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Rupert Everett was five years old when he first heard the name Oscar Wilde. Tucked up in bed beneath the gables of a pink farmhouse somewhere in deepest Essex, on the night in question his mother had broken off from her pre-dinner party beautifications to read to him. The story she chose was one of those Wilde wrote for children, The Happy Prince, and it quickly cast a spell on her son. When they reached its end a week later, the boy was in floods of tears for all that he didn’t quite understand, then, its inner morality (“Dear little swallow,” said the Prince, “you tell me of marvellous things, but more marvellous than anything is the suffering of men and women”). This was, as Everett writes, an “audacious move” on the part of his mother, perhaps her single greatest contribution to his emotional development: “It is here that I learn for the first time that there is a thing called love and that it usually has a price.”
Everett’s new memoir, his third, is the story of his enduring obsession with Wilde and how it compelled him to make a film about the doomed writer, a decade-long quest that, though ultimately successful, brought him, at points, to the edge of reason. It begins with a fat suit that comes with “baboon moobs and a marvellous knee-length arse” (even in middle age, Everett is somewhat less fleshy than poor old Wilde) and ends somewhere a lot less slapstick, its author finally finding peace, of a kind, in a room at the Sunset Tower hotel in West Hollywood. In between, it is just about everything you could want, at least in a memoir by an actor. We know, by now, that Everett is a deliciously gifted writer. Nothing and no one escapes his attention and in this book he’s as good on Laurellee and Mary Jay, a couple of forward American tourists he meets on a night train to Rome, as he is on Luise Rainer and Gregory Peck (see also Joan Collins and Christopher Biggins). But there’s something else here, too: a plangency and depth of feeling that may do strange things to all the images you have of him in your head (to be honest, I have had images of Rupert Everett in my head ever since the sixth form, when I first saw him in Another Country).
Whether he is describing a pair of Naples staircases, sagging in a courtyard like “the laces of old stays”, or trying to imagine what it might have been like to be Wilde’s long-suffering wife (“One look into Oscar’s eyes must have told a sensitive woman like Constance that he had gone. But where? She must have felt herself waning”), the feeling grows in the reader that he can do anything. I would, for instance, rather read Everett on the faded pleasures of a grand old Venice hotel than any so-called travel writer, up to and including Bruce Chatwin. His great trick is that, unlike the Leichner makeup he favoured as a young man, he does not lay it on with a trowel. When he undercuts his sincerity – tenderness is always hotly pursued by a barb – it only serves to make his narrative the more heartfelt. (“Syphilis probably, but at the thrilling stage,” he notes, finally, of a moment when, about to go on stage as Wilde in a production of David Hare’s play The Judas Kiss, he suddenly has the sense that “the whole universe has stopped in its tracks”.)
The day-to-day business of film-making can be tedious on the page, all budgets and cranes and infuriating directors of photography. But Everett makes it vivid, his (sometimes) craven inadequacies as a first-time director – his film about Wilde’s tragic last years, The Happy Prince, was released, to moderate acclaim, in 2018 – a vibrating lid on the boiling pot of his “minor-league Heaven’s Gate”. Acting is next to impossible to write about without sounding like a pretentious fool, but somehow, he does it. “At other times he appears quite vacant, which I think is an essential quality for film acting,” he writes of Edwin Thomas, who plays Wilde’s friend Robbie Ross in the movie.
It goes without saying that To the End of the World is funny and scabrous. But since very few showbusiness denizens are prepared to be as honest as he is about all the ways in which it will never love you back, the book’s most powerful undertow is inevitably valedictory. Everett is old, he insists, and “the wrong kind of queen”; Hollywood has zipped itself up and turned its back on him. Does this mean that we worry for him? Do we picture him, just occasionally, as the leather Norma Desmond? No, never. However wasteful and capricious his first profession, we know that he is perfectly safe. The blank page will henceforth always be his. He is a writer to his (aching) bones.
• To the End of the World by Rupert Everett is published by Little, Brown (£2o). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
Source: The Guardian
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