The Times Magazine, August 24, 2002, by Martyn Palmer

Going Wilde
in the

The filming of The Importance of Being Earnest at a country house in Buckinghamshire proved almost
as entertaining as the play itself, not least because
the real-life sparring between the two leading men,
Rupert Everett and Colin Firth.

When director Oliver Parker cast his leading men—Rupert Everett and Colin Firth—for his screen adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, he was aware of a little history between the two. Almost two decades earlier, Everett and Firth had made Another Country and, not to put too fine a point on it, they couldn’t stand each other. “I knew that they had a past,” says Parker, in diplomatic mode. “But I wasn’t going to let that put me off. If anything, I thought it might add to the piece, you know, give it a lovely little frisson.”

They had appeared together in another film, Shakespeare in Love, in 1998, but didn’t share screen time or indeed a drink after work, so any differences were certainly not resolved that time. Back in 1984 for that first collaboration, both men were just starting out on what have proved to be very successful careers, and they were rather different to the Hollywood stars we see today. Everett certainly thinks so anyway. Firth, he says with a smile and a cut-glass accent born of rural Wiltshire and honed at Ampleforth, was a flag-waving lefty and a bore.

“Colin was very red-brick university, strumming a guitar,” Everett recalls. “I remember him saying once that if he earned any money he was going to give it to the Communist party or something like that, and I was way in the other direction. He wasn’t really much fun.

“We were at the end of the working-class revolution in the theatre at that time, that Look Back in Anger generation,” he continues. “English theatre was still very politically motivated when I started out, and it attracted a very politically motivated type of person. Colin was the kind of emblem for Redgraveism, and I didn’t fit into that and I didn’t like that whole Royal Court, RSC kind of right-on ‘kill ’em with art’ vibe.”

Everett, the son of a stockbroker and former army major, was hardly that type himself. “But I’m sure I was just as nightmarish as he was, you know,” he concedes. “And Another Country was kind of my gig—I’d done the play, the producers were my friends, and I was probably a bit cocky in those days, you know, especially towards Colin.”

Firth, the son of university lecturers and educated at the Montgomery of Alamein School in Winchester, didn’t actually go to a red-brick university; he won a place at the Drama Centre in London, instead. But he admits that in those days he was indeed a little earnest.

“But I don’t think it’s fair to say that Rupert wasn’t intensely politically motivated at that point in his life,” says Firth. “And basically I was unbelievably dull. And Rupert, well, among his virtues was not tolerance of earnestly dull people, so it wasn’t exactly a marriage made in heaven at that time. We were both ghastly in our different ways.”

You might think, then, that when Parker, who had already directed a very successful screen adaptation of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband—in which Everett played Lord Arthur Goring—offered the actors, both now aged 42, the pivotal roles of Algernon Moncrieff (Everett) and Jack Worthing (Firth) in The Importance of Being Earnest, one of them would have been tempted to come up with some excuse and pretend to be busy doing panto in Skegness or waiting for a call from Scorsese or something. Not so.

“I certainly had some trepidation,” admits Everett. “Later Colin asked me what my reaction was when I’d been told that he’d been offered the part of Jack. And quite honestly I said, ‘Oh God, not him again!’” Meanwhile, Firth was intrigued. After all, he reasoned, Algy and Jack trade beautifully crafted insults with each other throughout the piece. And, as Parker continued to assure them, any “frisson” could work in the film’s favour.

“I was fascinated after all these years,” says Firth. “I mean, even if we still couldn’t stand each other, I thought, ‘That’s got to be interesting, to see what happens this time...’ And I suppose in some ways I wondered if we were born to be a couple really. The dynamic is not that different now; it’s become slightly more grotesque, and then it was slightly more elegant and we were younger and it had to do with political idealism.

“And it worked in Another Country [based on the school-days and early friendships of spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean] because you had one character who basically wants all the privileges of life and is flamboyant. And that reproduces itself, to some extent, in The Importance of Being Earnest.

