Walk on the Wilde side

Contemporary events and an imaginative director revive a classic play.

FOR YEARS, the early plays of Oscar Wilde were dismissed as sentimental melodramas with snippets of sparkling wit. But recently, An Ideal Husband came back to life, its satirical comments—about members of society who pretend to live one way while actually living another—rejuvenated by the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals. Stage productions proliferated, including a successful run of the play at the Seattle Rep.

An Ideal Husband

directed by Oliver Parker

starring Rupert Everett, Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore, Minnie Driver

starts June 25 at Harvard Exit, others

A film version seemed the next obvious step, but when director Oliver Parker was approached about it, he had his doubts. During a recent press tour, he said, "It seemed so theatrical, I wasn't sure I could make it cinematic enough. But when I went to see it again at a theater on the West End, I was hooked by the contemporary elements. As it turned out, many of the things I was nervous about were the very things that I was most excited by later on—like the language. It's difficult to do, but if you can get it right, then you get fantastic dialogue."

An Ideal Husband concerns a rising politician, Sir Robert Chiltern (played by Jeremy Northam), whose personal wealth sprang from a criminal act. A woman named Mrs. Chevely (Julianne Moore) comes to town with evidence of his secret and threatens to expose him unless he publicly supports a fraudulent financial scheme. Distraught that he could lose not only his career but also the love of his adoring but morally strict wife (Cate Blanchett), Chiltern confesses his situation to his close friend Lord Goring (Rupert Everett)—who, it turns out, has his own history with Mrs. Chevely. The twisting story line features comic subplots and clever barbs at hypocrisy, but it is primarily a sincere plea for tolerance, a plea with particular resonance for Wilde, whose life was ultimately destroyed by a scandal that publicly exposed his homosexuality.

In translating the play into a movie, Parker made a number of changes to settings, characters, and plot. While it may be difficult for devotees of the original to embrace some of Parker's emendations—in particular changes towards the end that subtly alter Wilde's tone, though arguably not his intentions—it's difficult to find fault with the actors, who not only handle the sophisticated language with aplomb but also find the emotional core underneath. Parker strove to keep the dialogue from becoming heady and sterile. Having acted in Wilde's plays himself, he understood the traditional pitfalls: "There tends to be a British way of doing it," he says. "You start every line down here very slowly [he drops his voice to a bass tone] and start speaking quickly as you get higher [he raises his pitch] and you get a laugh at the end of the line, ha ha ha! It's all sort of—aah! You go crazy! It's the opposite of what the writing is; Wilde was a hugely passionate man, albeit very encoded. In England the veil, the facade, is too often immovable."

Rupert Everett and Julianne Moore have garnered well-deserved praise for their performances. Says Parker, "Rupert epitomizes the Wilde style for me. He just absolutely gets it right every moment. Mrs. Chevely normally is done like she's Cruella de Vil; Julianne saw the sympathetic and vulnerable areas of her which she could build on—and made it very sexy, too, though not in an obvious way." But the emotional core of the play comes from Cate Blanchett's Lady Chiltern. "She was so on the moment, very playful, not intimidated by the whole Wildean context. It's the toughest role. She's physically, animally very drawn to her husband, and loves him and knows instinctively that that must be as important as the bloody values she's been brought up with."

"I suppose I'm going to get a bunch of purist responses at a certain point," Parker continues. "It's quite interesting, the debate. The main job is to identify the essence that you think is worth making a film about. There's an element of paradox in everything, whether it's a single line or the whole piece, that is probably the driving force behind everything Wilde wrote, to make sure you think again. Every line has that little kink in it, that little surprise, to make you acknowledge that life has ambiguities."

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