Recovering Oscar Wilde: Rupert Everett on Making The Happy Prince

By Alci Rengifo

Rupert Everett has basked in the glow of fame and recognition, and known the sudden shadow of obscurity. It is not surprising to find out that he is a great admirer of Oscar Wilde, an artist who produced work acclaimed in its day and beyond, yet the revelation of his sexual identity became the truth that began to set him back. Everett still believes it was his coming out that suddenly ended his streak of hits which includes The Madness of King George, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Shakespeare in Love and Shrek 2. Little wonder he felt connected to an artist from long ago, yet so contemporary.

To be great can mean to be haunted. Many have reached the highest peaks of fame and fortune, only to come crashing down like Icarus. But the brilliant work remains. Oscar Wilde’s life was as rowdy and conflicted as his beautiful work. The writer, critic and playwright who penned The Picture of Dorian Gray and one of my personal favorites, the play Salome, would be ensnared by ill-fated desire in a love affair that would destroy him. The Happy Prince, a new film written and directed by Everett, is a portrait of Wilde nearing the final act. Like a great but defeated raconteur, Wilde (played by Everett) entertains and drowns his sorrows in the cafes and nightspots of Paris, refusing to ever return to England. Having been imprisoned over his love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (Colin Morgan), Wilde is left now old but still burning with words, with loyal friend Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) attempting to keep him centered. Another loyal friend, Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) also worries at the decline of the author. Yet even as he loses himself in memories, Wilde displays his sharp wit at every turn, biting and cutting into society even as he basks in its excesses. Yet Wilde cannot keep himself away from Douglas, and seeks him out like a moth seeking a final consumption in a flame. Fittingly, Everett has named the film after one of Wilde’s most cherished short stories, in which a swallow sits atop a statue, gazing at the world below.

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Rupert Everett in The Happy Prince

Rodeo Drive, by the decadent luxury of Beverly Hills, is where Everett is sitting down with this writer to discuss The Happy Prince and his absorption of Wilde’s work and persona. A little grayer but still full of British wit and his own exuberance, Everett is eager to discuss what amounts to a sort of passion project. It took 10 years to write, finance and make the film.

“Immersing myself with Oscar Wilde was really exciting,” says Everett. “When you start off writing a script about something like this, you can almost know what these people were doing every day because they wrote so many letters in the 19thcentury. So you can sleuth a character in a very good way. You can go to the places, and find the street corners and clothes if you wanted to.” Everett read every book he could get his hands on about Wilde, both contemporary and recent. Yet his focus is on a specific period, when Wilde is released from hard labor and attempts to recover his life. “All the other stories shy away from the responsibility of what society did to this man for the crime of being homosexual. It wasn’t just the horror of a prison sentence with hard labor. It was also the weird sort of horror of another liberty that became another sort of prison. For me the story that was interesting to tell was like Christ’s passion, it’s the passion of Oscar Wilde.” . . .

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