’s not on the nose, and he’s playing chords rather than a single note.

(Ken Hughes fell prey to the Morley effect in his OF HUMAN BONDAGE, where he cast Fat Bob as the insensitive doctor who gets the hero to expose his club foot in class. Rather than play the thing drily, inhumanly, as in the 1934 version, Morley can’t resist going for gloating sadism. A great screen presence, but one who perhaps needed the guidance of a superior intelligence.)

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Hughes also has the advantage having amassed a bit of a stock company over the preceding few years, several of whom, like Jeffries, turn up here — James Booth is very good value as the blackmailer. The bitter irony is that Ratoff had worked frequently with an actor who would have been a quite incredible choice for Wilde if he’d lived, and if he’d had the nerve to do it: imagine Tyrone Power in the part!

Confused punters who saw both these films when they opened in May 1960 perhaps wondered how it was that Wilde scares off a blackmailer by personating a Scotland Yard detective in one version, and pays off the chap and takes him to dinner in the other.

My late friend Lawrie insisted, obscurely, that Ken Hughes was “the filthiest man I ever met,” which might give him an edge with this material, but of course it’s 1960 and sexual intercourse, qua Larkin, has not yet begun. And the Great British Period movie, and the Hollywood form to which it’s beholden, are alike slaves to good taste. There is nothing so vulgar as good taste.

Both versions are quite happy to fold in apocrypha, though if you’re going to have Queensberry present his cabbage, you have no business correcting his spelling, as both movies do. The fact that he wrote “somdomite” is grimly funny and makes him an even more horrible clown. It also means that the fellow in the Ratoff who immediately reaches for his dictionary would have a lot of trouble finding what he’s looking for. (And he looks in the exact MIDDLE, where he’d be more like to find “marsupial” or “mudlark” — and the designer has seemingly pasted his definition right into the middle of the entry for “soft”. Most odd.)

In both films, the trials are salutary: “Everything gets better when the good actors come on,” as a friend puts it. Ratoff has Ralph Richardson, and Morley rises to meet him. Hughes brings in James Mason in the same role, and Mason plays it with a pretty good Irish accent, distinct from his one in the THE RECKLESS MOMENT — sheer bravura, since Finch isn’t bothering to sound Irish at all. Alexander Knox and Nigel Patrick take the less showy role of Wilde’s lawyer in the respective versions.

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Interesting to note that Richardson the stage actor plays it like a movie star would — he is utterly himself, bringing all his characteristics as an actor to bear on the part, whereas Mason, the movie star, gives a full-on character performance. Both are terrific value and seem very dangerous.

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In the trials, of course, there’s no reason to amplify the drama or shoehorn in epigrams because the actual situations and dialogue are so extraordinary.

The second trial doesn’t bother with guest stars but allows Finch to shine in his big moment, and Nigel Patrick gets a superb moment of acting when he rounds off his closing statement — and then looks in the jury’s eyes and he’s like oh fuck.

Ratoff just shoots coverage at the trial whereas Hughes has cinematic ideas. BUT when Wilde makes his fatal mistake (arguably ALL of his witticisms were mistakes — juries apparently don’t like clever witnesses) and says he didn’t kiss a young man because he was ugly, Ratoff’s actors and editor take off for the moon with an extraordinary bit of overlapping interrogation-and-fluster. Really remarkable. Puts me in mind of the blackmail scene in CROSS OF IRON. The trial transcript is presumably the source for this apparent improv, where it says The witness began several answers almost inarticulately, and none of them he finished. Carson’s repeated sharply: “Why? Why? Why did you add that?”

The emotional highlight might actually be this guy (below), Wilde’s butler (Ian Fleming, no, not that one), with the face of a boiled sheep, tearing up as Wilde is arrested. Everyone else is so stiffly upper-lipped, a burst of actual feeling is very effective. Give him an extra five quid. 

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Morley’s son Wilton (the one who’s not Sheridan) comes toddling in as one of Wilde’s sons (why not have both, since Morley had two? it can’t have been connected to acting talent). He’s an extraordinary-looking creature and his performance puts me in mind of the clockwork doll in DEEP RED. Hughes scores again with a scene of Finch reading The Happy Prince at bedtime — it’s very Hushabye Mountain.

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Again, on “the love that dare not speak its name,” the emotional high point of Wilde’s prosecution, Finch scores over Morley with a devastating performance. Morley feels like he’s been given a note by his director. Just when you need Ratoff to go back to sleep, he perks up and sticks his oar in.

Both versions omit any of the hard labour Wilde was sentenced to, which I think is leaving out something of significance, since it virtually killed the man. Hughes (and Ken Adam) does give us a hellish visiting room with the prisoners cruelly separated from their loved ones by barriers.

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There’s a good, simply-played sequence of Dennis Price (as Robbie) greeting Wilde at the prison gate, and another in Paris, which Ratoff and his script then stomp all over by having Wilde LAUGH INSANELY. But I dig the pull-back from Wilde followed by matching pull-back from his grave.

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John Fraser, inappropriately quiffed, benefits from a more complex Bosie to play — he’s sympathetic in his dealings with his awful dad, and beastly in his bratty bullying of Wilde. And, while Hughes overstresses things in a very Hughesian way (which Ken Russell might have gotten away with) in the aftermath of the trial — Wilde’s grandson has ridiculed the idea of Constance Wilde presenting Oscar with his green carnation at the prison gates  — Hughes has had the sharp idea of excerpting The Ballad of Reading Gaol and applying the “each man kills the thing he loves” to Bosie at the film’s end, which, helped along by Ron Goodwin’s emotive score, ends the thing with some power.

Hughes 4 / Ratoff 2.

OSCAR WILDE stars Mycroft Holmes; Sherlock Holmes; the Supreme Being; Ann Pornick (as a woman); Hector Snipe; Woodrow Wilson; Mr. Grimsdale; Flimnap; George Barbor – Dentist; and Poseidon.

THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE stars Howard Beale; the woman in a dressing gown; Captain Nemo; Professor Jerusalem Webster Stiles; Prof. Joseph Cavor; Prince Alfonso; Mrs. Baines; Julia Martineau; Pvt. Henry Hook; Ned Cotterill; Dr. Watson; Mr. Blunden; and David Livingston, I presume.