Dir. by Gregory Ratoff - 1 hr. 36 min.
By chance, I caught part of "Oscar Wilde" on TV a few months back. I caught the beginning, which was alright, and I can't remember what I did for the hour or so in the middle, but then I caught the very end of the film, which concludes with a laugh-out-loud declaration by a drunk, broken-down Wilde to a musician to "play me something gay." That was enough to make me curious to watch the entire film; despite my literature-heavy education, I stumbled across the work of Oscar Wilde in an inadvertent way, through one of the finest volumes of Dave Sim's epic comic book "Cerebus," titled "Melmoth." Ever since then, I've been interested in Wilde and his work, and I'll admit that I wanted to see if this entire film was full of this sort of double entrendre. Also, I'd recently seen some other films that Robert Morley had been in, and really enjoyed his work.
For the most part, tracking down information about (and a way to re-watch) the film in question usually isn't that difficult. There is an embarrassment of riches in terms of information about entertainment, but it appeared that "Oscar Wilde" had slipped through the cracks. There is a Wikipedia entry for it, and the IMDB page that you may have likely come to this review from, but at the time, I couldn't find any way to watch it all the way through. I can't find a trailer for it (which is what I'd normally embed above, instead of a poster). It would appear that there was never a DVD (or Blu-Ray) release, and I wasn't clear on whether or not there had been a VHS release, either. The Turner Classic Movies page didn't have any replays listed, so I told my DVR to record anything to do with Oscar Wilde, and hoped that it would eventually turn up. It took a few months, but it did finally turn up.
"Oscar Wilde" is the story of Oscar Wilde (you probably guessed that), a famous pithy Irish writer. After one of Wilde's (played by Robert Morley) successful theatre openings, he meets a stylish young man named Lord Alfred Douglas (John Neville), and they strike up a very close friendship. Wilde helps Douglas out of a jam with a would-be blackmailer (Douglas had been careless with some incriminating love letters), and they become inseparable. There are some problems with this; Wilde is married, Wilde and Douglas' relationship is not platonic, Douglas is still careless with leaving correspondence around, tongues start wagging, and "the love that dare not speak it's name" is super-illegal in Britain at the time. Wilde and Douglas' relationship also infuriates Douglas' father, the Marquis of Queensbury (Edward Chapman), who eventually outs Wilde. Douglas eggs Wilde on to press charges against his father for slander, in a vain attempt to get the pee out of the pool, which backfires horribly.
Ordinarily, I'd dive into the positives first, but since there are way more positives than negatives to this film, let's get the weird stuff out of the way first. One of the things that you'll have to suspend your disbelief over is the idea of Robert Morley playing a character that's at least a decade younger than he actually was. That's not to say anything about his performance, but it's something you might notice, and then will have to dismiss from your mind. Some of the background info helps with this: "Oscar Wilde" is based on a successful play that Morley starred in when he was considerably younger. Even with the amount of time it took to turn the play into a film, it would make sense to use the same actor who had helped make the play notable. The other quirk to this film is the use of the word "gay." Morley drops that word into conversation at least a couple of times, and there's also a point where he uses it as an adjective (as a synonym of "happy") during a courtroom scene where he's defending himself from the charges of being gay! I have to grant that the language around this particular issue was different at the time, and these lines probably weren't intended to be huge punchlines, but the intervening fifty or so years since the release of the film has turned those lines into punchlines.
One of the things that I was curious about when watching "Oscar Wilde" all the way through was just how explicit they were going to be about the fact that Wilde was going being persecuted for being gay. Those punchlines are a lot funnier if the filmmakers and cast were going to spend the duration of the run-time tap-dancing around the issue, but the film does eventually get down to brass tacks, explicitly calling Wilde a sodomite (in a great scene - Douglas' father writes on a note card to be delivered to Wilde that he's posing as a sodomite, hands it to a hotel desk clerk, who then has to look up what a sodomite is in his handy dictionary). This isn't an explicit film, you shouldn't expect to see Wilde and Douglas express their affection for one another physically, nor are there going to be any explicit descriptions of the mechanics of gay love. Even so, the issue is laid out bare, much more so that I would have expected from a film of this era.
The part of this film that I missed the first time around turned out to be a spellbinding extended courtroom sequence, one that's supposed to be about proving Douglas' father had slandered Wilde by calling his sexuality into question, but quickly turns into Wilde having to defend his assertion that he wasn't gay (against mountains of evidence to the contrary, dug up by private investigators). The entire section of this film feels like a play in the best possible way: it's set in one locale, the director mostly chooses to get out of the way of his actors, and the tension mounts and builds until it all falls apart. It's an incredibly simple approach, but one that rests on having actors that can pull it off (and that you might have enough sympathy for the main character to want to see him escape intact). I can't say enough about the work that Morley and Ralph Richardson (playing Edward Carson, the Marquis' lawyer) do here, and about how sharply the characters and dialogue are written. By the end of it, the very traits that made Wilde famous (his sharp wit, ability to command an audience, and his inability to avoid turning a phrase for the purpose of entertainment) have repeatedly fended off Carson's accusations, until Carson manages to parry Wilde's gift with language long enough to allow Wilde to stick his foot in his own mouth.
Wilde's downfall and death are swift here, and that's the part of Wilde's story that I had known about going in. It's beyond bleak; Douglas had been preying on Wilde's infatuation with him in order to harm the Marquis, and when that failed, Wilde was left with nothing but a prison sentence ahead of him, and then the inability to work afterwards (perhaps because his audience and circle of friends had dissipated to only one man, Robert Ross (Dennis Price), a manager of sorts). The final line of the film ("play me something gay") is both riotously funny and unfortunate. The beginning of the film is extravagant and refined, the middle is tension-filled, and the downfall sequence is fun only if you like pulling the wings off of butterflies. The story successfully manages it's tone throughout, only to be undone by the mutation of language over time.
I was pleasantly surprised watching "Oscar Wilde" all the way through. I had somewhat expected a superficial, campy, occasionally goofy film, and got something much better. It seems Robert Morley often played supporting roles in films (he didn't exactly have a leading-man physique), and I enjoyed seeing him get the opportunity to carry a story with a role that was perfectly suited for him. If you're a fan of Wilde's work (or of Morley's), this is a really good way to spend an hour and a half. But it'll pretty much have to be an accident for you to stumble across this film, so set your DVRs and commence to waiting.
4 / 5 - TV