(updated 5/09/02)

'Being Earnest' may serve as counterpoint to 'Attack of the Clones'
(The Hollywood Reporter, Apr. 26, 2002, by Martin A. Grove)

"Earnest" excitement: Counterprogramming is the Hollywood art of going after a totally different segment of the audience when opening against a likely blockbuster.

A case in point is Miramax's "The Importance of Being Earnest," whose May 17 limited release follows by one day the launch of "Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones." "Earnest," Oscar Wilde's classic comedy of mistaken identity, stands to score with a smaller audience of sophisticated big city moviegoers who aren't likely to have "Clones" on their radar screens. 

"Earnest," a Fragile Film presented by Miramax and Ealing Studios in association with Film Council and Newmarket Capital Group, is directed by Oliver Parker, who also wrote its screenplay based on Wilde's play. Produced by Barnaby Thompson, it was co-produced by David Brown and executive produced by Uri Fruchtmann. Starring are Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O'Connor, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson.

Miramax's release plan for "Earnest" will see it arrive May 17 at about 20 theaters in 13 key cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Atlanta, Houston, Seattle and Minneapolis. As excitement about "Earnest" builds and word of mouth spreads, Miramax will go wider with it May 24, moving into about 50 more theaters in another 30 major markets.

After an enjoyable early look at "Earnest," I was happy to catch up with Parker, whose last film, the very engaging "An Ideal Husband," was also based on a Wilde classic and was the focus of a column here in 1999. At the time, Parker had been giving thought to what his next project would be. Asked how it wound up being "Earnest," he told me, "It wasn't actually going to be this, necessarily. This was going to happen, but there's another film I've been trying to make for half my adult life, and I'm still trying to make that one....

Although Parker had hoped to make "Fade" after "Husband," he explained, "this one really came up as an idea firstly and rather loosely when we were just shooting 'Ideal,' but then more tangibly at the premiere of 'Ideal' when I was with Barney (Barnaby Thompson) and Harvey (Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein). Barney had asked me to look it and I said, 'Yeah, I'd love to do it' and I felt a bit more comforted about it with 'Ideal' under my belt in that originally when I thought about doing Wilde in any way I was concerned that 'Earnest' would be too theatrical in that it seems to be so quintessentially that. But I was given a lot of encouragement and heart on working on 'Ideal' and was thrilled to find how fresh Wilde's own stuff worked. I did quite a lot of adapting on 'Ideal' and 'Earnest,' in one sense, I felt if you went for it needs less meddling with the text. It just needs a little more interpreting in different ways."

Wilde's play, of course, revolves around Jack Worthing (Firth), a reserved bachelor living a simple but responsible life in the English countryside with his romantic yet romantically sheltered niece Cecily Cardew (Witherspoon). At times, Jack announces he must depart immediately for London to deal with problems involving his wayward and carefree brother Ernest. As it turns out, there is no Ernest. It's Jack who is, himself, Ernest. In London, Ernest's partner in enjoying the good life is his spendthrift friend Algernon 'Algy' Moncreef (Everett). There's also the rebellious aristocrat Gwendolen Fairfax (O'Connor), with whom Ernest is in love. Unfortunately, there's also Gwendolen's mother, Lady Bracknell (Dench) for Jack to contend with. To say any more about what goes on will certainly ruin it for those who aren't already familiar with Wilde's wonderful play.

While it's been years since I saw "Earnest" on stage in London, much of the film's dialogue does sound like it came straight from Wilde's text. "Yes, a lot of it is there," Parker said. "Of course, it's stripped down a bit here and there and reorganized (in) different scenes. But nearly all of it is Wilde's. The worst jokes are mine—and we've already removed some of those in the editing. So we spared the audience some of that. When I was considering it as a play I knew it better than 'Ideal' originally because I'd been in it onstage about 10 years ago and was fascinated by it. I got to know the four-act version, as well. He originally wrote a four-act version, which was trimmed down to three before it was ever performed. 

