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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

I watched about 40 minutes of WILDE, and then couldn't stand it any more. (Lisa soldiered all the way through it.) To me, it was one of those movies that does everything well except have an interesting script. It was lovingly directed by Brian Gilbert. Stephen Fry does a lovely turn as Oscar Wilde, and Jude Law is beautifully hateful as Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, Wilde's downfall. But Julian Mitchell's script was one missed opportunity after another.

There seems to be a species of biopic in which an actor "brings to life" a character we know well. Fry is witty, cultured, pained and thoughtful as Wilde, as one might expect.

But I want a biopic to get under the character we know so well and tell me something I didn't know. Show me what makes Sammy run. I don't need a movie to tell me that Wilde was witty and cultured, for God's sake.

Here's what I would have wanted to know about Oscar Wilde. Why did he test the limits of Victorian respectability? Was it a calculated bit of self promotion to congratulate his audience on their intellligence in liking his play? Did he figure he would go farther by being slightly shocking? Did he really just say what he thought and damn the torpedoes? Did he not realize he would get in trouble? Or was he just a lovestruck fool?

I am inclined to the first, because I can't imagine that a fellow who writes plays as clever as THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST about society and its mores, could possibly be unaware of society and its mores.

But then why does Wilde destroy his life by pursuing a man for libel for calling him homosexual when he knows he's homosexual and hasn't been discreet about it? And then why, when he loses the case, and knows he's going to be arrested for sodomy, does he not hop on the next boat to Paris, where he might have been the toast of the Bohemians? Gross miscalculation? Believing his own hype? Or a sudden, inexplicable need to be straightforward and honest from a man who up till then had been explicitly in favor of art over truth?

And how about Wilde's attitude towards his bisexuality? He had a wife and children. He had homosexual affairs. Were the latter really so easy and un-fraught for him? Did it really require no emotional anguish at all to go to bed with a man for the first time? Sure, a lot of public school boys enjoyed each other. But homosexuality was considered an abhorrent vice. The movie treats Wilde's choices as if he just went where his heart lead him. But he had a brain, too. Where is the scene where he tries to convince himself that he dares sleep with his friend? Where is the scene where he tries to convince himself to go back to his wife?

And how about Wilde's attitude towards his family? Wilde abandoned his wife and two young children to rent a country cottage with Bosie. Quite aside from his infatuation with Bosie... doesn't he miss his kids? Or, doesn't he worry that he ought to miss his kids, but doesn't? One way or another, I want to know.

Oh, and what about Wilde's attitude towards being Irish, two generations before Ireland fought free of colonizing Britain?

If you're going to write a biopic, think about what the story is. What does the main character want? What are his obstacles? Is there an antagonist? What are the stakes? What is the jeopardy? Just because you know what the events of a man's life are, doesn't excuse you from figuring out what his story is.

In the movie, Wilde goes through with his various court cases because Bosie wants him to, in order to make his father look bad. But that is not a story. That is an event. To make it a story, you have to know the price Wilde is paying -- and in his case, you want to know that Wilde is keenly aware of what he is going to lose in order to satisfy his lover's hatred of his father. The story is not just what happens. The story is why it happens. The story is what it costs. The story is what the protagonist feels and knows about what is happening. The story is seeing the tragedy coming and knowing why it is coming and why the hero does not step off the railroad tracks.

Lisa tells me that some of what I'm talking about shows up in the second half of the movie. But the story is supposed to be the whole movie. The seeds need to be planted already. I didn't see'em.

This movie had an implied jeopardy, but no clear stakes. What did Wilde feel he was going to gain? And most importantly, it is not clear what precisely Wilde wants out of life. Did he want above all to be famous? To be loved? To be loved for what he really was? What drove his love for Bosie? Was it just Bosie's beauty? Or Bosie's utter lack of a reality check? Did he chase Bosie as a young man, or as a dream of a young man?

We would want to see scenes where he unburdens himself to someone other than the object of his desire. We'd want to see how his plays and novels related to his life, I think.

I'm mad. I'm mad because the movie could have been so much more compelling... ah, well.

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2 Comments:

Hey Alex,
Most of what you're looking for is in an excellent play called "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" by Moises Kaufman. It's really excellent.

By Blogger DMc, at 11:49 AM  

Damn! You're articulating so well the feelings that I have in the research that I'm doing for my story and college project to "support" the story (so I can graduate!). I'm learning all these ideas and theories but nothing about the story that brought about those ideas or theories! So I can't feel them well enough to write about them. Argh!

By Blogger The_Lex, at 1:34 PM  

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