There are, for reasons both simple and obvious, certain literary figures who inspire a kind of hero worship that invariably says a lot more about the worshippers than it does the heroes. Charles Dickens obsessives often fancy that they share their idol’s famed energy and brilliance, or at least faintly reflect it. The wan young women who adore Sylvia Plath ignore her happy poems about domestic bliss and focus instead on the angrier, sadder parts of her work. Oscar Wilde obsessives go that one step further: they don’t just understand Wilde – they are Wilde, with all the wit and woe such a package entails. Stephen Fry went through a Wilde phase, and Rupert Everett has been going through one for some time.
This has been more to the audience’s benefit than Everett’s: he was wonderful on stage as Wilde in The Judas Kiss in 2012, and The Happy Prince, the 2018 film he wrote, directed and starred in about Wilde’s last days, is excellent. Easily the most thoughtful and least gilded depiction of Wilde yet, the film is far from the self-indulgent exercise in narcissism for Everett it could have been.
That, however, is something of a miracle, judging from this memoir about the time leading up to and including the making of the movie. “I am Oscar Wilde,” Everett writes after yet another epiphanic moment, which generally involves him going somewhere Wilde visited, once. Chance encounters – meeting Wilde’s grandson, learning that his own aunt had a connection to Wilde’s son – are taken by Everett as deeply significant, as such things are when one is in the grip of an obsessive love.
Yet it is hard to write sensibly, let alone enjoyably, when deep in a myopic mania; Wilde himself barely pulled it off with De Profundis. Given how much Everett hobbles himself in this book, wasting what his friend Philip Prowse correctly describes as “all that energy” on channeling Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas (“They are both such fucking bores, dear. I know you love them but honestly …”), he manages pretty well. The joy of Everett as a writer has always been his pitilessly clear-eyed perspective, especially of himself; the one requisite of a fan is the loss of all objectivity. As bedfellows, these two qualities are as complicated as Wilde and Douglas.
Everett is probably as well known now for his writing as he is for his acting, a comment that he will probably take as a slur on the latter, judging from the rueful pleasure he indulges in these days in seeing his well-filled glass as bone dry. “My career has definitely hit the ‘where are they now’ category,” he writes, when just a glance at his packed IMDB page suggests otherwise. But the more recent projects often feel to him like a step down: when he’s being bussed out to the set of the BBC’s The Musketeers, he muses: “It’s not very chic being in a people carrier.”
In any case, Everett has become one of the most delightful writers about modern fame. His previous memoirs, the raucous Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins, followed by the more autumnal Vanished Years, were beady, indiscreet and witty, as one might have expected. More surprising was how beautifully they were written, poignant but with an emphasis on faded beauty rather than simple sentimentality. Here he is in the new book on the joys of train travel: “Once I am on the tracks and the past falls behind, I experience a kind of weightless ecstasy, a sloshed affection for the world, which looks best from a passing train. Even one’s problems achieve a kind of fin de siècle glamour.”
Whether Everett is remembering the time he drunkenly tried to chat up Thierry Henry (“What team do you play for? Arsehole? Great answer …”), or recalling Lychee, the transgender sex worker he hung around with decades ago in Paris (“At a certain point she only has to look at a motorbike and she falls off. After six years on the game she is a chipped china doll”), he is someone that you want to spend time with. He has a writing style as seductive as his youthful beauty.
In 2007 he decided to write a screenplay about Wilde: “If the only role I was permitted to play was the gay best friend, then I would take it all the way back to the prototype.” Initially, all looks promising and Hollywood producer Scott Rudin wants to produce his script, with the great and now late Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Wilde. In an act of self-sabotage that is frankly Wildean in proportions, Everett insists only he can play Wilde. And so the project duly collapses.
But Everett keeps it alive, barely, for the next decade, powered by his increasingly tortured obsession with it, and helped by loyal actor friends who agree to appear in film for, it eventually transpires, little to no pay. At one point, he goes to Colin Firth’s house and tearfully begs him to be in the movie – they had quarrelled – and a somewhat bemused Firth agrees. During one of their scenes together, Everett muses on how things have changed since they starred in Another Country, 35 years earlier: “Then I was the up-and-coming star perched on a windowsill wielding a pair of binoculars. Now he is in the ascendency and I am the beached whale on the deathbed.”
He is a hoot on the absurdities of film-making (“I have just puked all over Colin, but my heart’s not really in it. No matter. It’s amazing what one can do with a bottle of Guinness”), as well as the indignity of his deflating ego. He never quite gains similar perspective over his devotion to Wilde or this film. “Is this a desperate last-ditch ego trip or divine intervention?” he wonders, and he doesn’t ever resolve this himself (others may have their own theory).
Quite how seriously the reader takes Everett’s somewhat agonised relationship with Wilde probably depends on their tolerance for literary hero worship. Mine is fairly low, but every sentence Everett writes rings with his personality, and it’s a personality that has always been irresistible. And hell, the film is great, so maybe it was worth it in the end. At some point, it would be quite amusing to have someone else’s take on Everett’s Wilde phase – Firth’s, say, who expresses concern for his friend during the extremely fraught film shoot: “Are you OK?” he asks. “You look a bit done in.” “I’m acting!” Everett snaps back at Firth, and then adds as an aside to the reader: ‘You have to act … like everything is running smoothly.’ Wilde would have approved.
• To the End of the World: Travels With Oscar Wilde is published by Little, Brown (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.