"The four-act version had some rather interesting characters and ideas, which you could see why he abandoned for the play (which opened very successfully on Feb. 14, 1895 at the St. James's Theatre in London). But (they) were quite fun inspirations for me in that there were these creditors who come after Algy. And I began to think, 'Oh, you could start with Algy running away.' You get a better picture of this sort of rake, man-about-town figure and use some of those ideas. I was talking with Harvey and he said, 'Yeah, you could start with a chase' and I'd literally just been telling Barney that. And for a moment I wondered whether we were being bugged. So there was a moment where we definitely all thought, 'Fun idea.' And then I went away and thought, well, I don't want to do it immediately, but actually it all started to form in my head as an adaptation."

The project began to evolve, he noted, "fairly organically. There was a moment when I nearly went and did the other one, but that didn't happen. One or two other things came along. At one stage, I was wondering whether I should direct it, but as often happens I find the more you work on the adaptation the more interesting it becomes for you as a director. You see it more specifically. So it kind of went from there, really. It's one of those strange ones where you expected a hurdle to crop up any moment and bring you down, but it's almost been inexorable (that) Wilde will out. And here he is again."

Parker didn't actually begin work on the screenplay until about a year and a half ago. "I spent a few months on the adaptation," he said, "and then decided it was in quite good shape and started to polish it up and talk about actors. Various people were immediately interested in Rupert. I even discussed the idea with him at the press junket for 'Ideal.' He was always interested. He was more interested in (playing) Lady Bracknell, but Judi was there for that one in the end. I'm not joking! He would have been marvelous! He sort of set a good standard for this and for the tone that we were looking for (by) straddling the period and giving it a contemporary feel without blowing its roots.

"Judi was the one I'd always wanted for Bracknell. We had a little bit of a headache trying to fit (it into her schedule). She did so much work. It was at that sad time when her husband had died and she was working on about three pictures at once, I think. But she was pretty determined and the various producers got together and managed to squeeze a few days (from the schedule she'd need to fit into). She had about 13 days to do all her stuff. She came in and it's not one of those parts where you can sort of hang about for a couple of days. You hit the ground and you run, you know. She was amazing. She did 'Earnest' at the National, probably over 10 years ago. Her main concern was that it would be a too theatrical grasp of it, but what appealed to me about her in the first place is that she always brings a very deep humanity to whatever she does. For me, that counters any fear you have of it being theatrical. It's inevitably going to be theatrical in some respects. That's its roots and I don't think you need to shy from it. But, at the same time, the bad side of that coin is often a less rooted emotional characterization. She's incapable of not giving a full-blooded performance, so I never had any fears about that though she (was) a little nervous to start with. But within a few epigrams she was roaring along."

While Dench was almost an obvious choice to play Lady Bracknell, Parker's casting of Reese Witherspoon to play Cecily was more of an inspiration. "I really liked the idea of Reese, having seen her in 'Election,' " he told me. "It's a tricky part, Cecily, because I wanted somebody who's genuinely young. Too often I've seen it where it's usually somebody pretending to be young and also pretending to be sort of innocent and pretending to be a lot of things that end up being arch, which is the opposite tack we're trying to take with it. What's so good about Reese is her terrific directness and I don't mean fierceness, but she's got an amazing terrier-like grip on truthfulness. So she makes that character for me. 

"Immediately you believe the context and there's not a wink at the audience or any tongue-in-cheek. It's a very strong and genuine performance. It's tricky (to cast) because we don't have much experience for young actresses. The two or three that were feasible for me didn't have yet the chops on screen. What I liked (about Witherspoon) is that she is so—mature sounds condescending—so at home and experienced already at her age. And she brings all that (to the role), which is sort of what Cecily is. Cecily is a bit of a tigress in sheep's clothing. So that was always appealing to me and I liked the idea that Algy comes along and here's this pretty little thing he thinks he's going to sweep off her feet and actually she's a darned sight tougher than you first give her credit for."

