Rupert Everett spent the past decade working on his passion project The Happy Prince, tracing the final three years in the life of Oscar Wilde. Ironically, these aren’t particularly happy years, following his post-prison exile from England as he loses status, money and finally his health, until his death at age 46 in 1900. But Everett invests the film with artistry, wit and a parallel narrative in Wilde’s eponymous fairy tale about a bird and a statue that quietly undermine a cruel government.
Everett has written about how he became obsessed with this bedtime story when his mother first read it to him at age 5. But it was years later that he discovered an affinity with Wilde’s writing as he played roles in film versions of An Ideal Husband (1999) and The Importance of Being Earnest (2002), plus playing the great writer himself on stage in the 2012 revival of The Judas Kiss.
By then, Everett had already begun work on The Happy Prince, sparked by a gap in Richard Ellmann’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Oscar Wilde: Biographie (1966). “Of course Richard Ellmann was very ill by the time he was on the last chapter,” Everett says exclusively to Gay Essential. “So the exile bit from his point of view is very truncated. But even in that book I remember thinking that for me the exile was the most exciting part. I lived in Paris as a young adult and I just think that period and the idea of a great literary shipwreck like him and Verlaine, these two literary geniuses who ended up in prison and were completely outcast. It’s just terribly romantic to me.”
For Everett, looking into Wilde’s life helps bring the present day into focus. “It’s fascinating that he didn’t place himself as a victim through it all,” Everett says. “Well, he was pre-Freudian! We’re continually asked how we’re feeling, but before Freud they just didn’t think that way. So the reason I loved calling the film The Happy Prince is because in a certain respect, yes of course he was depressed and tragic and had huge wafts of misery, but at the same time he was in many ways a clown. If he saw you could maybe give him a drink, he’d charm you. Obviously homosexuality in the context you and I know is completely different to how he experienced it. So hustling for him was a kind of two-way thing: he was hustling and he was being hustled.”
After completing the script, the project continued to present challenges for Everett. Playing the ageing Wilde required assuming a bloated physicality. “I had little things inside my cheeks,” he explains, “but there was no prosthetic work there. That wasn’t the hard thing. I had tonnes of extra weight, and the movement was different. But the hard part of it for me really was not so much the making of the film, although that was very, very tough, it was getting it together and pulling it together for all of those years. It was quite exhausting and wearing in a way.”
Getting into Wilde’s shoes helped Everett feel closer to a man he feels like he already identified with personally. “It’s the whole thing of being shafted,” he says. “Perhaps not to such a dramatic extent, but to have negotiated a career through such an aggressively heterosexual medium like show business and be gay, particularly in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Even up until now, you’re constantly facing a brick wall, so in that sense I feel like he’s a sort of patron saint or even Christ figure. It’s definitely changing; we have a gay action star in Hollywood, so that is a major thing. But it’s still there, and still to be negotiated.”
The events of The Happy Prince have clear resonances throughout LGBTQ history, obviously in connection with Alan Turing’s story, which was finally told on-screen in 2014’s The Imitation Game. “It’s particularly relevant with the pardon last year of all these people,” Everett says. “I don’t want to sound victimy or paranoid, but it’s a good story to tell because things can change in the snap of a finger. I think that’s one of the things we don’t understand after the 70 years of peace that we’ve had. Just go to a country like Italy and you can see that change really taking place. It’s culturally acceptable to be bigoted, and that’s the first world, not Syria or Russia or Jamaica. That’s why I suppose I wanted to make some kind of statement, something creative.”
“And Wilde’s death reminded me of deaths that I’d experienced in the 1980s. Just the structures of the rooms around them: in this story, Reggie Taylor [played by Colin Firth] started an affair with the soldier Maurice Gilbert [Tom Colley] during the deathbed vigil. It’s true, it happened! And I remember things like that when friends of mine were dying of Aids. Within groups of friends, someone would fancy someone and there would be other things going on. Life goes on. I found the parallel between Wilde and HIV extraordinary. No one writes about syphilis much, but if you were a promiscuous queen in those days you must have worried about whether you had picked up syphilis, just like we all worried about HIV.”
Everett believes that The Happy Prince helps provide context to all aspects of LGBTQ experience. “It’s essential to know who we are and what we’ve come from, because we are still that,” he says. “From my point of view, knowing history will make us feel good and proud, and also vigilant that other people aren’t having the benefits that we’ve had. We’re tipping over into a weird point now where everybody is still wanting to change things, but the desire to change is sometimes negative and frustrated. Whereas I think one should be wanting to change with positivity, the push you get from knowing history. Compared to the early 1900s, we’ve made huge strides, and sometimes when you read the papers you think, ‘God, this place is the most depressing place to be!’ Of course it is a terrible time, but it’s party because we’ve got into a mindset of just feeling terrible.”
Read our film review of The Happy Prince