Thursday, June 9, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Oh, the humanity!

Oscar Wilde in the spring of 1900, taken by Lord Alfred Douglas.
by Liz Smith

The Importance of Being Oscar!  Mr. Wilde Has a Revival.  Also — "Homeland" ... "Valley of the Dolls" and my humanity.  ("Oh, the humanity!')

"REASON DOES not help me. It tells me that the laws under which I am convicted are wrong and unjust laws, and the system under which I have suffered a wrong and unjust system. But, somehow, I have got to make both of these things just and right with me ... I have got to make everything that has happened to me good for me. There is not a single degradation of the body which I must not try and make into a spiritualizing of the soul."

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas.
So writes Oscar Wilde, in "De Profundis" a massive letter to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, affectionately known as "Bosie," to his friends. Wilde was writing from Reading prison, in England, where he'd been confined for practicing "the love that dared not speak its name." At this moment of his imprisonment, Oscar was not feeling much affection for Bosie, by whom he felt had abandoned, and who he also blamed for the great scandal that had engulfed him, ruined his career at its height, destroyed his marriage and relationship with his children. (It was Bosie's slightly demented father, who sparked the scandal, and when faced with flight or fight, Oscar decided to brave it out in court. He lost.)

"De Profundis" begins as a scathing screed and condemnation of Bosie and their time together — the bitterness and regret are palpable and hair-raising! But as he continues, Oscar calms down and philosophizes on many other things, including art, poetry, beauty, and most stunningly, on religion. The letter/treatise ends on a far more conciliatory note than it began: "Remember also that I have yet to know you," he says to Bosie (maybe conceding that everything wasn't his lover's fault.) "Perhaps we have yet to know each other." He signs, "Your affectionate friend, Oscar Wilde."

I was reminded of how powerful "De Profundis" is after reading a fascinating article in The Wall Street Journal by Brenda Cronin, "An Oscar Wilde Revival." She quotes playwright David Hare:

"I think it's taken a very long time for people to understand that he was an Irish radical, that he was a socialist, that he was a brilliant critic of society and he also just happened to be homosexual. He was a whole lot of things, not just one thing."

Hare's 1998 play about Wilde, "The Judas Kiss" is currently at The Brooklyn Academy of Music, starring my pal Rupert Everett. (Hurry, it lasts only until the 12th!) Rupert will also translate to the screen one of Wilde's most beloved children's stories, "The Happy Prince." (Oscar's fairy tales, such as "The Birthday of the Infanta" "The Nightingale and the Rose" and "The Remarkable Rocket" among others, have a powerful beauty, melancholic and peopled with characters either purposely or unthinkingly cruel, and others who sacrifice all for love. Victorian children were made of sterner stuff than kids today — they appreciated the morbid and surreal. And they could also actually read! Personally, these Wilde stories often reduce me to moist eyes.)
Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde in "The Judas Kiss."
An exhibition devoted to Wilde at the Petit Palais happens in Paris this autumn and a major new biography of Oscar Wilde arrives in October, Emer O' Sullivan's "The Fall of the House of Wilde."

For all the delicious froth of his comedies, such as "The Importance of Being Earnest" — brimming with classic witticisms — or the lush decadence of "The Portrait of Dorian Gray," for all the foppish airs and foolish (foolishly brave?) choices he made, I've always considered Oscar Wilde as a strong and important figure in the fight for gay rights — as strong as those courageous, fed-up young people who rioted outside the Stonewall bar in 1969.
Irene Vanbrugh and George Alexander in the 1895 production of "The Importance of Being Earnest," 1895.
I am glad Oscar is having a reinvention. As for me, I always keep a book of his most notable quotes nearby. This one made me laugh yesterday: "I am always thinking about myself, and I expect everybody else to do the same. That is what is called sympathy."
HILLARY Clinton gave a marvelous and touching victory speech Tuesday night. (Donald Trump, reading from a teleprompter and trying to control himself, looked to be in agony.) But, a speech is just a speech and we have what will surely be a tumultuous five months upcoming, so nobody should make predictions.

However, the Showtime series "Homeland" wants to remain on the cutting edge, just in case Hillary wins. The next season of the series will feature a female president-elect, who interacts with Claire Danes' character, the eternally weepy, bi-polar, bed-hopping, eye-popping, cry-faced Carrie Mathison. This should be fun. The producers say the president is not based on Hillary, but is "a composite of all the different candidates." Wow — a mix of Hillary, Donald, Bernie and maybe the 16 former Republican candidates who were vanquished by Trump? That concept could make me bipolar!
VERY FUNNY page I tore out of the New York Times magazine, from its "Lookout" section. It was devoted to the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jacqueline Susann's "Valley of the Dolls." The page was titled "By the Numbers" and here are some of those "VOTD" stats:

65 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
54 times the word "doll" appears in the book. (This was Jackie's own invention for the plethora of pills her characters gulped down.)
3 fingers — that's how Miss Susann typed.
31 million copies sold to date.
30 foreign editions.
250 stops on her book tour.
3,000 hours — that's how long it took to write it. (Well, when you type with only three fingers ...)
And this remark from the author herself, who died in 1974: "I don't think any novelist should be concerned with literature." Jackie wasn't. She wanted to write immensely popular, entertaining roman a clefs, and she succeeded brilliantly. "VOTD" is actually a remarkably well-crafted book, one that bears little relationship to the hugely successful, critically despised movie version. Of course, in slashing all the intricacies of the book's plot and dialogue, leaving only the bare bones of sensation and featuring two of the campiest female performances ever (Patty Duke and Susan Hayward), the movie lives in cult classic eternity.
ENDQUOTE: "Marvelous column on Queen Elizabeth. Too bad you do not often show this humanity toward others," writes one Clancey Mitchell. Ouch! Obviously, I must have done something to Mr. Mitchell, or to a public person he is fond of. My apologies. Usually we are criticized for being "too nice." Except by people who don't care for our liberal politics. Then I'm an "old bat who should stick to show biz."

Well, as Joe E. Brown said in "Some Like It Hot" — "Nobody's perfect."

With Denis Ferrara

Contact Liz here.