Inasmuch as Witherspoon isn't English, her accent posed a potential problem. "It's always a nerve wracking one because in the casting process—especially if you're dealing with somebody who is of some status or name -- you rarely get a chance to work with them before offering them the role," Parker explained. "But I did some research on her and she's a bit of a good impressionist. She's extremely good at accents. When she came into rehearsals, she hid her light under a bushel for some weeks, but worked like crazy. I kept very close to the coach, who's definitely one of the best I know and she was extremely encouraging about her. What I like about her take is that she doesn't just do an accent, she does an accent for the character. She gives it a slightly old-fashioned (sound). She puts a lot into it. The thing about Reese is she is a perfectionist. She's not going to do it unless she believes in it. She worked like crazy. There was a time when I think she was nervous about how much she'd bitten off, but she certainly chewed it all by the end. I was incredibly impressed."

As for Colin Firth, who plays Jack, Parker noted, "Colin I know from way back. He's a dear fellow and, also, I think what I like about him is that role Jack is often a bit of a stooge to Algy. Algy tends to have the funny lines and having played Jack I sort of understood that it's not necessarily appealing. But in my adaptation I was quite concerned (about) that. In some ways, his is the story with the most change to it. I was quite interested to try and get a little big more compassion into the story than is normally the point. I would say originally its intention is more satirical and wickedly sharp. With time, the objects of satire are perhaps less evident and particularly on screen I felt it important to try and create this world where you give them a context you believe in a bit more. The great thing about film is that you can actually draw out the world they're living in much more and immediately you're getting a rapport between them and their environment. 

"And Colin, I find, is a terrifically detailed and sensitive performer. He can bring the sensitivity and complexity (to the role). What I was really thrilled with was I feel there's a lot of range to him in this part. I think there are moments that I was surprised that they're sweetly affecting. I wasn't quite sure how they'd turn out. (And that's) partly because of the rapport between the two guys. They worked together many years ago on 'Another Country' on screen and that rapport is there. On set it's there. I'm pretty confident that that's what sort of (resulted in) what they do on screen. Rupert is a terrifically sharp-witted fellow and you've got to keep your own about you. And Colin and he had some terrifically good fun almost fraternal tangles. It was so clearly aimed at what they were doing and they became even firm friends, I think, by the end, which was lovely."

Shooting got underway in April 2001 at Ealing Studios, the historic British studio that opened in 1902 and became a center in the '40s and '50s for the production of classic British comedies like "The Ladykillers" and "The Lavender Hill Mob." "We shot the country stuff at West Wycombe Manor, about 45 minutes drive west of London," Parker said. "We saw quite a few places. I was enchanted with this one because there's something rather unusual and slightly magical about the place. It was actually built by one of the founding members of the Hell Fire Club in West Wycombe in 1760. His descendants are still there now. There's a huge Italianate entrance on the place. A lot of murals and very curious little statues. I found it rather intriguing because what I was looking for in the country was not just the English lovely countryside but just a hint of something a bit magical. Its roots are, I think, not just Restoration, but Shakespeare and, more specifically, 'A Mid-Summer Night's Dream.' I've always liked the idea that in their dream the lovers leave the city and go to the woods where they sort of wrestle with themselves and each other. There's something about in this story leaving the town and strange things sort of happen. These are rather repressed Victorians, as many of the upper classes were, and there's a whole lot of intriguing fantasies lurking not far beneath that surface. So the play, for me, had a bit of that. 

