T.Here, for simple and obvious reasons, are certain literary figures who inspire a kind of hero-worship that invariably says much more about the worshipers than about the heroes. Charles Dickens obsessives often believe that they share, or at least weakly reflect, their idol’s famous energy and brilliance. The pale young women who adore Sylvia Plath ignore her upbeat poems about domestic bliss and instead focus on the angrier, sadder parts of their work. Oscar Wilde obsessives go one step further: They not only understand savages – they are savages, with all the wit and pain that such a package entails. Stephen Fry went through a wild phase, and Rupert Everett has had one for some time.
This was more for the audience than Everett: he performed wonderfully as Wilde in The Judas Kiss in 2012, and directed The Happy Prince, the 2018 film he wrote about Wilde’s final days and in which he starred , is excellent. The film is by far the most thoughtful and least gilded portrayal of Wilde and a far cry from the smug exercise in narcissism that Everett could have been.
That’s a wonder, however, when you look at these memoirs about the time before and including the making of the film. “I’m Oscar Wilde,” writes Everett after another epiphany moment when he usually goes somewhere Wilde has visited. Chance encounters – meeting Wilde’s grandson and learning that his own aunt had a connection to Wilde’s son – are viewed by Everett as as meaningful as those things when one is in obsessive love.
However, it’s hard to write sensibly, much less enjoyable, when you’re deep in a myopic mania. Wilde himself barely made it with De Profundis. Given how much Everett hobbles and wastes what his friend Philip Prowse correctly describes as “all that energy” to channel Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas (“They’re both so damn boring, dear. I know that you love her, but honestly… ”), He does it pretty well. Everett’s delight as a writer has always been his ruthlessly clear perspective, especially of himself; The only requirement for a fan is the loss of all objectivity. As bedfellows, these two qualities are as complicated as Wilde and Douglas.
As he is taken to the BBC’s The Musketeers set, he ponders, “It’s not very fancy to be in a people carrier.”
Everett is probably as well known for his writing now as he is for his acting, a remark he is likely to take as an insult to the latter, given the remorseful pleasure he takes these days at seeing his well-filled glass as bone dry. “My career definitely has the category ‘where are you now? “Achieved”, he writes, when just a look at his packed IMDB page suggests something else. But the newer projects often feel like a step backwards for him: when he’s brought to the set of BBC The Musketeers, he muses, “It’s not very fancy to be in a people van.”
In any case, Everett has become one of the most delightful writers of modern fame. His earlier memories, the rough red carpets and other banana peels followed by the more autumnal vanished years, were pearly, indiscreet, and funny as one might have expected. More surprising was how beautifully they were written, poignant, but with an emphasis on faded beauty rather than simple sentimentality. Here it is in the new book on the joys of train travel: “As soon as I’m on the tracks and the past falls behind, I experience a kind of weightless ecstasy, a sloshing affection for the world that looks best from a passing train. Even one’s own problems reach a kind of fin de siècle glamor. “
Everett (left) with Colin Firth in Another Land (1984). Photo: Ronald Grant
Whether Everett remembers the time he was drunk trying to entertain Thierry Henry (“Which team do you play for? Arsehole? Great answer …”) or Lychee, the transgender sex worker he met in Paris decades ago (“At some point, all she has to do is look at a motorcycle and fall off. After six years in the game, she’s a broken china doll”), he’s someone you want to hang out with. He has a writing style that is as seductive as his youthful beauty.
In 2007 he decided to write a screenplay for Wilde: “If the only role I got to play was the gay best friend, I’d take it back to the prototype.” At first everything looks promising and Hollywood producer Scott Rudin wants produce his screenplay, starring the great and now late Philip Seymour Hoffman Wilde. In an act of self-sabotage that is frankly Wildean, Everett insists that only he can play wild. And so the project properly collapses.
But Everett barely kept it alive for the next decade, fueled by his increasingly tortured obsession with it and backed by loyal actor friends who agreed to appear in the film as it turns out there is little to no pay. At some point he goes to Colin Firth’s house and tearfully asks him to be in the movie – they had a fight – and a somewhat confused Firth agrees. During one of their scenes together, Everett ponders how things have changed since they appeared on Another Country 35 years ago: “Then I was the rising star, sitting on a windowsill with binoculars. Now he’s on the rise and I’m the stranded whale on my deathbed. “
He’s a fan of the absurdities of filmmaking (“I just puked on Colin, but my heart isn’t really in it. It doesn’t matter. It’s amazing what you can do with a bottle of Guinness”) as well as the indignation of his deflating self. He never gains a similar perspective on his devotion to Wilde or this movie. “Is this a desperate ego journey in the last ditch or a divine intervention?” he wonders and he never solves this himself (others may have their own theory).
How seriously the reader takes Everett’s somewhat tortured relationship with Wilde likely depends on her tolerance of worshiping literary heroes. Mine is pretty low, but every sentence Everett writes sounds like his personality, and it’s one personality that has always been irresistible. And hell, the movie is great, maybe it was worth it in the end. At some point it would be quite amusing if someone else took up Everett’s Wilde phase – for example Firths, who during the extremely tense filming expressed his concern for his friend: “Are you all right?” He asks. “You look a little worn out.” “I play!” Everett snaps back to Firth and adds, “You must act as if everything is going well.” Wilde would have agreed.
• • To the End of the World: Traveling with Oscar Wilde is published by Little, Brown (£ 20). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply.