The English actor was by then a veteran of more than a dozen film and television appearances, including the title role in the 1989 film "Valmont," and considered himself far more "a jobbing actor" than a dishy screen star. But attention was paid, especially by the female population of the English-speaking world. Firth's smoldering presence and intense gazes in the direction of Jennifer Ehle's Elizabeth Bennet so dominated the dramatic goings-on that the program could well have been retitled "Pride and Prejudice: The Darcy Chronicles."
It didn't end there. In Helen Fielding's 1998 novel, "Bridget Jones's Diary," a comic modernization of Austen's classic, Firth showed up as both himself and via his interpretation of the fictional hero. What's more, Fielding dubbed her novel's male lead Darcy as well. As if all that wasn't confusing enough, the irony ante was upped yet again when Firth was cast as Darcy in last year's hit film, which starred Renée Zellweger as Bridget and Hugh Grant as Firth's rival for her affections.
"I'd appeared as a character in the novel," Firth explains with deadpan wit. "And now the actor that appeared in the novel was playing the guy called Darcy from the novel, who is based on the guy I played on television." By the end, even Firth had trouble keeping track of which version of himself he was supposed to be at any given moment.
A more literal game of who's who is played out in Firth's latest film. He co-stars with Rupert Everett in "The Importance of Being Earnest," a new film treatment of Oscar Wilde's classic comedy of manners, mores and mistaken identity among the British upper crust. It opened Wednesday in Los Angeles. "Earnest" premiered on stage in London on Valentine's Day 1895 and has remained a theatrical staple. But this production, directed by Oliver Parker, is only the second major film adaptation. Anthony Asquith directed that 1952 version, with Michael Redgrave in the role Firth has. ("Earnest" has been done several times for television, and an independent production with an African American cast was filmed in 1992.)
"You jump at something like this," Firth says of the opportunity to play Jack Worthing, a reserved suburban gent who often must journey to London to deal with the exploits of his troublesome brother Ernest--who, by the way, is a fictional creation whose made-up predicaments allow Jack to escape the genteel confines of the countryside. As Ernest, Jack woos the lovely Gwendolen (Frances O'Connor)—that is, when he's not teaming up with suave ne'er-do-well Algernon Moncrieff (Everett) and going out on the town.
The plot, such as it is, thickens when Algernon takes on the Ernest title and takes off for the country to court Jack's naive ward, Cecily (Reese Witherspoon). In the midst of all this, Jack must also contend with Gwendolen's mother, the imperious Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench). Much witty havoc ensues.
"My job is entirely language-dependent, and it doesn't get much better than this," Firth says of Wilde's sparkling dialogue. "But it throws down the gauntlet, because it has been tried and tested and proven to work. You can't blame the author if it doesn't."
Wilde's works have never strayed too far from the cultural consciousness, but in recent years, particularly, he has been in vogue.
Parker first directed Everett in 1999 in "An Ideal Husband." Wilde himself has emerged as a character in a number of film and stage works, including Tom Stoppard's 1997 play "The Invention of Love," the film biography "Wilde" (1997), starring Stephen Fry, and Moises Kaufman's acclaimed play "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" (1998), which focused on the libel trial that ultimately resulted in the writer's personal and professional downfall.
"He was an avant-garde figure in his day, and I think if you are avant-garde and also have substance to your work, you remain relevant," Parker says of Wilde's continued audience appeal. "The conventional image of Wilde is of someone who's brittle and rather too clever. But, in fact, his work is continually probing and also pleading for a tolerant worldview. Beneath the surface of a lot of these apparently simple, glib comments is a great humanity. And I think he's at his most powerful and insightful when his touch is at its lightest."
Firth shares his director's observation that Wilde is not exclusively about clever wordplay and sharp wit.
"You can also talk about 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' or tell the stories of his other plays and make them sound like heart-tugging dramas," he says. "There is enormous dimension to him, and I think he's relentlessly applicable."
But the wit is formidable, and it can be as laugh-out-loud funny today as on opening night at London's St. James Theatre. "If you can laugh at comedy a hundred years after it was written, I'm pretty sure you'll be laughing 500 years later," Firth declares. "Comedy usually dies with the era. It doesn't cross over very easily. But this has. Anybody who speaks English can find these lines funny."
Firth, 41, made his film debut in 1984 in "Another Country," in which he also co-starred with Everett. The two played sparring schoolmates in that film, their on-screen antagonism mirrored somewhat when the cameras stopped rolling. "We didn't get on particularly well the first time around," Firth admits. "I was far too—if you'll pardon the pun—earnest for him at that time, and he was far too sophisticated and worldly for me."
Both actors also appeared in 1998's "Shakespeare in Love" (Firth was the villainous Lord Wessex, Everett the writer Christopher Marlowe), but they shared no screen time. So when they met in preparation for "Earnest," it was the first time they'd seen each other in nearly 20 years. "They got on like a house on fire," director Parker reports. "Their banter on the screen was often eclipsed by what went on off-screen."
"There is something that works between Rupert and myself," Firth acknowledges of their rapport. "People have even said it should be a franchise now, like Lemmon and Matthau."
Born in England, Firth spent several years of his early childhood in Nigeria. His parents are teachers, and the family moved around a lot, with Firth even spending one year of junior high in St. Louis, Mo. He lives now in London with his wife, Italian film producer Livia Giuggioli, and year-old son, Luca. Firth has an older son, William, 11, who lives in Los Angeles with his mother, actress Meg Tilly (Firth's "Valmont" co-star).
In person, the indeed handsome and charming Firth is self-effacing and almost apologetic about his sex-symbol status. "I will take it on as my achievement," he allows of the "Pride and Prejudice" phenomenon that redefined his career. "But it is completely and utterly an achievement of my having done that job properly."
By the time the miniseries aired and the media storm hit, Firth was out of town, on to his second post-"Pride" assignment. When confronted with the unexpected attention, he was "a bit dazed. I simply did not know how to react."
Next up for Firth is "Hope Springs," based on the novel "New Cardiff" by Charles Webb, author of "The Graduate." Firth co-stars with Heather Graham and Minnie Driver in the story of an Englishman who travels to a randomly selected small town in the States to get over an unhappy love affair. Written and directed by Mark Herman ("Little Voice," "Brassed Off"), the film is due this autumn.
Before "Bridget Jones," Firth had mostly played dramatic roles, often sporting the ruffles and flourishes of period costume. "I'd been wanting to do comedy for many years, then it finally came, and when it rains it pours," he says. "Since 'Bridget Jones,' I have been doing, and I think I will be doing, English guys in romantic comedies for a while."
As for what it's like to have become a cultural reference point, "it actually felt rather good," Firth confesses. "There is something about being immortalized in a novel that's rather different than having done a film or being written about in a magazine."
Photo by Ken Hively/LA Times