The Happy Prince, Rupert Everett’s passion project about the last years of Oscar Wilde, centres on a poignant scene in the shabby bedroom in Paris where Wilde spent his last days. Full of emotion as he spoke to the audience after the premier screening at the Sundance Film Festival.
“This idea of a star falling from grace and living among vagrants and street urchins, a man who used to be friends with royalty and the toast of the Cafe Royal – his fall is the most fascinating part of his life for me. All the other films that had been made about him always end at the point where my film begins so it felt like it was a good story to tell. He was never a victim, he attacked failure and he just spiralled down with amazing humour and irony. I love that about him and how he dealt with his fate.”
Wilde’s height of fame came about through plays including The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband (Everett starred in stage and film productions of both plays) and his fall came from a court battle with the father of his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde was arrested for gross indecency and served two years hard labour. The experience broke him and he died penniless, less than three years after his release, at age 46.
“It’s the riches to rags element of the Wilde story that really compounded his image as one of the greats ideas for the 20th century. He died in 1900 and that was really when the LGBTQ road to liberation started. Homosexuality wasn’t an issue, it wasn’t talked about until the death of Oscar Wilde.”
As well as writing and directing, Everett plays the exiled, ailing Wilde and assembles an excellent cast of co-stars including Colin Firth, Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson. It’s a robust production, immersive in historical detail but never static, rather like a Lautrec come to life. All gaslight and natural light, the aesthetic is centred in a salon and restaurant, with a richness and sense of the theatrical that is in tune with Wilde’s life and period. Modern camera techniques bring a fresh, almost shocking verite to scenes like Wilde being chased through European streets by a gang of thuggish young men, or being shackled at a railway station, and subject to the stares and insults of passers-by.
Wilde lived large and beyond boundaries even in poverty. Interwoven in the narrative is Wilde’s book for children, The Happy Prince, a tale of great pathos that shows the author’s empathy with paupers and outsiders. Everett’s playing of the role is compelling, encompassing all the light and shade of the character’s story.
“Working in Wilde plays and Wilde movies I suppose I’m one of those actors whose strength is light comedy. I realised early on I had a capacity to play him quite well. The structured sentences and the phrasing are quite long and if you don’t know how to glance off them it becomes quite cumbersome. I always had that knack and when you translate them to film they’re like those fast paced movies from the 1940s with glittering dialogue that if you speak it very naturally it’s always effective.”
Everett recounts the long road it took to get the film made, an object lesson of the struggling reality for many filmmakers, even those with a foothold in the business.
“When I first wrote the script in 2008 I really thought of it as trying to find a vehicle for myself as an actor. Robert Fox, one of our producers, sent it to Scott Rudin (The Social Network) and he loved the script. I thought, ‘god – I’ve arrived in one in the snakes and ladders game of it all!’
“Then Scott said he wanted Philip Seymour Hoffman to play Oscar Wilde which is actually a brilliant idea. I should have said ‘yes’ because I would then have established myself as a writer, but I said ‘no.’ Scott stayed with the project for a bit and said if I got one of six directors that he mentioned he would be on board. It took about two years to get a ‘no’ from all of them! At which point a screenplay becomes dead because it doesn’t survive in a book. Then I thought I’m not going to let it die, I’ll try to direct the thing myself and that’s when the whole thing really started to get difficult!
“We were turned down by all the usual suspects in the UK, then we took it around Germany and most of them also said ‘no.’ At that point I had the idea to do a play by David Hare called The Judas Kiss which is about Oscar before prison. I thought that would show I knew how to play Oscar. It went well and the BBC, the Bavarian Film Fund and Lionsgate came on board. Then we had another four years of trying to get it together. That was when it became a question of life and death for me because I’d put everything else on the back burner. I’d more or less disappeared from public view. I just had to do or die then, I felt it became more than passion, it was survival.
“Being director and actor, because I was so stressed making the film sometimes I did things in my own acting that were really wrong. I was so keen to finish the day every day because we had such a tough schedule that I would hurry up every scene I was in. Sometimes I was meant to be really old and ill and not supposed to be able to get up off the chair, and I was bouncing off it because I was so keen to get on to the next scene! When I was confronted with this in the edit I was able to improve my own performance by 50%, just by tinkering around in the edit. As a director I definitely managed to help my own performance in the edit. Nobody else needed it as much as me!”