Movie Interview: The importance of being Wilde

An interview with Britain's new Renaissance man, Stephen Fry.


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Cynthia Joyce
May 7, 1998 7:12pm (UTC)

When the current dissection of Oscar Wilde is complete -- and the fact that there are presently two plays, a film and a soon-to-be-erected statue in central London celebrating his life and work suggests that it very nearly is -- it's likely that Brian Gilbert's film "Wilde" will be remembered not so much for its generous depiction of Wilde's life but for the poetic justice of having cast Stephen Fry in the starring role. Comparisons between Wilde and Fry are as predictable as they are irresistible: real-life Renaissance men, celebrated for their wit and charm; both equally committed to the classics as to contemporary culture; and both equally incapable of living up to their own celebrated image.

Three years ago, Fry disappeared after walking out on the not-so-well-received West End production of the play "Cell Mates," in which he had the starring role. His friends feared suicide, with good reason; when he turned up a few weeks later, Fry admitted that he had attempted to take his own life.

If Fry bears any scars from the experience, he hides them well. Waiting to accept an award at the San Francisco International Film Festival for his role in "Wilde," Fry seemed upbeat and affable -- and even more charming than he is reputed to be. He spoke to Salon about that role; his new novel, "Making History"; and what it means to be a "well-adjusting" artist.

It's interesting that despite the fact that almost an entire century has passed since his death, Oscar Wilde is still portrayed as a very contemporary figure.

Absolutely. And I think that is part of our fascination with him, because he seems to be the first modern man, the first modern artist, the first one to emerge from that world of the whiskered Tennysons and Longfellows. He's also connected with our sense of the running out of control of celebrity worship, and our sense of guilt about how much we contribute to the making or breaking of people we admire -- people whom we think we know, but in fact we don't -- whether it's something like the Diana cult or more embarrassing things that have happened lately with Paul McCartney or George Michael.

As we come to the end of this century, if we're young or if we want to stay young, we have that impulse to be always students. That is, we're not going to allow ourselves to be dominated by our employers, by our family, our status. We're always going to investigate ourselves. Wilde stood for that self-realization, that great Greek ideal: Know thyself. As we look back at this century, we look back at it as if it were a sort of diminishing corridor, filled with the smoke, the mushroom clouds, the rubble of the Berlin Wall -- and all the figures who seemed so powerful and great when they were close to us have lost their coherence. Used to be, when we were young, you had Che Guevara on the wall, and it said something to you. You had some faith that politics could change the world, that such a thing as rebels could rebel. But now James Dean and Marlon Brando -- they've become kitsch star statements, and nothing more.

Wilde is much more than a T-shirt, he's a real-life icon. That's why students in particular find Wilde fascinating, now more than they used to -- because art has suddenly become more powerful than politics, a more powerful way to change the world.

Wilde often has been portrayed as someone who, in addition to possessing a brilliant wit, was also very arrogant. But you portray him as a much more innocent person, someone who was almost a victim of his own generosity. Is that who you think he was?

It's certainly my feeling about who he was. I've long felt -- and I was very much vindicated by Richard Ellman's biography [upon which "Wilde" was based] -- that Oscar was about extreme kindness. He was very sweet-natured, had a great generosity of presence and spirit. This view of him -- this vision, this legend, almost -- as this sort of posturing, brittle, camp peacock of a man is something that was built up after the trial. And there is just very little evidence for that.

Even the least complimentary of his contemporaries -- people like George Bernard Shaw -- called him a giant of a man. Bernard Shaw would have never thought that if he'd been a sort of "Oh DEAR, how utterly UTTER" sort of person, who was just constantly dripping with epigrams. I think Bernard Shaw would have vomited.

By some accounts, domesticity was the cause of Wilde's demise. Do you think that the idea of the well-adjusted artist is an oxymoron?

Yes. I think anything in the past tense must be untrue about an artist. Perhaps there's such a thing as a well-adjusting artist, someone who is constantly adjusting himself. But there is no perfect tense to an artist -- they are not finished. An artist who is perfectly finished is probably done. Similarly, Wilde was not, for example, a homosexual -- he was not a badged thing. An artist is always in the process of changing.

