You might be surprised to learn there were two Oscar Wildes. Not the famed writer and a doppelganger of course but two films on the same subject that were released in the same month. This is the low-rent version, costing a fraction of the rival The Trials of Oscar Wilde directed by Ken Hughes. It’s easy to be disdainful of the cheaper effort, with little cash available for scenery and costumes, but somehow it rises above budget limitations. Structurally, both movies focus on the trial – or in the case of The Trials of Oscar Wilde the three trials he endured – but the glossier pictures it has to be said glosses over a great deal.
While I enjoyed it at the time, I now find that in trying to make a modern martyr out of Oscar Wilde, the Ken Hughes picture built him up so much that it was difficult to find any flaw in his character. We never find out what was the actual slur the Marquis of Queensbury made on Wilde, resulting the playwright taking him to court for libel. And that version begins with Wilde and Alfred Lord Douglas (“Bosie”), son of the Marquis, already deep into their affair.
On the other hand, Oscar Wilde, the final film of Hollywood veteran director Gregory Ratoff (Intermezzo, 1939), starts at the beginning of their relationship with greater emphasis on Wilde’s practicality rather than his wit and Bosie’s (John Neville) tortured relationship with his hypocritical father (Edward Chapman) who, while taking the moral high ground, keeps a mistress. On Wilde (Robert Morley) being described as a sodomite by the Marquis, Bosie’s desire to see his father humiliated in court verges on revenge. “You weren’t looking for a friend,” Wilde astutely tells his lover, “You were looking for a weapon.” Bosie is big on humiliation – he is the one to break the news of Wilde’s duplicity to the author’s wife (Phyllis Calvert). So determined is he on the court case that he fails to tell Wilde that his father has private detectives scouring London to find evidence.
While in court Wilde can keep the jury in stitches with his epigrams, he soon comes up against the Marquis’s formidable lawyer Sir Edward Carson (a quite stunning performance by Ralph Richardson). From Carson we learn a great deal more of Wilde’s practices, some of which nowadays would be termed grooming. Essentially, Carson paints a portrait of a predator, an older man (Wilde was 41) whose uses his wealth and wit to court many lovers, mostly aged around 20, but some as young as 16, barely the age of consent.. And when he felt his secret life was in danger of being exposed, he went so far as to pay for the passage to America of one of his lovers, Alfred Woods, to get him out of the way.
No matter that Wilde at the start can gloss over his promiscuity, complaining that Carson is misinterpreting innocent gestures of friendship, the cunning attorney soon has the author tied in knots as he wheels out one by one information regarding the various lovers.
It’s quite odd to realise that The Trials of Oscar Wilde in presenting the more accurate truth – that the author underwent three trials – fails to provide little more than a surface treatment of the man’s real-life affairs. Oscar Wilde perhaps delves too deeply for audiences brought up to consider the author a martyr who deserves the free pass allocated all writers of genius. I found Oscar Wilde the more riveting watch because, of course, I already knew the outcome, but the sight of the famed writer, encouraged by the vengeful Bosie, hung out to dry by his own hubris, and for a man of such wit to be outwitted in the courtroom by Carson was an exceptional watch.
Of course, the imprisonment of Wilde for the crime of being a homosexual is detestable. Even at the point this film was made homosexuality was a crime. So it’s fascinating to see how much The Trials of Oscar Wilde skirts round issues that Oscar Wilde had little problem in spelling out.
I was surprised how much I enjoyed Robert Morley’s performance. I may be wrong, but I think this was the only time he was accorded leading man status. Mostly, he was a supporting actor (The African Queen, 1951, say, or Genghis Khan, 1965) and often just playing a version of his self. Of course, he is outshone by a simply brilliant Ralph Richardson (Khartoum, 1966). John Neville (A Study in Terror, 1965) presents a more in-depth performance than in the rival picture. One-time British box office star Phyllis Calvert (The Golden Madonna, 1949) does well in a small but pivotal role. You might also spot Dennis Price (Tunes of Glory, 1960) and Alexander Knox (Mister Moses, 1965).
Lacking a budget to do much more, Gregory Ratoff sticks to the detail and draws out two superb performances, aided by a tight script by Jo Eisinger (Gilda, 1946; Cold Sweat, 1970) based on the play by Leslie and Sewell Stokes and the work of Frank Harris. As swansongs go, this is hard to beat.
Catch it on YouTube.
NOTE: Oscar Wilde appeared in first run in Glasgow at the La Scala cinema in June 1960 one week ahead of The Trials of Oscar Wilde at the first run ABC Regal and ABC Coliseum.