“I don’t know, but I feel there is something archetypical about us that puts us together. Funnily enough, I don’t usually feel like the short one—I’m 6ft 2 in and it’s not often I’m looking up to someone and feeling like the little guy. But I swear Rupert’s grown in 18 years. I feel like I’m Ernie to his Eric or something. Actually, it’s even worse, I feel like Peter Glaze to his Leslie Crowther. You know, the little round angry man constantly frothing with the indignity of it all, that’s me, and he’s the tall, funny, languid fellow.”

Once Parker had taken the two to a pre-shoot dinner, he knew that the tension wouldn’t spill over into open warfare on set in rural Buckinghamshire. “Actually, they are like brothers now,” says the director. “They are fantastic at bantering and bickering, it’s really funny. Rupert is so sharp and Colin comes up and matches him. and they were like that all they way through filming. I actually think they are extremely fond of each other.”

For Parker, casting a period comedy which was written at the height of Wilde’s fame, in 1895, was crucial to the success of a film which he hopes will entertain a modern audience, especially in the US, as opposed to appealing only to Wilde fans. Firth and Everett are both well-known in America, but his leading ladies would need to carry plenty of box-office clout, as well as have the ability to do justice to what Wilde himself described as a “delicate bubble of fancy.”

He chose Reese Witherspoon (Legally Blonde), an American, to play Cecily Cardew, and Frances O’Connor (Mansfield Park, AI), an Australian, to play Gwendolen Fairfax, and Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench—the safest pair of hands in the business—to play the wonderfully fierce Lady Bracknell. Add Tom Wilkinson as the Rev Chasuble and Anna Massey as Miss Prism, and you have a formidable line-up.

“Personalities are a bit part of this,” says Parker, “because to me it feels more like a Forties screwball comedy; so you don’t want someone like Gary Oldman, great actor that he is, and all that intensity, you want a Cary Grant. It would be difficult to find two leading men with more charm than Colin or Rupert.

“And you have that with both Reese and Frances. I did see some good young actresses coming up in Britain, but I was quite keen to avoid the baggage we Brits often bring to Wilde. I wanted to open up the cultural influences on it. I’d tried it on An Ideal Husband with Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett, and I found it very useful. When Reese came in there was no issue about the background of the piece or the significance of delivering it. Of course, I was a bit worried about the accent, but she is a brilliant impressionist and she worked really hard to get it right, and she did.

“And of course she is good for box office in America. Legally Blonde hadn’t come out when I cast her, but definitely I liked the high profile. I’m very conscious that I want o get this to a lot of people, and part of the whole thrill for me is to show people how surprising and fresh Wilde’s wit is. I think it is rare to find a period piece that is downright funny. People don’t normally put those things together because comedy often does fade, or it tends to be rooted in its period, but there is something about the intensity of Wilde’s humour, and what is driving it, that makes it fizz today.”

Witherspoon, still only 26, admits that she knew little of Wilde’s work. “I was thrilled that they even considered me for this part because I had never done this kind of period drama before and it was a real challenge.”

Her most nerve-racking moment, she admits, came when it was time to step up to act with Dame Judi. “Delivering the lines had a lot to do with confidence, just spitting it out, you know, but it was really particularly hard when I had to do it in front of Judi. My voice just fell to a whisper.”

For Witherspoon, her time in England last summer was just about as good a filming experience as it gets. Her husband, the actor Ryan Phillippe, was making Robert Altman’s Gosford Park at the same time, and the couple and their three-year-old daughter Ava settled happily into life in England. “I got very attached to the tabloids because I didn’t know the people, so it was like a whole new culture. I was obsessed with Posh and Becks. I’m insane about them. Was Posh too skinny? Was Becks going to win? I needed to know and I still do. I got back to the States and I was starved of information about Posh and Becks. You know, like when he broke his foot before the World Cup, what was going to happen? They are the most famous people in England, they’re like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. I’m hooked...”

