a.k.a. "The Oscar Messenger"

Posts tagged ‘Oscar Wilde’

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Great New Doc on Gore Vidal. 20th Century’s Oscar Wilde

Great New Doc on Gore Vidal. 20th Century's Oscar Wilde

I always wondered what it would be like to meet or see Oscar Wilde if he were alive in my time. Well, the closest we’re ever going to come, I think, is to regard the life of Gore Vidal, who is marvelously, completely depicted in a great new doc “Gore Vidal:The United States of Amnesia” just opening today in NY & LA.

Gore Vidal had a tremendous hauteur and great and constant wit. The quotes fly by at a dazzling pace. And it reminds me of what the late great stately homo of England Quentin Crisp once told me when I asked him how I could succeed as a writer.

And in his tiny, smelly bed-sit in London in the ’70s he told me, “To be great to be truly great you must transcend EVERYthing, even your work. How much better to be Wilde than to be “Lady Windemere’s Fan”? How much better to be Coward than to be one of his plays?”

Words I’ve never forgotten, and they certainly can be applied to Gore Vidal. Who was also as gay as all of the men I’ve been discussing.

Crisp was talking, of course, about the cult of personality, and Gore Vidal certainly embodied that. The only books of his I’ve read and own are “Myra Breckenridge” and “Myron.” Both about transexualism. And homosexuality. And Hollywood.

Truman Capote, his contemporary and sometime friend, but most rival, opined, “Poor Gore. He never found his own voice as a writer. Except in ‘Myra Breckenridge’ and by then it was too late.”

“Myra Breckenridge” is mentioned but never really discussed in this film. But Vidal’s homosexuality is. Dashingly handsome as a youth, from a very privileged, political background(Al Gore was a distant cousin),it seems he was born looking down on the world from his lofty,almost patrician perspective. And he didn’t like what he saw.

Hence the title “The United States of Amnesia” which is a quote of his. The documentary is full of Gore’s TV talk show appearances, and it almost seemed that this was his great metier.

“I never miss an opportunity to have sex or appear on television,” is a quote that pretty nearly defined him. He seems at time like a wit machine spewing forth an endless stream of bon mots. The sound-bite was him.

His personality, as Quentin Crisp framed it, was his greatest lasting contribution to humanity, and this documentary certainly exalts in it.

He lived for many years with a male companion, who predeceased him by eight years. They shared a mansion overlooking the Mediterranean in Ravello, Italy, but Vidal claims they never had sex, and were “just friends.” Sad.

He was a great defender of homosexual promiscuity, and of course, gay rights. He wrote the first major best-selling novel about it called “The City and the Pillar” and he also wrote I play I greatly admired “The Best Man” which is revived and revived, and the screenplay for the classic movie “Ben-Hur.”

I’ve not read his political novels. Maybe someday I will. People say “Burr” was the best of them.

But I don’t know that any of them can hold a candle to this great documentary which truly throws as complete light on a great, great gay man. I’ve watched it four times! And will probably watch it some more!

Downton Abbey Season 3 ~ Ep.6 ~ There Are Fairies at the Bottom of the Abbey

SPOILER! SPOILERS! AND MORE SPOILERS! ALERT!

CODE VIOLET!

Or rather, as she’s called by some of her family, Cousin Violet (Dame Maggie Smith) was in full purple sail in Ep.6, the penultimate episode of “Downton Abbey” Season 3. Yes, dear readers, dear Downtonians, Season 3 is ending next week. *sob*sigh*sharp intake of breath* Alas!

Quality television is sooo rare these days and “Downton Abbey”s got it. In Spades.

And in the dreamy episode 6, Cousin Violet prompts Cousin Isobel to say “Have you changed your pills?” In one delicious set-to after the other, over Uber-social reformer Cousin Isobel’s (the superb Penelope Wilton) wanting to maintain former prostitute and former Downton maid, Ethel, as her cook and house-keeper.Shocking!

MEANWHILE!

Rob James-Collier’s sinister bad boy and head valet Thomas comes out of the shadows and is really at the center of this magnificent episode, which is, yes, an exploration of the attitudes towards homosexuality in the unenlightened Roaring 20s. In Post War Downton, everyone downstairs seemed to be roaring at Thomas. So bad Thomas, become poor gay Thomas and overwhelming sympathetic.

