The man who made 'Othello' an erotic thriller brings a Wilde-ly different 'Ideal Husband' to the screen
Oliver Parker seems to be making a habit of fiddling with acknowledged stage classics and achieving surprisingly satisfying results.
In 1995 the screenwriter and director took Shakespeare's "Othello" and trimmed it to a relationship-intensive two hour movie, re-interpreting the dark tale of deception and revenge as an erotic thriller. It was not a big hit, but it is the best Shakespeare movie of the last 20 years not directed by Kenneth Branaugh (although it did feature him -- opposite Laurence Fishburne -- giving a slam-dunk performance as Iago).
Now, Parker has applied his bold cut and paste style to "An Ideal Husband," Oscar Wilde's drawing room comedy about politics, marriage and blackmail, and achieved similar, if more slight, success.
What made him do it? Didn't he take enough heat for his first revamp of an English Lit standard?
"You're always going to bump up against the odd purist," Parker said with a wane, ironic smile during a visit to San Francisco last month, adding with a cheekier grin, "Also, perhaps I'm a little bit more hardened and I don't give a damn."
But if that sounds impudent, Parker is ready with eloquent and well-reasoned arguments for every line of text he changed, defending what some in theater circles may consider sacrilegious liberties he's taken Wilde's play.
A droll, turn of the Century, society sitcom that Parker says touches on many issues that are just as contemporary now as they were when the play debuted 100 years ago, "An Ideal Husband" features Rupert Everett (very possibly the most consummate Oscar Wilde performer ever) as the charming, handsome, aristocratic and resolutely single Lord Goring.
"I think he's born to play this part," Parker says of the actor brought to the attention of most Americans in "My Best Friend's Wedding" opposite Julia Roberts. "I watched ("Husband") again last night (at the L.A. premiere), and I thought, god, he just gets it every time!"
It's Everett's cavalier delivery of Goring's satirical and sharp-tongued remarks the drive the comedy, even though the story revolves around his friend, Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam from "The Winslow Boy" and "Emma"), a rising politician and practiced English gentleman who is being blackmailed over a single indiscretion as a younger man. His tormentor is played by Julianne Moore as a delightfully devilish, feminine version of the mustache-twirling villain.
Parker's version takes the action outside the confines of the play's drawing room set pieces, supplementing them with completely new scenes of his own, including a whole new climax in England's House of Commons. Each subplot in the play has been tweaked so they all converge at Parliament as Chiltern defies his extortionist in a fit of integrity.
"Part of the reason I do those things is to make sure I'm stirring it a little bit," the director says in defense of his admittedly audacious alterations. A veteran of the London stage, he's confident in his right to rewrite when scripting for a film, but clearly has respect for Wilde's material. "(I have) a passion to deliver what I feel is the essence of these pieces, and if you do them without making any alteration to the new medium you're working in, I think you're doing the pieces a disservice."
Although he wrote the screenplay himself, adapting "An Ideal Husband" was not his own idea. "It was suggested to me, strangely enough, by two people, who didn't know one another, within a matter of days. They each came to me separately. So I thought I'd better sit up and listen."
His initial reaction, however, was not a positive one. "Actually, I thought it was a very bad idea to start with...But I was intrigued. I went to see the play again, and I was hooked by the contemporary qualities to it...The plotline of the politician with the dark secret,...(and) the story of a bachelor who can't commit to a relationship seems to be the subject matter of most romantic comedies you come across."
"Still, (I) wasn't convinced it was good idea...but I did go away into a corner and start doodling a little bit."
Those doodles turned into two and three drafts of a screenplay that Parker says just flowed out of him. When he finalized the script and started sending it out, he almost immediately heard from many of the key actors in the film, including Everett, Northam, Cate Blanchett ("Elizabeth") and Minnie Driver.
"It was almost too simple. I was sure it was going to be a terrible film because it was going too well," Parker laughs.
Before creating the screenplay, he read the original, handwritten manuscript -- kept in the British National Library -- and discovered some of the story's more melodramatic moments, which the director says he never cared for, were hastily added just before the play made its debut. This made him feel better about taking them out. "(Parts of the play are) so full of coincidence that you can't believe Wilde isn't almost deliberately taking the mickey...(and) undermining his plot lines. I think it was part of the satire of drawing room comedy."
In preparation, Parker first "combed the text for all the references to (events) that...didn't take place on stage" in an attempt to flesh out how the characters might have lived outside the acts of the play. Some of the information he gleaned from Wilde's dialogue became his new scenes in Parliament and in London's Hyde Park, where society types often took Sunday strolls at the turn of the century. But he always tried to preserve the playwright's delightful wit.
"(The question with) an adaptation is, how much do you adapt? How much do you change? How much comedy? How much romance? How much drama? How much do we go for the style versus how much we keep realistic? Sometimes the more you change things, the more clearly you are highlighting the essence of the piece you're trying to deliver. That seems to be the job, and you can only do it to your own taste and hope that people agree or like it."
So is Oliver Parker planning to make a career of drastically reinterpreting beloved stage classics? Not really, he says, but he has two possible projects on his plate that would both monkey with well-known -- albeit wildly different -- figures from the world of film. He and indie czar John Sayles ("Limbo," "Men With Guns," "Lone Star") are working on a post-war political thriller in which the main character would be Orson Welles. He's also talking to horror legend Clive Barker about adapting his graphic gorefest "Hellraiser" for the stage. Go figure that.
And there is one more adaptation being dangled in front of him: "I've been thinking about doing 'The Importance of Being Earnest' recently, because some of the ("Ideal Husband") cast would like to do it."
Oscar Wilde purists might rather see him strung up first, but if "An Ideal Husband" is a hit for Miramax, the studio may just light a fire under the back burner that project is on.