In 1890 Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde published the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. His star would rise quickly. In February of 1895 his play The Importance of Being Earnest opened in London. In May of that year, he was sentenced to prison for gross indecency. Wilde died penniless in 1900. The UK laws forbidding sexual acts between men would not be disbanded till 1969.
In 1960 two competing films about Oscar Wilde were released. Both utilized transcripts from the sodomy trials. British censors required that the salacious testimony from the witnesses be kept off screen. And that his relationship with his lover, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, be presented ambiguously.
I found Ken Hughes’s The Trials of Oscar Wilde to be the stronger of the two films. But Peter Finch’s Wilde suffers from the censored screenplay. He’s dignified, melancholy and chaste. There’s none of the charm, vanity or showmanship that led to his celebrity. His lover, Bosie, is written as a Fatal Attraction style villain. But gay actor John Fraser plays him honestly and provides a needed jolt of queer desire. He’s the highlight of a sterile film.
Let’s take a quick overview in this spoiler filled recap.
Act One: Bad Romance
Scene One: The St. James Theater, London, 1892
(Oscar Wilde gives an opening night curtain speech that will be quoted in each major Wilde film.)
FANS: You’re brilliant Wilde!
OSCAR WILDE (Celebrated writer): Yes, I am.
BOSIE (Disaster twink): Darling, lend me some money.
WILDE: Anything for you.
MARQUESS OF QUEENSBERRY (retired boxer): Wilde, stop corrupting my son or you’ll be sorry!
BOSIE: Go away daddy! I hate hate hate you!
Scene Two: London, 1895
CONSTANCE and ROBBIE (Wilde’s wife and ex-boyfriend): Oscar, you really should dump him.
BOSIE: Dump me? I’m not going to be ignooored Oscar! (Threatens him with a knife.)
WILDE: I can’t say no to that face.
QUEENSBERRY: Oscar Wilde is posing as a sodomite!
WILDE: Slander sir. I’ll see you in court.
Act Two: Three Trials
Scene Three: Courthouse
JUDGE: Order in the court.
PROSECUTOR CARSON (James Mason): Your writing is homoerotic.
WILDE: It’s poetry.
CARSON: Did you kiss 16-year-old Walter Granger?
WILDE: No. He was ugly.
AUDIENCE: GASP! That means Wilde kisses pretty boys!
(Fast forward through two more trials, using censored transcripts from the actual testimony.)
RENT BOYS: We’d tell you what Oscar did to us. But the film censors won’t allow it.
JUDGE: Oscar Wilde, I sentence you to two years in prison with hard labor.
Act Three: Prison
Scene Four: Wilde’s Home
BOSIE & ROBBIE: Leave the country with us!
COPS: Oscar Wilde, you’re under arrest.
(Wilde spends two years in prison.)
Scene Five: Train Station, 1897
CONSTANCE: I’m taking the kids. But I’ll pay your expenses… as long as you stay away from Bosie.
BOSIE: Hello Oscar!
WILDE: And then I turned my back on Bosie and got on a train to France.
BOSIE: Are we going to mention the part where we tried to get back together?
Mad About The Boy
I’m not against Lord Alfred… I think he definitely loved Wilde. But he was a 22-year-old boy caught up in a huge scandal. It’s intoxicating and exciting. And he was a volatile, quite hysterical, and extremely spoiled boy.Rupert Everett, actor, writer and director of The Happy Prince
Bosie was, by most accounts, an abusive prat. Yet his relationship with Wilde lasted for four years. They even reunited, briefly, when Wilde was released from prison. The four major Wilde films struggle to explain the relationship.
The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) suggests that Bosie liked the money and Wilde liked the beauty. The actors play a stronger bond but the script rarely lets them discuss it. When they briefly separate Wilde says “Sometimes, when I see the sunlight on an evening sky, or wander by the river and watch the dark waters, I seem to see him flitting by me in the darkness. And then I feel terribly alone.”