Thomas’ redemption began in Ep. 5 as he broke down crying at the death of Lady Sybil in childbirth in Ep.4. Rob James-Collier’s breakdown was as involving and empathetic and it was surprising in its’ power. “She didn’t even know I was alive!” he sobs “She was the only one who was nice to me!”

The death of Lady Sybil is going to be an ever-occuring and equivalent touchstone to the”Upstairs Downstairs” death of Lady Marjorie on the Titanic. Everything from now on will keep referring back to the untimely death of the lovely Lady Sybil at 24 years of age.

One keeps coming back to the fact of “Why? Why did they kill her off in such unceremonious, but incredibly compelling dramatic fashion?” And I keep coming up with the answer Well, she couldn’t act very well, so what else were they going to do with her?

With her abrupt passing, Tom Branson, the stupendous Alan Leech has really come into his own as the grieving father, former chauffeur and left-behind Irish son-in-law, who, in this episode begins to take over the running of the estate. He’s the new manager. And as magnificently played by Leech, he’s also becoming a very major character and dare I
say it? A heart-throb.

Which brings me back to the other emerging male star of Season 3, Rob James-Collier’s Thomas, who in this wonderful and also horrifying episode is called upon to play depths of emotion, his character has never been called upon to play so far. There are layers upon layers of dreadful humiliation as his frustrated gay feelings have nowhere to goand get him in to terrible trouble this episode.

Led on by the devilish Miss O’Brien, a former friend, Thomas thinks that Jimmy(Ep Speleers), the flirty footman is infatuated with him.

And so one night, he attempts a very beautiful kiss of the sleeping footman, the gorgeous Jimmy, who awakens and threatens to punch Thomas’s headlights out.

This disturbance is witnessed by the witless Alfred Nugent, and is reported upon by both Alfred and Jimmy to the Head Butler the super proper, Mr. Carson, who is revolted. And calls Thomas in to tell him he’s “foul” among other choice insults as he prepares to fire him. Thomas movingly says as he’s leaving”I may not be like you. But I’m not foul.”

And the major plot now revolves in this gripping episode of what are they going to do with Poor Gay one-handed Thomas?

James-Collier really proves himself to be a considerable actor as he is called upon by the brilliant, subtle script to play all the levels of loneliness, hurt, heart-break and degradation that homosexuals of that time, and earlier, were subjected to.

Oscar Wilde’s name was mentioned and that scandal that landed Wilde in jail in the Gay ’90s, was a mere two decades earlier than Downton’s time of 1920. And Thomas is constantly threatened with jail for his innocent, aborted kiss. As Wilde was. He was found guilty and sentenced to two years imprisonment at hard labor because he was gay. It ruined his health and destroyed his talent.

And of course, who is behind all these machinations? Thomas’ former partner-in-crime Miss O’Brien, the wicked witch of Downton, who, I’m happy to say, does get her comeuppance quite grandly at the end of these two hours of television glory.

Oh! And Bates gets out of jail! I almost forgot! And it is in Bates’ and Anna’s new home, a cozy little cottage on the estate, bien sur, that we watch them happily refurbish as poor, gay, lonely Thomas sinks deeper and deeper into depression and hopelessness that the wicked trap, ,which evil Miss O’Brien has set for him snaps shut.

There is a saving punch-line to all this, but neither Bates nor Anna knows what it means, and why it causes Miss O’Brien so suddenly to heel, bitch.

And the words that brought her down off her broom=stick and back to earth with a resounding thud?

“Her Ladyship’s bar of soap”.

Anyone who has been watching since Season One will know what that means, but it’s too complicated and dastardly to explain here.

As I have to also comment on Lady Edith’s emerging career as a newspaper columnist! Laura Carmichael also outdoes herself in this episode and she begins, through writing to find herself. I could identify.

It also takes this busy, jam-packed episode to London, where she is chaperoned by her Aunt Rosamond, Lady Painswyck. And so we get to see more of that delightful character. who is the Dowager(Maggie Smith)’s smart London daughtet, and watch with unalloyed joy as Lady Edith, the mouse of the glamorous Grantham family, begins to assert and find herself through journalism! A column! She becomes a blogger, Roaring ’20’s style, and of course, her editor falls in love with her.

