‘Feasting with Panthers’

The Happy Prince

a film written and directed by Rupert Everett
Wilhelm Moser/Sony Pictures Classics
Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde in The Happy Prince

How to perform a man who himself did nothing else? “From the beginning Wilde performed his life and continued to do so even after fate had taken the plot out of his hands,” W.H. Auden wrote in a perceptive, if strikingly critical, essay in 1963.1 Oscar Wilde famously told Gide that he had put his talent into his work and his genius into his life, and although his work is still enjoyed—there was recently a year-long season of his plays at the Vaudeville Theatre in London—he divides opinion as a writer, with John Banville in these pages recently putting a higher estimate on him than Auden had.2

But “Oscar” continues to inspire any number of books, plays, and movies. One filmography lists twenty-seven items. There are many filmed versions of his work, among them six of The Picture of Dorian Gray (with casts including Anthony Perkins and Malcolm McDowell), four of The Canterville Ghost (with casts including John Gielgud and Patrick Stewart, and a 1944 version directed by Jules Dassin with Charles Laughton), and four of Salomé (one directed by Ken Russell and one by Al Pacino). And there are filmed versions of the comedies, although they never quite work on screen: the 1952 Importance of Being Earnest directed by Anthony Asquith, despite Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, Dorothy Tutin as Cecily, and Margaret Rutherford as Miss Prism, is stagey and slow-paced. An even more improbable Wildean than Pacino was Otto Preminger, who directed a 1949 movie version of Lady Windermere’s Fan as The Fan.

Then there are the biopics. Two came out in 1960: Oscar Wilde with Robert Morley as Wilde and The Trials of Oscar Wilde with Peter Finch. Critical opinion at the time thought the Finch version the better, and viewing them again it’s hard to disagree. The former is clumsy and sometimes a little leaden and, although there’s something rather touching about Morley, he is plainly miscast. So in a different way is Finch, who is too handsome, slim, and dashing: Wilde was never very prepossessing in appearance, as opposed to presence and conversation, and by forty he was, as photographs and the sketches by Toulouse-Lautrec and Max Beerbohm show, bloated by food and drink.

In 1960 London also saw The Importance of Being Oscar, a one-man stage show by Micheál Mac Liammóir. Since mixed identities, “guising,” double lives, and “Bunburying” were so much a part of Wilde’s work—and life—this may have been an apt interpreter. “Mac Liammóir” was actually a Londoner of modest origins named Alfred Willmore, with no Irish connections or ancestry at all. He’d been a child actor before the Great War, appearing in Peter Pan with his exact contemporary Noël Coward, but then moved to Dublin and entirely reinvented himself as an Irishman, claiming to…

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