"Otherwise, I was quite keen in the early stuff just to get a bit of London just to get some contrast. Town and country seem to be a quite strong split an image in the piece in that they sort of reflect Ernest and Jack. They really (only) have a few scenes at the beginning, but it was crucial that we got them and we see a sort of humming London and the nightclubs and we seen the gambling rooms and then you get more a sense of poor Cecily imprisoned in this place until things start to stir up and various intruders arrive. Also, in the design I found myself using Luciana Arrighi as set designer. I'd been working with her on that Italian thing (Parker's 'Fade to Black' project) and got to know her. She's got a lot of flair. I quite liked just little hints of not-Englishness about it. Partly because Wilde, himself, wasn't, you know. We sort of claimed him over here, but, of course, he wasn't. He was an Irishman with his perspective on it. And it's quite nice having just a little tilt at it. The costumes were Maurizio Millenotti, who's worked with Fellini and Zefirelli. And they knew of each other and worked together. I quite liked the combination of their sensibilities."

How did production go? "There should be more than 24 hours a day when you're shooting a period piece," Parker replied. "It takes forever to get everybody assembled in their period costumes with their period hair on. And then you break for lunch and they go down the hill in a car and then you miss two hours for lunch. You add up the hours of the day and you think, 'We'd better get a move on. So that was a continuous strain. But we had a terrific atmosphere. There was something fun about sort of an ensemble piece. I often find with something like that, if the majority of the folks are committed to it, it has a momentum of its own. It seemed to me crucial to have that sort of atmosphere with this sort of thing. So it was really enjoyable and there were some lovely moments. In the countryside, I'll never forget Judi (driving) around the English lawny slopes in this sort of golf cart that used to take her from her (trailer) up to the set. She used to be driven the first couple of days and after a while she booted her driver out and you'd see her (driving about herself). We called it the Brackmobile. She would race along. On the whole, there were lots of fun bits. Working with Rupert again was a great treat. Frances is, I think, an amazing actress (playing Lady Bracknell's daughter Gwendolen Fairfax) and I would work with her again at the drop of a hat."

Asked what it cost to make the film, he said, "It was about $12 million. Not bad (with such a strong cast involved). We shot for eight and a half weeks. They were all very generous." Parker then added with a laugh, "They paid to be in it, of course." 

Looking ahead, he observed, "Barney's been pushing to do more Wilde. There are various ones around. Of course, there's 'Dorian Gray.' I don't think I will direct, but I might be involved at some level -- maybe a bit of production on it somehow. But for the time being I think I need to try and find, at least, another muscle. It may be my Italian one (so I'll have) to see if I can do this thriller. We're pretty bloody close to it. But it's a tricky one to cast. It's not a long list that we can go through. We've got a lot of money interest now and we're hoping to be shooting it in September and prep in July. So it's sort of there, but I've been closer than 'there' before and not done it. I'm not counting my chickens, but I'm hoping to be talking to you about it."

‘Earnest’ takes a walk on the Wilde side
Entertainment News Wire, by Angela Dawson, May 8, 2002

 Rupert Everett and Colin Firth didn't quite hit it off when they met some 18 years ago. The actors were thrown together in the class warfare drama "Another Country" and really didn't have that much in common. Firth admits he was rather serious and stodgy—terribly earnest. Everett was arrogant, intellectual, outspoken and witty. Still is, notes Firth. Firth recalls, "His description of me was somewhere along the lines of ‘a ghastly red-brick-guitar-playing communist ready to give his first $500 to charity.'"

That summation probably wasn't far from the truth, admits the actor best known as Mr. Darcy to the legions of fans of the BBC series "Pride and Prejudice."

"He was very dull in the old days," Everett mockingly laments, correcting Firth's figure to "the first $1 million" to charity. "I wonder what happened to that!"

These days the two Brits, both in their early 40s, get along famously. It is probably a good thing too, since they play lifelong friends in the latest film adaptation of Oscar Wilde's century-old British satire "The Importance of Being Earnest."

"He's a lot easier to get along with than he used to be, but in a lot of ways he hasn't changed in the slightest," says Firth of Everett. Dressed smartly in a dark blue jacket, gray T-shirt and jeans, Firth adds, "He was outrageous then and he's outrageous now."

Firth plays Jack Worthing, a reserved bachelor who enjoys a simple life with Cecily Cardew, his utterly romantic but sheltered ward. Their life in the country is quiet and serene, except when Jack occasionally goes to London to fix the problems caused by his wayward brother Ernest Worthing. What no one knows, of course, is that Jack is Ernest.

