Lead book review

De Profundis: the agony of filming Oscar Wilde’s last years

Philip Hensher admires a witty account of the horrors of modern film-making

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

To the End of the World: Travels with Oscar Wilde Rupert Everett

Little, Brown, pp.352, 20

Somewhere or other Martin Amis remarks that the reason we have very little idea of what it feels like to go into space is that no astronaut so far can write. If we know very well what it felt like to go through a tropical typhoon, that’s because there was a Joseph Conrad able to tell us about it.

Something similar might be said about the experience of real stardom. Although many great actors have published autobiographies, with or without the help of ghost writers, there are vanishingly few that combine honesty with an ability to write. Since David Niven’s unreliable but brilliantly authentic autobiographies, such as The Moon’s a Balloon, most of the compelling accounts of Hollywood existence have been fictional — Martin Amis’s Money, Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty or James Lever’s splendid mock-memoir, Me Cheeta, the autobiography of the chimp in the Tarzan movies.

One of the very few exceptions is Rupert Everett, who has been passing through the best showbusiness circles for 40 years now, doesn’t mind telling his readers some of the very worst things he has seen, and, best of all, has the gift of a good turn of phrase. He has published two ludicrously entertaining novels and two scurrilous memoirs. Of the first of these, we are told by an outraged Amazon reviewer from the Netherlands:

Mr Everett gratuitously employs occasional four-letter references to male genitalia and completely random sexual innuendo (‘It blew my new career out of the water and turned my pubic hair white overnight’).

If that is not a solid recommendation, you may wish to turn to the memoirs of Major Tim Peake instead.

Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins excels in the exact portrayal of recherché social settings, from the 1970s travelos aux Bois to the rough trade boyfriends of English dukes (‘Oh, lucky Rupert! I’m afraid Darren is insisting we go to that rubber thing at Mile End. I’m rather dreading it’). Best of all, and what made the book an enormous hit, were its bridge-burning glimpses of life among the great in Hollywood, with unforgettable images of everyone from the Gregory Pecks at dinner to Madonna quite enjoying the sexual attentions of a dog in the absence of anything better. Some of these pieces of close observation may not have gone down very well with their subjects — ‘Like Madonna, Julia [Roberts] smelt vaguely of sweat, which I thought was very sexy’ — but that’s rather the appeal: the sight of someone nonchalantly dousing in petrol and putting a flame to what most of the world would guard with the utmost deference.

Catastrophic decline, interrupted by periods of inexplicable and undeserved triumph, is the general gist of the autobiographies. To the End of the World holds the promise of triumph, in an account of Everett’s decade-long engagement with two Oscar Wilde projects. First, Everett starred in David Hare’s play The Judas Kisson stage. Secondly, as he tells it, the long struggle against the huge barriers of money, practicality, ignorance and apparently wilful shifts of taste the film industry presents on the way to making his film The Happy Prince — not just acting in it, but writing the script and directing it as well.

It’s an implausibly complex challenge in logistics for Everett to take on, who by his own admission never wrote anything down in an appointments diary until 2010. The book begins with a wretchedly funny account of standing up Joan Collins and Christopher Biggins when something else wiped the date from his mind. Nevertheless, it ought to have looked like a good idea: the most extravagantly louche and civilised performer of his generation embodying the most significant moment in gay history. That is to underestimate the powers of the film industry only to recognise a good project if it’s tied to a talent that is currently in vogue.

Fresh from the triumph of My Best Friend’s Weddingin the 1990s, Everett sold some very unlikely projects without any trouble. Twenty years later, the self-evident promise of quality that The Happy Prince offered was less apparent than the general opinion the industry had of Everett’s place in the grand scheme of things. This, of course, was based not on anyone’s assessment of his value but on what people thought other people might be thinking about him. The whole business is ridiculously absolute: if a current industry darling, such as, say, Michaela Coel could probably get a studio to fund a film of Die Letzten Tage der Menschheit, with puppets, five years ago Everett could hardly get the BFI to look at his Wilde project. In short, as William Goldman said: ‘In the movie business, nobody knows anything.’

To the End of the World follows the highly undignified business of scrabbling around for funds, relying on some unlikely European sources. The Germans throw Everett by talking confidently about the prospects of filming in northern Australia; it turns out that he misheard Nordrhein-Westfalen. Belgians crop up out of nowhere, like villains in Tintin. Sudden shortfalls in funding throw the whole project into doubt. New sponsors appear in the form of regional development boards, bearing the smiling demand that the film be shot in some implausible German setting, despite any lack of connection with Wilde’s story. ‘What no one explained to me was that for the million euros half the film had to be shot in Leipzig.’ (The film-goer will be familiar with these ‘solutions’. There was a BBC Isherwood film quite recently that startled me by the substitution of a very obvious Belfast townscape for pre-war Berlin.)

Filming starts, and the minute correlation of costs and creativity bears down. There are bursts of unforeseen lavishness: a crane is hired; the designer insists on commissioning a whole suite of leather luggage with silk interiors. An €800,000 gap appears, mid-shoot. Savings must be made: ‘ “We need to lose the boat and the trains,” says Bettina.’ Suddenly the director/star is forced to improvise: a Paris boulevard might just work in Brussels if the whole thing is swathed in a dense pea-souper. What about setting the entire second act in a station waiting room, rather than outside? Or in a train carriage? ‘“Just sitting on the platform then?”. “They can go to the buffet”’. What about asking the actors to take a pay cut after the trainstation solution turns out to involve having an entire steam engine winched on to the track? (‘I have just puked over Colin, but my heart’s not in it.’)

Finally, the film is done, with a certain amount of well-recalled rage at the behaviour of some of the staff. In the worst of them, the miracle of IMDb may allow the wincing reader to guess at the identity of a nightmare of a post-production assistant. He closely resembles Hergé’s Professor Calculus. Venomously described as ‘the only real twat that ever came on the film’, he is first glimpsed refusing everybody the means to buy an occasional cup of coffee.

The whole saga is over: the film is out, gets some praise and disappears into the vast archive of the streaming services. Was it worth it? The business of writing a book must, afterwards, have seemed extremely civilised, without funding, collaborators, professional jobsworths or soundmen who can’t do their jobs. Nobody is put in the position of asking a dear old friend if they would now consider not being paid for the work they’ve just finished. Saintly Colin Firth ended up doing the film for nothing.

This is a charming and witty account of a largely horrible experience, interspersed with lovely recollections of a more debauched past. Everett escapes the danger of self-congratulatory name-dropping in this sort-of-memoir by devoting much the same loving care to the reclusive mother of a murdered trans woman as to Emily Watson. When the celebrated come in they are seen with a fresh and a penetrating eye. Reading about the terrifying trio of Nina Hagen, Rossy de Palma and Béatrice Dalle, it’s as if we have never seen them before — de Palma is ‘a tree goddess… a marvellous Mediterranean fishwife in couture’.

It wouldn’t be surprising if, like Niven’s memoirs, these books survive when most of their author’s screen work has sunk into oblivion. Between hard covers, after all, you can do more or less whatever you want, without the aid of money men from Nordrhein-Westfalia or a Belgian post-production assistant, the twat.

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