PHOTO COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS | ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

But did Wilde identify himself as gay?

No, I don't think he did. He talked about his nature -- he was aware of what people's natures were, to have sex with their own kind. He wasn't an idiot -- he was fully aware there was such a sexual orientation, but the noun "homosexual" did not yet exist in the English language.

I think Wilde had that advantage that he lived in a time when people were not nouns. You didn't ascribe labels to them. While he was aware of his nature and never apologized for it, he didn't shout it from the rooftops in the manner of a modern actor with a Larry Kramer sort of gay sensibility. And I think those who try to read that into Oscar won't find it there. You might as well wonder why Oscar didn't have a Web site.

He was more mature than our age is. I mean, he had very little interest in sins of the flesh, or he realized that it isn't very important whether you call them sins of the flesh or not. The only things that matter are sins of the spirit. In that sense Oscar was quite religious. That's what so ironic -- the religious complain about sins of the flesh, but sins of the flesh are not the kind of thing that Christ would object to. What you do with your penis or your bottom or anything else is so supremely irrelevant in a moral sense. It's what we do with our personalities and other people that matters.

When you decided to write a novel that suggested that the world might have been worse off had Hitler not been born, you knew you would offend some people's sensibilities. Michiko Kakutani's review of "Making History" in the New York Times, for example, seemed to dismiss it on moral grounds --

Which makes it an immoral review, in my opinion. The problem with our age is that it's all moral dogmatism but intellectual apathy -- and that to me is immoral. I was upset [with the New York Times review] not because it was an unfavorable review -- she had every right not to like it. I was deeply upset with the intellectual weakness of her argument, and the ethical weakness of it.

For one thing, my publicist had asked that I put somewhere on the label that I was Jewish, and that a large number of my family had died in the Holocaust. And I said no, I really don't think that it's necessary to wear that as a badge to make the book acceptable. And I have a horrible feeling that if I had put that, she wouldn't have written that review. I never thought of the book as the least bit comic, and she's going on about "trying to do Mel Brooks" and so on. I don't think it's a comic book -- it's a book that has moments of comedy in it, because life has moments of comedy in it. The paradox of people who have no sense of humor is not that they don't find things funny, it's that they find things funny that aren't funny because they're so used to having no sense of humor that they overcompensate.

So what were you trying to do?

There were a number of things I was trying to do -- some of them deeply personal. Like most Jewish people, I've grown up looking at family photographs, and seeing certain relatives -- "There's your Uncle ___. Hitler killed him." It's a thing Jewish people say: "He was killed by Hitler."

So the hero tries to make history, he tries to alter it. It's the kind of thing a junior-year philosophy student would be asked when studying ethics or philosophy. Twentieth Century. Genocide. Six Million Dead. One sperm hitting one ovum -- is that what did it? If that sperm didn't hit that ovum, can we be sure the world would be better?

Humor is obviously tantamount to much of your work. Americans are often accused of having a less sophisticated sense of humor than the British -- do you think this is true?

The English like to hug themselves in a very self-congratulatory manner with this thought that Americans simply have a gland missing when it comes to irony. There's truth in it, inasmuch as an ironic manner is somehow built into being British. American humor -- it's concretion, it's immense precision, whether it's a sitcom or a funny writer -- is so involved in the absolute. That's a very Wildean quality. People ignore sometimes how linguistically precise the great American comedians are. Americans will often castigate themselves for being sloppy in language but it's not true. American humor can be brilliant.

When it comes to literature , though, in the desire of American novelists to prove their literary place in the pantheon next to the Flauberts and the Dickenses, they forget that Dickens and Joyce were humorists, comic novelists. Jane Austen was a comic novelist. Shakespeare was primarily a comic writer. Americans think the more serious you are, the more artistic you are. And that's actually a terrible mistake to make. That's one of the problems with the rather Mick-of-the-Thick style of Hemingway, who wouldn't have recognized a joke if he'd gotten home and found one in bed with his wife.


Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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