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"The truth is a thing I get rid of as soon as possible.",
This review is from: The Oscar Wilde Collection [DVD]  [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)
Best remembered for his countless poignantly witty epigrams, Oscar Wilde was a leading representative of Aestheticism, a movement espousing the notion that art exists for no other purpose than its existence itself. Born in Dublin and a graduate of Oxford's Magdalen College, he worked as a journalist, editor and lecturer before turning to dramatic writing, and produced his most acclaimed works in the six-year span from 1890 to 1895, roughly coinciding with his romantic involvement with sixteen years younger Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas. "Bosie's" strained relationship with his father, the Marquees of Queensberry, eventually caused a series of confrontations between Wilde and the Marquees, in turn resulting in three trials, Wilde's conviction for "gross indecencies" under a law interpreted to prohibit homosexual relationships, and a two-year prison sentence of "hard labor." Wilde emerged from prison a broken man and, after three years' wanderings throughout Europe, died in 1900 of cerebral meningitis, barely 46 years old.
This marvelous collection brings together four of his best-known works in productions from the BBC's long-running "Play of the Month" series, starring an array of Britain's finest actors; plus a biography with contributions by, inter alia, renowned scholar Isobel Murray, Wilde's grandson Merlin Holland and "Bosie's" great-grandniece Lady Alice Douglas, as well as many well-chosen excerpts from Wilde's works and the trial transcripts, visits to the locations of his life's key stations, and a wealth of photographs.
"The Picture of Dorian Gray" was Wilde's only novel (first published 1890; republished 1891 after widespread condemnation as "immoral," with a preface explaining Wilde's views on art); the tale of an exceptionally handsome young man who sells his soul to maintain his beauty, letting his portrait age in his stead, and soon growing increasingly evil, believing that his beauty will make up for any and all acts of cruelty. Those who know the splendid 1945 adaptation starring Hurd Hatfield in the title role, George Sanders as his seducer, decadent Lord Henry Wotton, Lowell Gilmore as painter Basil Hallward and young Angela Lansbury as Dorian's innocent lover, actress Sibyl Vane, will come to this with high expectations, but the BBC's 1976 cast more than holds its own. Peter Firth is a perfect Dorian, complete with "finely-curved ... lips, frank blue eyes [and] crisp golden hair" (Wilde) - the proverbial golden boy turning ugly under an angelic, albeit increasingly arrogant exterior. Sir John Gielgud, probably the 20th century's best British actor with an uncanny ability to portray *any* character as if he were born to play that role and that role alone, turns in a stellar performance as Sir Henry, dropping some of Wilde's most biting epigrams with an unmatched deadpan expression and impeccable timing. Jeremy Brett, best-known to later TV audiences as Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, completes an excellent leading trio as Basil Hallward. Scripted by noted playwright John Osborne, this dramatization somewhat streamlines the novel's storyline, without, however, straying from its core; and pointedly (but never gratuitously) uses its medium to reveal the three protagonists' homoerotic relationship (as well as that between Dorian and his friend Alan Campbell); only alluded to in the novel and yet, besides its mockery of 19th century society's shallowness, the one factor most contributing to its initial condemnation.
"The Importance of Being Earnest" (1895) is a comedy of manners revolving around two friends, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, their love interests, Jack's ward Cecily and Algy's cousin Gwendolyn, and the problems arising from both ladies' preference for a husband with the first name Ernest and from Jack's ignorance about his origin, as he was found in a bag in a Victoria Station cloak-room, which Gwendolyn's mother Lady Bracknell scorns as a show of "contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution," assuring Jack that she'll never allow her daughter to "form an alliance with a parcel." Again there's a superb cinematic adaptation against which this 1988 BBC production has to compete, the 1952 film starring Michael Redgrave (Jack), Michael Denison (Algy), Edith Evans (Lady Bracknell), Joan Greenwood (Gwendolyn), Dorothy Tutin (Cecily) and Margaret Rutherford (Cecily's tutor Miss Prism). But while this production isn't quite such a class act - nor as visually dazzling as the less faithful 2002 movie starring Colin Firth (Jack), Rupert Everett (Algy), Judi Dench (Lady Bracknell), Frances O'Connor (Gwendolyn), Reese Witherspoon (Cecily) and Anna Massey (Miss Prism) - it does feature fine performances, particularly from Joan Plowright (Lady Bracknell) and Rupert Frazer (Algy).
"Lady Windermere's Fan" (1893), Wilde's first truly successful play, deals with the moral trials faced by a young woman of society whose uncompromising, Puritan views of life are tested when she has reason to suspect her husband of infidelity with a Mrs. Erlynne, a divorced (and for that reason alone, ill-reputed) woman trying to make a comeback into London society after years of living abroad. Helena Little and Tim Woodward acquit themselves well in the BBC's 1985 adaptation as Lady and Lord Windermere, but the true standout performances are Stephanie Turner's (Mrs. Erlynne) and Sara Kestelman's (the Duchess of Berwick, who in a wonderfully ad-libbed line sends her daughter to go outside and "look for" - instead of at - the sunset).
"An Ideal Husband" (1895) finally takes a rather darkly sardonic look at blackmail, hypocrisy and corruption in politics. Although brought to the big screen in 1999 with an all-star cast led by Julianne Moore (Mrs. Cheveley), Cate Blanchett (Lady Gertrude Chiltern), Minnie Driver (Mabel Chiltern), Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert Chiltern) and Rupert Everett (Lord Goring), the BBC's 1969 version holds up well; if for no other reason because of young Jeremy Brett's captivating portrayal of Scarlett-Pimpernellish Lord Goring, Margaret Leighton's devious Mrs. Cheveley ... and because it's actually a faithful production of Wilde's play, whereas the 1999 movie, like 2002's "Importance of Being Earnest" directed by Robert Parker, takes several crucial artistic licenses, not the least, the omission of Lord Goring's and Mrs. Cheveley's face-off over a certain bracelet.