Dame Judi as the last to join the cast. “It must have been difficult for her,” says Parker. “Coming in during the last two or three weeks of the shoot, you have to hit the ground running—Lady Bracknell doesn’t just enter a scene and stroll through. She is the most formidable and imposing character of the film, but Judi’s so easy with it, she’s astonishing.”

Dench played Lady Bracknell in a 1982 production at the National Theatre and, in her younger days, she played Cecily Cardew. “It’s a perfectly written piece and the language is simply wonderful,” she points out. “You don’t really hear such exquisitely constructed sentences any more, unless you go to Wilde.”

Finding the right location for Jack Worthing’s country house—where much of the story unfolds—proved to be difficult. Locations manager Christian McWilliams looked at more than 30 venues before deciding on West Wycombe Park, owned by the Dashwood family since 1698 and once a meeting place for the notorious Hellfire Club. Another problem was recreating The Savoy. Using the real hotel was a logistical nightmare and out of the question. Instead, St Ermin’s Hotel in London agreed to let the production transform its ballroom into the Savoy’s dining room as it was around 1902.

Then there was the script. Parker himself, a former actor who once played Jack at Theatre Clwyd “years ago. I can hardly remember when”, knows that tampering or even tinkering with a classic text is a recipe for trouble. At the same time, he had to make his own film as opposed to simply photographing a stage play, an accusation that has been levelled at the 1952 film version, directed by Anthony Asquith and starring, among others, Michael Redgrave, Joan Greenwood and Edith Evans. “I feel you have to reinvent these things otherwise you shouldn’t do them,” Parker says, “and I definitely like the idea of just pushing boundaries a bit.”

The Importance of Being Earnest is basically a comedy about mistaken identity, but it also touches on themes of social injustice, exclusion and prejudice, “without breaking a sweat”, abd contains some of Wilde’s best lines (Take Lady Bracknell’s “To lose one parent, Mr Worthing may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness”, or “Thirty-five is a very attractive age. London society is full of women of the very highest births who have, of their own free choice, remained 35 for years.”).

His changes include fleshing out the romance between the Rev Chasuble and Miss Prism—with dialogue from Wilde’s rarely staged four-act version of the play—and giving us more of a glimpse into the main characters’ “inner lives”. Wilde talks about it as a serious comedy for trivial people or a trivial comedy for serious people, it depends on which way you look at it,” says Parker. “He is the ultimate dealer in ambiguity. Everything is laced with paradox and so to find a cinematic equivalent of that is an exciting challenge. One element of the piece that appealed to me was that all the characters are suppressing an active interior life, which is something film is well-equipped to explore.”

So will the diehard Wilde fans be raging at Parker’s liberties? Colin Firth, for one, doesn’t think so. “There are some changes, partly deliberately; some of the [lines] are pretty prosaic, you know? ‘Pass me my hat’. But some have fallen victim to our own improvisation probably, and at first I was worried about that and then I thought, ‘No, for the sake of spontaneity and appropriateness and making it ours, to hell with it.’ Actually, if it’s good, it’s funny and it works, why not? We haven’t burnt the last existing copy of Oscar Wilde’s text, it’s always there, and I don’t think we have ever made a fundamental departure from it, and it’s never been done carelessly.”

For Rupert Everett there’s no question that Wilde should find a modern audience. After all, An Ideal Husband did very well, both here and in the States, and he says, the work is timeless. “The great thing about this story and what makes Oscar Wilde still contemporary is that even though we are not in corsets and we all wear sneakers and baseball caps the wrong way round, we are still under the same constraints. They have become more subtle and are more underground, but actually we are completely controlled by the moral majority. The great thing about this is that it is very light, but it is very profound if you want it to be.”

Firth, you can be sure, would agree with him. After all, these days those two get along just fine. Parker, too, hopes that his version of Wilde will find its place among the summer blockbusters. But after two Wildes and one Shakespeare (Othello in 1995) he has plans to direct a thriller set in Italy. “They’ve talked to me about doing Lady Windermere’s Fan for the box set,” he laughs. “But it doesn’t quite appeal to me at the moment.”

Photographs by Greg Williams

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