The Happy Prince
by writer/director Rupert Everett
Back in 2005 my career as an actor had dried up. Unwilling to call a halt, I decided that I would write myself a wonderful role. Oscar Wilde seemed to be the obvious choice. Since my career had been defined—whether I liked it or not—by my own homosexuality—I would write a film about the patron saint of the Gay movement. Actually, for me Wilde is a kind of Christ figure. Half God, half man, Oscar was a genius who was also blessed with all the usual human traits, pride, greed, snobbery, laziness and vanity. He was one of the first celebrities—famous for being famous. In his heyday he travelled across America—like a period J-Lo—in his own train upholstered in green leather. At the time of his fall, he had three hit shows playing concurrently in London’s West End. No party was complete without him and he numbered Royalty among his fans. He was married to a beautiful woman and together they had two sons. In short, he was the most famous man in London. If all this wasn’t enough, he also had a secret life. He was a Uranian—a lover of men. At first, he was discreet in his affairs but then he met a young man who would change the course of his life, the terrible beauty Lord Alfred Douglas, the youngest son of the mad Marquis of Queensbury. For Wilde, who was Irish, consorting with Douglas was like a dream come true. The pair began to live more and more dangerously, sailing into the Savoy Hotel arm in arm, entertaining stable boys to lavish dinners, and frequenting a male brothel together in Chelsea. Naturally people began to talk. But Oscar didn’t care. He was above the law. He was so famous, so loved, so looked at, that he assumed the whole world had been created just for him so that when the Marquis of Queensbury—infuriated by the flaunting of the relationship with his son—left a card at Wilde’s club, addressed to ‘Oscar Wilde posing as a sodomite,’ Oscar made a fatal mistake. In a fit of insanity, he decided to sue Lord Queensbury for libel and the case went horribly wrong. Queensbury and his lawyers had trawled the back streets of London for informants and paid them to testify. Wilde lost the case and Queensbury was acquitted. Oscar was not only posing as a sodomite. He plainly was one and the crown decided to prosecute him for gross indecency. He was imprisoned for two years with hard labour.
This story has been told three times in films. The first film starred a wonderful actor called Robert Morley (also the King in Marie Antoinette.) In the second, Peter Finch played Wilde and the third, written by Julian Mitchell (who also wrote my first film Another Country) starred Stephen Fry, with Jude Law as Lord Alfred Douglas. All three are wonderful films—the first two being produced in England when it was still illegal to be gay. All three films mainly deal with the period in Oscar’s life before he went to prison. All three present a slightly reflective, witty yet somber Oscar.
I wanted my film to be dirtier—about a star who had crashed from the firmament into the gutter. A kind of rock star on the skids. For me, Wilde in exile was the last great Vagabond of the nineteenth century. Liberty was just another prison as he found himself constantly being forced to move on, from one city to another, from cheap hotel to cheap hotel, from bar to bar. He accepted his fate with a mixture of good cheer and gallows humour. He never lost his sense of fun. He remained curious about people and he never lost the tremendous empathy he felt for others. Of course, there were moments of bitterness, and periods of black depression. He would never see his family again. He could no longer write. As he said ‘I wrote when I knew nothing of life. Now that I know it—there is nothing left to write.’ Of course, his life in exile was one of the great tragic dramas of the fin de siècle—but Wilde was never a victim. He carved his own constitution on the street where his friends were no longer artists but con artists, criminals and rent boys. Maybe he knew somewhere that this final tableau, the disgraced genius smelling of sweat and cigarettes would put the finishing touches on the great work of art—his life. Immortality came through his destruction at the hands of society and it is at the feet of Oscar’s cross that the gay liberation movement gathered.