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Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde (1960)

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teaser Oscar Wilde (1960)

The trials of the great author Oscar Wilde - personal trials, professional trials, legal trials - ended when he died in 1900, around the same time motion pictures were being born. All the trials were sparked by scandal and controversy over his homosexuality, which couldn't be depicted in forthright ways (blame the censors) during the first several decades of film history. But this didn't stop enterprising directors, screenwriters, and producers from exploring Wilde's life in discreet, tactful movies that invite the audience to read between the lines.

One of the best is the simply titled Oscar Wilde, directed by Gregory Ratoff and starring two excellent actors: Robert Morley as the protagonist and the great Ralph Richardson as Sir Edward Carson, the British barrister who defended the Marquis of Queensberry against a charge of criminal libel that Wilde aimed at him in an 1872 lawsuit. Morley had made his Broadway debut in a 1938 production of the play Oscar Wilde by Leslie and Sewell Stokes, on which Jo Eisinger's screenplay is partly based. The always-busy Richardson took on the role of Carson in the same year he played a key role in Otto Preminger's epic Exodus.

Two unusual factors lend heightened drama to the court proceedings shown by Oscar Wilde in riveting detail. One is that Wilde and Carson had known each other in their student days at Trinity College in Dublin, which led Wilde to predict that his old school chum would prosecute the case "with all the added bitterness of an old friend." The other is that Carson didn't want to accept the case at first, but changed his mind when he realized that Queensberry's alleged libel was actually grounded in truth and therefore wasn't libelous under the law. Wilde withdrew the case when he realized he couldn't possibly win, but the trial had consequences that proved disastrous for him.

Oscar Wilde starts in Paris's legendary Pre Lachaise Cemetery, where Wilde is buried; while the camera seeks out his ornate tombstone, he introduces himself in voiceover. The scene then switches to London many years earlier, when Wilde is enjoying the fame, fortune, and adulation brought by the premiere of Lady Windermere's Fan, his latest elegantly written comedy. On this celebratory night he meets Lord Alfred Douglas (John Neville), the Marquis of Queensberry's handsome son. Better known by his nickname, Bosie, the young man is a would-be author and poet like Wilde, who immediately befriends him.

Wilde lives an apparently contented life with his wife Constance (Phyllis Calvert) and their two children, but he has secret gay affairs on the side. These activities begin to surface when four of his love letters are stolen from Bosie's college rooms. Related to this, Bosie is at permanent war with the marquis, who despises his son's sensitive, poetic nature and blames Wilde for encouraging it. In a rage one evening, the marquis storms into Wilde's club and leaves a visiting card on which he writes, "For Oscar Wilde posing as a sodomite," "misspelling "sodomite" but sending a strong message just the same. Seeing a chance to get back at his father for years of ill treatment, Bosie pushes Wilde to sue the marquis for libel. Court proceedings commence.

Wilde eventually realizes that Bosie has been using him as a weapon of revenge, but by this time the damage can't be undone. After he gives up his libel case as a lost cause, the information that Carson extracted from Wilde on the witness stand - complete with lurid accounts of young men plied with champagne, seduced with lavish dinners, and cavorted with in incense-scented chambers - becomes the basis of a criminal trial for gross indecency. Wilde is convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labor. When he gets out of prison he is poor, in failing health, and abandoned by his family. At the end of the film he is laughing, but the sound contains more hysteria than mirth.

With his rotund figure and "perpetual look of pop-eyed surprise," in a film historian's words, Morley was especially suited to comedies like John Huston's Beat the Devil (1953) and Tony Richardson's The Loved One (1965), but he was a versatile actor with film and television credits in many genres. Starting his career on the stage, he first played Wilde in the London production of the Stokes brothers' play, two years before his New York debut. He was thus closely acquainted with the character before playing him in Ratoff's film, where he moves seamlessly from the self-congratulatory elegance of the early scenes to the psychologically devastated sadness of the later ones.

Richardson, who appeared in a terrifically wide range of plays and movies, is commonly named alongside John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier as one of the three greatest English actors of their day, and watching Oscar Wilde it's easy to see why. His lines in the film are directly connected with the actual words of Wilde's trial, but Richardson's powerful, penetrating delivery cuts through their no-nonsense dryness to create a sense of destiny-driven inevitability. It's also worth noting that the courtroom setting and straightforward cinematography force Richardson to say nearly all of his dialogue while gazing up at the witness stand and the judge's bench - a restriction that Richardson overcomes with ease, giving a performance that's as spellbinding as it is effortless, even when director Ratoff has him speaking a pivotal speech directly into Georges Prinal's camera.

In an interesting coincidence, not one but two British biopics of Wilde appeared in the last week of May 1960: Ratoff's Oscar Wilde and Ken Hughes's The Trials of Oscar Wilde, also known as The Green Carnation, with James Mason as Carson and Peter Finch as the title character. Also notable is Brian Gilbert's capably crafted Wilde (1997), starring Stephen Fry; it gives a heartrending glimpse of Wilde on the prison-house treadmill, which Ratoff chooses not to show. Many screen adaptations of Wilde's works have been produced as well, ranging from Albert Lewin's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) to Oliver Parker's The Ideal Husband (1999). More movies about the Irish-born playwright, novelist, and poet will no doubt be made, but few are likely to surpass Oscar Wilde for high drama and first-rate acting.

Director: Gregory Ratoff
Producers: Jo Eisinger and Gregory Ratoff
Screenplay: Jo Eisinger; based on the play Oscar Wilde by Leslie and Cyril Stokes and literary work by Frank Harris
Cinematographer: Georges Perinal
Film Editing: Antony Gibbs
Art Direction: Scott MacGregor
Music: Kenneth V. Jones
With: Robert Morley (Oscar Wilde), Ralph Richardson (Sir Edward Carson), Phyllis Calvert (Constance Wilde), John Neville (Lord Alfred Douglas), Dennis Price (Robert Ross), Alexander Knox (Sir Edward Clarke), Edward Chapman (Marquis of Queensberry), William Devlin (Solicitor-General), Robert Harris (Justice Henn Collins), Henry Oscar (Justice Wills), Martin Benson (George Alexander), Wilton Morley (Cyril Wilde), Stephen Dartnell (Cobble), Ronald Leigh-Hunt (Lionel Johnson), Martin Boddy (Inspector Richards), Leonard Sachs (Richard Legalliene), Tom Chatto (Clerk of Arraigns)

by David Sterritt

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