Once in London, Jack teams with his ne'er-do-well partner-in-crime Algernon Moncrieff (Everett) and unleashes his carefree and reckless alter ego. He also finds time to court Gwendolen Fairfax, a rebellious aristocrat who dreams of marrying a man named Ernest. Meanwhile, Algy takes advantage of his friend's preoccupied state by paying a visit to Cecily, posing as the errant Ernest. Things come to a boil when everyone else turns up at the country manor and true identities must be cleared up.

Noted British director Oliver Parker was pleased to be able to land two such celebrated actors for the comic period piece. "They have a rapport," he says, "and they complement one another."

Parker previously worked with Everett on another Wilde adaptation, the 1999 comedy "An Ideal Husband." They toyed with the idea of remaking another Wilde piece but "Earnest," last adapted for the big screen 50 years ago, seemed doable. Parker rounded out the cast with acclaimed English actors Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson and Anna Massey as well as Australian import Frances O'Connor.

In a clever bit of surprise casting, he recruited 26-year-old American actress Reese Witherspoon, who most recently starred in last year's hit "Legally Blonde," as Cecily. "What I wanted was a sweet, innocent face with a bit of a tiger underneath," he says. "She's really a strong, feisty character with powerful opinions. Reese knows what she wants and usually gets it."

Witherspoon, who's nursing a cold with a cup of hot tea, says she was hesitant at first to take on such a quintessentially British role. "I was terrified, and I told them every day," the blue-eyed blonde recalls. "It was a lot of pressure being the only American there, because this material has such a pedigree and reputation."

Dench particularly intimidated Witherspoon. "She's won every award under the sun," the actress says, her eyes widening. "At the heart of it I'm still just a little girl from Tennessee."

Witherspoon acknowledges that younger moviegoers may be drawn to the film because of her presence. She hopes it will spark them to seek out more Wilde and other literary works. "I know that I felt really inspired when I was a teenager and saw `Sense and Sensibility,'" she recalls. "I wanted to see all of the Jane Austen stuff and read all of it. It's great to discover writers through film."

Witherspoon studied with a dialect coach to capture the English accent. She and her husband, actor Ryan Phillippe, and their 2-year-old daughter, Ava, moved to London for the three-month shoot last spring. "We were feeling like proper Anglophiles by the time we left," Witherspoon says with a hint of a British accent still in her voice. "My daughter particularly picked up her own English accent. She was saying, ‘Mummy, I need to get in my pushchair.' I was thinking to myself, what the hell is a pushchair?"

Witherspoon's colleagues say she had nothing to worry about. "She sounded good to me from the start," says Firth. Having tried American accents in films, he understood her concerns.

Everett agrees: "She not only got the accent right, she could move it around and was very flexible with it." He describes his American co-star as "calm and organized."

Everett, who was the first actor cast in the film, previously played the character of Algy on stage at the French National Theatre several years ago. The classically handsome actor says there's something about Wilde's work that keeps it relevant today. "He speaks a lot for now," says the openly gay actor of the gay Dublin-born 19th century writer. "There are so many things that have happened in the past century to which he's relevant—human and civil rights."

Wilde, after being celebrated for his satirical work about the upper  classes, was jailed for two years for indecency during the sexually-repressive Victorian era. "There's a big question mark over Oscar Wilde at the end of the century," says Everett. "In the past 10 years, people have started looking at him. He still means something." Everett one day hopes to portray Wilde in a film that would cover the last two years of his tumultuous life, though nothing is in the works. "I'm the same age he was when he died," observes the 42-year-old actor. Everett says Wilde's humor not only holds up after a century but the material also remains relevant. "The point of the story is to be yourself. You have to pretend to be someone else in society," he observes. "That's what makes the title heavily ironic," adds Firth. "The whole thing is making a case for how important it is not to be earnest."

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