By Karen Butler
If Oscar Wilde were alive today, the great Irish wit would most likely be a screenwriter. Or so argues Oliver Parker, director of “The Importance of Being Earnest” the latest film version of Wilde’s classic comedy of mistaken identity and incredible revelations.
“I know that if he were around, he would be writing for films,” Parker said recently of his latest film, which is scheduled to be released in May by Miramax. “He was always interested in the mass audience and trying to outrage people and turn them around and I’d love for people to be reassured that it’s not an exclusive, simply arty film, which is full of self-satisfied types.”
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is about the chaos caused when Jack, a wealthy bachelor who lives quietly in the country with his niece Cecily, invents an alter ego — his roguish, wayward brother, Ernest — so he has an excuse to go to town occasionally and have a little fun. Jack/Ernest falls in love with and proposes to Gwendolen, a rebellious aristocrat who believes she is destined to marry a man named Ernest. She accepts, outraging her mother, Lady Bracknell, who wants to know everything about the man courting her daughter. Problem is, Jack/Ernest has no social credentials. Further complications ensue when Algy, Jack’s ne’er-do-well partner in crime, visits Cecily while Jack is away, introducing himself as Ernest. Algy is delighted to learn that Cecily has long dreamed of marrying Jack’s mischievous brother. The characters spend the rest of the film trying to sort everything out, thereby determining “the importance of being earnest.”
Noting that the roots of Wilde’s play are in William Shakespeare’s works, specifically “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and Restoration comedy, Parker attributes its durability to its irreverent sense of humor and keen observations about life.
“Oscar Wilde must be one of the funniest writers of all time. He was funny a hundred years ago as a modern writer, and he’s no less funny now, nor indeed any less modern. True to the paradoxes that he is master of, Wilde is never as insightful nor profound as when his touch is at it’s lightest,” Parker observed.
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However, Colin Firth, who plays Jack/Ernest in the film, warned that the story’s “frothiness” can be extremely deceptive.
“I think that its triviality is very defiant,” said the “Circle of Friends” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” star. “This was [Wilde’s] last play. It’s generally considered his greatest and there is a paradox about him being his deepest when he is at his most trivial and I think that’s the case with this. I think that it is so witty it can only come from a mind with a great deal of aggression.
“It’s perverse and it’s self-contradictory and I think that Oscar Wilde’s point of view on things would still be considered extremely upsetting to people now. If you let this guy loose on your kids, he’d be teaching them stuff. . . . You think school prayer causes problems? He’d be kicked out of schools right across this country and in England, too. He’d be telling kids that having a color sense is better than having a sense of right and wrong. He actually said that. That ‘sthetics were higher than ethics. He preached against family, marriage and private property. He was full of self-contradictions and stuff that would certainly upset the conservatives in any country, so he loved stuff that pulled the rug from under [people.] So, if the film feels like fluff, it sort of should, in a way. It’s froth. It’s champagne, but it’s not just that. There’s nothing sentimental about it.”
Parker said he doubts modern audience members will be shocked by the film’s content, but wondered if some traditionalist fans of the Victorian writer might be upset by liberties he took in opening the drawing-room play up for the screen. In addition to changing the locations of many of the scenes, Parker also gives us a Gwendolen (played by Frances O’Connor of “About Adam” and “A.I.”) who has the name “Ernest” tattooed to her backside, and a Lady Bracknell who considers suitors for her daughter based on their photographs. The director, who successfully brought Wilde’s comedy “An Ideal Husband” to the screen in 1999, said he finds the notion of people being outraged by his tampering with Wilde’s text ironic, since the author of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was so notorious for challenging convention.
“What I hope to do is capture the spirit and energy of the original and bring to it a contemporary vision and sensibility,” Parker said. “There seems to me to be great opportunities on film to bring out and develop some of the play’s latent qualities. . . . This is, I believe, because while film can lend scale to storytelling, it also allows a greater intimacy and insight into it’ characters’ lives.”
“Unique visual styl”
“The Importance of Being Earnest” was last brought to the screen in 1952 by Sir Anthony Asquith. Parker recalled making the decision to follow up his critical and commercial success, “An Ideal Husband,” with “Earnest” on the evening of the former’s Los Angeles premiere. The director said he tried to avoid comparisons with the 1952 incarnation by giving his film a “unique visual style” and “a more modern cinematic approach.” Although Parker remained faithful to the well-known, three-act version of Wilde’s comedy, he also borrowed from the play’s rarely staged, four-act version, which Wilde originally wrote and later revised, in an effort to flesh out the story’s characters, especially how they move back and forth between their imagined and real identities.
Asked how he believes American audiences will receive this film, Parker admitted, “It’s hard to tell.”
