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'The Happy Prince' Looks To Oscar Wilde's Final Years

Rupert Everett plays playwright and poet Oscar Wilde in "The Happy Prince."
Sony Pictures Classics
Rupert Everett plays playwright and poet Oscar Wilde in "The Happy Prince."

Actor-writer-director Rupert Everett will be in San Diego this Saturday Oct. 20

'The Happy Prince' Looks To Oscar Wilde's Final Years
GUESTS: Rupert Everett, "The Happy Prince" actor/writer/director Beth Accomando, KPBS arts reporter

‘The Happy Prince’ Looks To Oscar Wilde’s Final Years Actor Rupert Everett makes his feature writing and directing debut with the Happy Prince. The film looks to playwright Oscar Wilde's final years in exile after serving two years hard labor for quote gross indecency with men. PBS arts reporter Beth Comando spoke with Rupert Everett when he was in San Diego last month for a screening of the film. When did you kind of get fascinated with Oscar Wilde and realize that you wanted to do something about his life. Well really I think in about 2006 2007 because my career had kind of dried up and I wasn't getting any very good offers and the ones I was getting were just quite depressing and I thought I had to take the law into my own hands somehow and make something happen. So I'd written a couple of books and I'd always imagined segue that into somehow writing a screenplay that I could be in and writing you know a really juicy great big role for myself. So that's how the whole thing started when I was thinking what what kind of films should I try and make. Oscar Wilde seemed to me to be the obvious character to try and paint a portrait of partly because he's he's a genius a wonderful character and a little bit like Charlie Chaplin in the way he's kind of imperious at the end of his life he's almost a kind of homeless person that's shuffling around in donned clothes and equally comic an equally tragic in a way. But I think mostly because since so much of my career had wound up with my own sexuality it seemed that Oscar Wilde really in a way is the patron saint of the gay movement if not the Christ figure. And so he seemed like to be me to be the obvious person to try and put everything in myself into you. You've acted in his playful actually screen versions of his plays as well as the plays themselves. So in playing his characters how did that compare to then taking on him what kind of like throughline did you see through the characters he created and who he was. Well I think it was tremendously useful for me to have played in two plays because the first period was the picture of Dorian Gray in which my character Lord Henry is really one facet of Oscar Wilde definitely. And also then to do the importance of being earnest playing Onji that again is another. There are all facets of Wilde all those parts and I think learning so intimately as you do in a play the text and the phraseology and the rhythm and the humour thing that set me up so much in the writing of the script and informed me a lot about how I wanted to approach the character. I always felt that I had this angle on Oscar Wilde and that never changed. It was a kind of not to sound too Shirley MacLaine ish but it was a kind of supernatural thing. I just felt I knew him always so I knew how I always Bashaw about how I wanted to portray him. And did you always know that you wanted to focus on these later years of his life. Absolutely because I feel that the other films in the way back down when it gets awkward when you know you have to show the people really exactly what was done in their name to a man simply for being homosexual. I think all the other films really stop at the moment he went to prison. And for me that's a bit of a cop out and I wanted to show really the passion of Oscar Wilde in the same way that Mel Gibson showed the passion of Christ. It was similar to me. And so the exile was also virgin territory after all because the other three films hadn't really dealt with that and I think the character was such a fascinating character because he's not any type of victim in his exile even though he's completely you know in the gutter he still challenges the world. It's. Taken everything. Everything. I want my freedom. I. Don't get it to kill me. That's. Natural. Did they ever go back. I mean although it is a tragedy the story of him in exile. It's also the story of real resilience because in fact we're looking at the portrait of the first man really in modern times who is openly homosexual. And so once he was there on the street in France for everybody because he was famous everyone recognized him and knew what he was. That was a huge change in the world because at that moment homosexuality had a face. And at that moment the the road to gay liberation began with no warning. I was transferred one afternoon from ones to Redding jail. Broad daylight. By train shackled to a ward like a performing bear. Jenny was the most exquisite majesty contrived. Junction natural way connection. Platform to Sadleir public and not forgotten. And. Began. To. Show. The. Pace. Is. Growing right now. We. Want. It to. Be. That notion of him being spat on is very similar to Christ being spat on with the crown of thorns by the soldiers. And so I think for me the thing that's most head turning about him is this martyrdom which brought to birth a movement that to to gay equality. What do you think defined him the defining thing about him is his crucifixion really his sacrifice his martyrdom for the gay cause in a way that's for me that's the defining thing about him. What was most important to you about the character of Oscar Wilde that you wanted to get across to audiences. Well the thing that I think is great for audiences is I think in a new virtual constitution that we're living in history's been kind of just elbowed out completely history is now. Last year I think this is a great mistake because particularly for a community that's constantly growing constantly challenging the status quo like the LGBTQ community I think to have a historical context is enormously empowering because you could be sitting here today thinking God life is really terrible and I'm about to commit suicide because last year seemed to be better but if you had a historical context and you could go back to the beginning of a movement which is the story then you could feel enormously empowered at what we've achieved and where we are standing now. And that would give you a different viewpoint for facing the challenges of the future. I think so I feel that the lack of history and everything is a shame. So for me this historical story I'm I'm really hoping that I can turn people onto it because I think it's for me it's been very empowering through through the really proper terrible times that we live through in the gay community for example through AIDS and stuff like that I think I think history gives you a context and you can feel the weight of it backing you up that was actor writer director Rupert Everett speaking with Beth Comando. His film The Happy Prince plays through Thursday at Digital June cinema.

Companion viewing

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1945)

"The Importance of Being Earnest" (1952)

"An Ideal Husband" (1999 and starring Rupert Everett)

Actor Rupert Everett makes his feature directing debut with "The Happy Prince," which looks to Oscar Wilde's final years in exile.

In 1895 Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor for “gross indecency” with other men (an offense for which he has been posthumously pardoned). Five years after his release from prison he would die in poverty and disgraced exile in Paris. These are the years that Everett decides to focus on in his film "The Happy Prince." It's a part of Wilde's life that most films avoid.

This has been a passion project for Everett who writes, directs and stars in the film. He has played Wilde on stage and now he commits to film a performance that brilliantly captures the poignant ruin of this once elegant wit.

Everett conveys what Wilde described as the "exquisite torture" of Queen Victoria's punishment, which included public humiliation that Wilde might have found more painful than the hard labor.

But Everett doesn't shy away from being critical of Wilde, showing that Wilde often dismissed his true friends in favor of false ones that he was in love or perhaps just infatuated with, and he also behaved in ways that were decidedly self-destructive.

Everett is also critical of the hypocrisy of English high society that was happy to embrace Wilde and his deliciously witty plays and turn a blind eye to his private life so long as he kept it private. But they were quick to turn on him and eager to forget about him.

Everett excels in the role and proves to be an effective writer and director who knows his subject well and knows how he wants to portray Wilde's final years.

Everett was in San Diego to talk about his passion project on Oct. 20 at a screening at the Angelika Film Center at Carmel Mountain and then one at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas.

"The Happy Prince" screens through Nov. 8 at Digital Gym Cinema.

'The Happy Prince' Looks To Oscar Wilde's Final Years
Actor Rupert Everett makes his feature directing debut with "The Happy Prince," which looks to Oscar Wilde's final years in exile. Everett will be in San Diego on Oct. 20.