Laura Carmichael is magnificent as she goes from the recently jilted bride, left at the altar in Ep.2, and we delight in her triumph as she becomes the butterfly that was still in the cocoon at Downton and begins to spread her wings ~ a bit. Though she is still very shy and proper. And she can’t believe people are responding to her writing! I know how that feels!

ANOTHER wonderful Downton episode, two hours of heaven, then next week, two more hours and it will be gone until next season. And yes, there is going to be a season 4 and maybe much, much more according to a Vanity Fair article on Julian Fellowes, whose brilliant and sole creation this is. He does all the writing of all the episodes of all the seasons himself! It’s all him! It amazes me!

Because that almost never is allowed to happen in American television, which is why British television is so superior to ours almost always. Because the British have this thing about “The Writer” and it’s called respect. And it’s a beautiful thing.

“Downton Abbey” which is becoming the most successful series ever on PBS, can be seen on Sundays at 9pm on Ch.13 in New York and is rebroadcast on Monday at 1am. Or rather Tuesday morning at 1am. It can also be seen on Ch.21 WLIW on Mondays at 8pm.Don’t miss it!

Brian Bedford dazzles in drag in Bway’s so-so “Earnest”

Having written and played Oscar Wilde in my own one-man show “Love, Oscar”, I have read every thing he wrote and everything that has been written about him, and so I came to the Broadway revival of his best play “The Importance of Being Earnest” fully loaded, as it were.

Brian Bedford, that most esteemed of great British stage actors working in North America, is starring in it at the American Airlines Theatre, in drag as Lady Bracknell, which is wonderful, and he also directed it, which is considerably less so.

This is shockingly his first major foray into drag, in itself  a great British tradition and Lady Bracknell is the role he was BORN to play obviously. His great made-up face is hovering over Broadway right now and it is really something to see, and utterly memorable.

His performance as Wilde’s legendary social gorgon is probably going to be considered as his most vivid portrayal ever. Especially since we, the American audience, get to see so little of his great stage performances. Mostly for the past twenty years or more, he’s been doing his great work at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada.

And once in a blue moon, one of those productions transfers here, and we get to see what we’ve been missing. Like Christopher Plummer’s great “King Lear” which was imported intact to Lincoln Center.

And also a number of years back a glittering revival of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” starred Bedford as an aging, befuddled Benedict. It ran for a decidely too-short a time at City Center.

Now, we have his dazzling Lady Bracknell on Broadway itself, in a half-American, half-Canadian do-over. Which he directed himself, and that’s the problem.

Nothing in this so-so production comes up to his overwhelming Lady B. Especially glaring is his casting of the two ingenue roles, Gwendolen and Cecily. Both rather plain, odd choices, Sara Topham from Stratford as Gwendolen and particularly Charlotte Parry as Cecily, barely gut the mustard, or even cut it, and Bedford pretty well blows them both off-stage.

 By using such un-ingenue-y ingenues, Bedford assures that his Lady Bracknell is the prettiest girl on the boards. And Topham and Parry are so wearisome, we can’t wait for Lady B. to return to the stage, and she only does appear twice, in two of the best scenes Wilde ever wrote.

Bedford’s production is a very traditional revival of “Earnest.” Lady Bracknell also almost always steals the show, as she does here, with the great introductory scene in Act One, then again the tremendous “handbag” scene in Act Three that works like a charm here because the Lady is front and center for nearly the whole, hilarious discovery/mistaken identity finale.

With two intermissions, you could really skip Act Two completely. Cecily and Gwendolen have to carry it, and they pretty much don’t. But thank god, the great American actress Dana Ivey does turn up as Miss Prism, and makes Act Two her own, and pretty much saved me from exiting the building. When she and Canon Chasuble, (Paxton Whitehead) are billing and cooing, it really is delightful. But then they leave and we’re left in hands of those unfortunate young women.