“Someone wrote [in the newspaper] the other day: ‘Is it going to be a crossover film? A big little film? Or is it not going to work?’ Obviously, I would love it to travel,” he said. “Partly because part of the desire behind making it is to show that it is extremely accessible.”
Rupert Everett, who plays Algy, said he, too, believes that audiences in the 21st century can understand, enjoy and appreciate Wilde’s works.
“I think the whole Wildean thing has contemporary resonance,” said the star of “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “An Ideal Husband.”
“The Wildean thing being his obsession with what’s on the surface and what’s underneath the surface. You know, this was before [Sigmund] Freud and [Carl] Jung really had even made us aware that there was something beneath the surface because when he was writing — and this is one of the extraordinary things about him — there was no such thing as subconscious, really. There was just you, but he was writing in a post-Freudian way, pre-Freud, because he was obsessed by the front of these English upper-class people and how rotten to the core really they were inside and the funny way of explaining it.
“And he came into England when England was at the center of this empire and the English thought they were the fairest, most lenient, most, you know, they’re very proud of their law, the way they behaved, they thought they were the most fantastic people, but actually they were hideous monsters. They ruled the world with a will of iron.”
One of the challenges in making a film version of “The Importance of Being Earnest” was casting actors who could not only act well, but could handle Wilde’s snappy dialogue.
“Colin has a terrific mixture of vulnerability and intelligence and strength that’s always competing with that vulnerability, and there is some friction in him where he is not entirely comfortable and Jack is like that,” Parker said. “Jack is wrestling to find out who he is. I was thrilled with how he holds it down.”
As for the dashing Algy, Parker had to look no further than his “Ideal Husband” leading man, Everett, who, coincidentally, had worked with Firth on both “Shakespeare in Love” and “Another Country.”
“There was such [chemistry between Rupert and Colin]. . . . There was a sense that they were like bickering brothers, always playful and always sort of part of the job and very funny,” Parker said. “Rupert has the sharpest tongue. He’s fantastically quick-witted and Colin really matched him and it was lovely to get that rapport going.”
Once the male leads were cast in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Parker set out to find the film’s three main female characters. He hired Dame Judi Dench, a multiple Oscar and Bafta Award nominee and winner, who was also a “Shakespeare in Love” alum, and Australian actress O’Connor as Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen, respectively. The most surprising decision Parker made was in casting American actress Reese Witherspoon (“Legally Blonde,” “Cruel Intentions”) to play Cecily.
“I saw ‘Election’ and she completely had what I was looking for,” Parker said. “There was something very sweet and charming outside and then inside was this tiger.
“I quite liked the power of that. It was very important to me in the casting of this that all of the leads have a strong personality. Reese brings such intelligence and complexity to her work.”
Asked if he was concerned about the 26-year-old Tennessee native’s ability to assume an upper class, country girl English accent, Parker said, “Yes,” but added, “She’s not anybody’s fool and she wouldn’t take it on unless she thought she could do it.”
Witherspoon, on the other hand, acknowledged that learning an accent — and being surrounded by respected English actors — was a daunting experience.
“I was petrified,” she said. “I worked really hard. I spent six weeks, three hours a day, every day, working on my accent and I was still scared to open my mouth.”
As for being the lone American on the set, she said, “It was really intimidating. But I couldn’t ask for a more supportive and wonderful cast. Rupert was hysterical, even though he gave me a hard time. . . . I was so scared we wouldn’t get along. But we were just fast friends in a few days.”
So, how was it working with Firth and Dench, actors known for taking their work very seriously?
“Well, Colin is just so self-effacing, that you just immediately are just like, ‘He’s so great.’ But, Judi, I was really, really nervous because she’s Judi Dench. She has a few awards on her shelves. But, she was so wonderful, too. She was exactly as I would hope she would be. She was gracious and kind.”
So, will Witherspoon’s hip, young fans flock to see a comedy set in 1890s England?
“When I saw this movie, it was just so refreshing and so easy to watch,” she said. “It just sort of reminded me of those old ’30s comedies where everybody talks really fast and you have to listen because everybody’s talking and has a different motivation and you’re like, ‘Who’s that guy again?’ But, the costumes and the set design are so lush and beautiful. You always have something to look at when you can’t understand what Colin Firth is saying because you don’t understand what he’s saying half the time. Am I the only American who can’t understand people [with accents] sometimes? Colin is so funny. He was talking about how he had to loop a lot of his lines. He was like [affecting a perfect Colin Firth imitation] ‘I guess they didn’t understand me in Colorado.’ It’s like: ‘You need to slow down, darling, I can’t understand a word you said.’ ”