Gregory Ratoff’s Oscar Wilde (1960) was clumsily adapted from a stage play. The actors give stiff performances and the script crams too many Wilde quotes into casual conversation. But Robert Morley’s Wilde and John Neville’s Bosie are given more leeway to explore their relationship. Bosie meets Wilde at the theater and gushes over him like a starstruck Eve Harrington. They engage in some romcom hijinks when Wilde poses as a police inspector to rescue Bosie from a blackmailer. Bosie even apologizes at the end. Sort of.
OSCAR: “You must forgive me Bosie.”Oscar Wilde (1960)
BOSIE: “You were right. I was looking for a weapon [against my father]. It is you who must forgive me.”
OSCAR: “We must forgive each other. Now Bosie, you must go and catch your train.”
BOSIE: “Oscar, I shall need some money… are you sure you can afford it?”
OSCAR: “You know, that’s the first time you’ve ever asked me that question.”
Brian Gilbert’s Wilde (1997) was given much more freedom. Jude Law played the sexiest, and cruelest, of Bosies. Michael Sheen played Wilde’s first lover Robbie Ross. The angel to Law’s devil. Ross had appeared in the 1960 films but his relationship with Wilde was never spelled out. Here he’s such a sweetheart that it’s never clear why Wilde snubs his affection.
Rupert Everett’s The Happy Prince (2018) focuses on Wilde’s dismal life after prison. Everett plays a selfish Wilde who pits Colin Morgan’s Bosie and Edwin Thomas’s Robbie against each other.
None of these films can answer why Wilde chose prison over exile. Why didn’t he flee the country with his friends when he had the chance? It’s a mystery. Perhaps even to Wilde himself.
The following biopics depict toxic relationships between queer artists and their muses.
- Caravaggio (1986). Nigel Terry’s Caravaggio and Sean Bean’s Ranuccio destroy each other.
- Prick Up Your Ears (1987). Alfred Molina’s Kenneth Halliwell murders Gary Oldman’s Joe Orton.
- Total Eclipse (1995). Leonardo DiCaprio’s Arthur Rimbaud destroys David Thewlis’s Paul Verlaine.
- Love Is the Devil (1998). Derek Jacobi’s Francis Bacon drives Daniel Craig’s George Dyer to suicide.
- Infamous (2006). Toby Jones’s Truman Capote studies Daniel Craig’s Perry Smith for his novel In Cold Blood. The film imagines an abusive sexual relationship between them in the days before Smith’s execution.
- Worried About the Boy (2010). Douglas Booth’s Boy George drives away Richard Madden’s Kirk Brandon and Matthew Horne’s Jon Moss.
- Kill Your Darlings (2013). Daniel Radcliffe’s Allen Ginsburg falls for Dane DeHaan’s murderous Lucien Carr.
- Behind the Candelabra (2013). Michael Douglas’s Liberace abuses Matt Damon’s Scott Thorson. The earlier Liberace biopics painted the rich and powerful celebrity as the victim. All skimmed over the fact that Thorson was a teenager when they met.
- Saint Laurent (2014). Gaspard Ulliel’s Yves Saint Laurent abuses Jérémie Renier’s Pierre Bergé. Then gets strung along by Louis Garrel’s fickle Jacques de Bascher.
- Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury is humiliated by Allen Leech’s Paul Prenter. His healthier relationship with Aaron McCusker’s Jim Hutton is only touched on at the end of the film.
- Rocketman (2019). Taron Egerton’s Elton John is beaten and manipulated by Richard Madden’s John Reid. The film ends before John meets his husband-to-be David Furnish.
This is just a sample. While these are based on real relationships, the fact remains that healthy same-sex relationships are severely underrepresented. They exist. But they aren’t the stuff of melodrama.
What is your favorite depiction of Oscar Wilde? What is your favorite queer artist biopic? You can find more of my reviews on The Avocado and Letterboxd. My podcast, Rainbow Colored Glasses, can be found here.