Wilde is all about Style with a Capital “S” and Bedford himself has it in spades. His outfits designed within an inch of their life by Desmond Heeley, Stratford’s resident costume and set designer, are sumptuous, to-die-for spectacles of overstatement and but also, a strange glamour. 

Lady Bracknell doesn’t just enter a room, she SAILS into it, like a Rose-Bowl float with all flags flying. And Bedford does not overplay this very overblown part. He UNDERdoes it, and creates a very believable British woman of a certain class and type. One can never forget Dame Edith Evans in the movie version, nor anyone else in that British cinema classic, and Bedford decides not to compete by being ever-so-much-quieter in a very LOUD role. Edith Evans BELLOWED her most famous line, “PRISM! Where is my Haaaaand Baaaag?!?” Brian Bedford’s Bracknell snips and sniffs. To great effect, his nostrils perpetually flaring as if smelling something bad.

His movement is minimal. His concentration intense. His enunciation and line reading precise. There is nothing over-the-top about his delicious Lady B as an Old Biddy, except perhaps his costumes and hats.

Lady Bracknell doesn’t laugh. Bedford’s Lady B. is a very serious woman indeed. She is entirely focused in her social climbing, and veddy, veddy determined in all her pursuits. I never noticed before how quite, quite often Lady Bracknell is talking about geography, real estate in particular and addresses that she can recite from memory, and of course, money.

I also had never noticed quite so much that Wilde, particularly in the first act, with Algernon Moncrief(Santino Fontana) and John Worthing(David Furr) is making gay puns and double entendres that the then entirely hidden homosexual community of the time would get, but no one else.

Like the discussion of cucumbers, which of course means something else phallic, if you think about it. The line “No cucumbers could be had even for ready money” that Lane the butler (a not very  convincing or British, Paul O’Brien) says to the always-eating Algernon takes on a WHOLE new meaning. So much of the play is coded for the 1890’s gays. Even the name Bracknell, means something else. A Brack was a swamp. So it’s Swamp Smell. Or something like that. I also always thought he based this his greatest part on his famous mother Lady Wilde, who was almost something of a giant-tess according to his friend and contemporary George Bernard Shaw.

Algernon has never been played as slightly pudgy and a tad bit short before, but this is a slightly interesting new fillup, that Bedford’s production and the casting of American Santino Fontana brings out. He’s always in pursuit of some kind of food, meals, teas, cakes, anything that adds a new wrinkle, but not much else to this always under-developed character. Michael Redgrave played him in the movie, as a dashing, upper-class leading man and usually the role is done that way.

Fontana’s Algy departs from that more than quite a bit, to say the least. He is dark, giggly, and devishly funny in a bouncy sort of way.

David Furr, as his partner in Bunburying (and if you think about THAT double entendre…well, I rest my case) is tall, and hefty. More of the leading man than Fontana, but a burly, he-man jock type. The sort you also never see in this part. He’s tall. Fontana isn’t. So they form a sort-of-Mutt ‘n’ Jeff comedy duo. Bedford has them enter at the beginning of the play whistling Laurel and Hardy’s movie theme song, for instance. Gilding the lily a tad, aren’t we, Brian?

Furr and Fontana, last year’s Drama Desk Award Winner for Best Featured Actor in a Play for the short-lived “Brighton Beach Memoirs”, fare much better however than the ill-cast ingenues. And Paxton Whitehead is befuddled, maybe a bit too much so, as Conon Chasuble.

Wilde legend has it wrote “Importance of Being Earnest” in a weekend, or a week, for money. He wrote it while staying at place called Worthing, which is of course, one of the leading character’s name. It’s one of the greatest comedies of all times, and his greatest success. This all occuring before tragedy struck WHILE THIS PLAY WAS STILL RUNNING and he was the Toast of London.

Then, when he sued the Marquess of Queensbury, his lover, Bosey’s father, for slander for Posing as a Somdomite,” which proved true, he landed in jail for two years of hard-labor, because in modern parlance, he came out of the closet. Homosexuality was completley illegal at that time. His life was ruined at the same time his legend was made.

But his glittering wit and intelligence lives merrily on even in this half-successful “Important of Being Earnest.” Brian Bedford’s Bracknell will be the role he is most remembered for, so go see it for that, and for Dana Ivey, but not much else.

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