Lords and ladies and gayness, oh my!

Jun 23, 1999 at 12:00 am

Renowned for his infinitely quotable witticisms, Oscar Wilde, literary star of late 19th century London society, is in the midst of a resurgence at the end of the 20th century.

Wilde’s career crashed and burned in 1895 when he was sentenced to two years of hard labor for "the crime of sodomy." The writer who lampooned hypocrisy and advanced the idea of art for art’s sake became a pariah after the notorious trial, and his work fell into obscurity. But nearly a century after his death come a film biography (Wilde), high-profile stagings of his plays and now a sparkling adaptation of An Ideal Husband from Oliver Parker (Othello), who has a few theories about the renewed interest.

"He’s always been ahead of his time," Parker explains in Los Angeles, "and because of the position he’s taken flying in the face of convention, he’s been held as a symbol of free thinking, independence and individuality. People are beginning to join the dots and realizing that he’s a much bigger personality – and artist – than they thought before."

"I think with the sexual revolution, he gradually became more and more important," adds Rupert Everett, who has acted in numerous productions of Wilde, including The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

"I’m pleased to be doing a play a hundred years after he died as a mark of respect," the openly gay Everett continues, "and I do see him as a war hero. When you’re looking at the state of things like homosexuality now, you automatically think about him because, first of all, he invented the term. Until Oscar Wilde framed the term, it was something that was never talked about."

It’s not just Wilde himself, but An Ideal Husband, with its political scandal mixed with sexual roundelays, which seems eerily synchronous today.

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," quotes Julianne Moore, "and the timing of this movie couldn’t be better because you see that this stuff has always occurred."

"What’s wonderful about Oscar Wilde," she continues, "is, for all his wit and the wonderful language, at the heart of it he’s a humanist, and he’s basically saying that we are human, we’re fallible, there is no perfection, there’s no ideal and you’re not to be so judgmental."

For Oliver Parker, the irony inherent in the play’s title has to do with unrealistic expectations of perfection made by imperfect people.

"Wilde is just saying," he explains, "if you’re judging these people, make sure you’re judging yourself too and understand that forgiveness is as powerful a force as judgment."

It was this emotional side to Wilde, whose work is often portrayed as heartless, that Parker wanted to bring to the surface in An Ideal Husband.

"There was huge compassion and enormous heart there," he says, "that was just hidden behind this sort of glittering facade.

"For me, [Oscar Wilde’s] essence," Oliver Parker continues, "is something you find in virtually everything he does: a plea for tolerance. It’s a challenge to take on the traditional values and discard them in favor of your own."