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“One should never make one’s debut with a scandal,” counsels Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. “One should reserve that to give an interest to one’s old age.” Wilde did not live long enough to follow his own advice. He died, a broken man, at 46, the victim of a midlife scandal that, a century later, overshadows his extraordinary achievements. Even today, more people know about Wilde’s 1895 conviction on charges of “indecent acts” than have seen a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, the most sparkling comic play in our language, or have read his classic novel, his enchanting children’s stories (The Happy Prince and Other Tales), or his provocative essays (“The Decay of Lying,” “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”).

Richard Ellmann’s eloquent, exhaustively researched 1987 biography of Wilde dispelled the clouds of infamy that have obscured appreciation of the Dublin-born aesthete’s creative genius and generous spirit. Playwright Julian Mitchell (Another Country) has adapted Ellmann’s book for the screen. Wilde, directed by Brian Gilbert, is a sumptuously produced, deeply empathetic account of Wilde’s triumphs and his martyrdom.

The film opens with a glimpse of Wilde’s celebrated 1883 American lecture tour. In a Colorado silver mine, he charms an audience of rugged miners with stories from the life of Cellini. Returning to England, Wilde courts and marries Constance Lloyd. This union produces two sons but begins to unravel when Oscar is seduced by Robbie Ross, a young Canadian house guest. Acknowledging his long-repressed homosexuality, Wilde then falls under the spell of 22-year-old Lord Alfred Douglas (known as “Bosie”), the dashing, neurotic son of the sadistic Marquess of Queensbury. Obsessed with the mercurial, often abusive Bosie and increasingly detached from his family, Wilde makes a fatal misstep when, at Bosie’s urging, he sues Queensbury for calling him a “sodomite.” In the libel trial, the Marquess rounds up rent boys who testify about Wilde’s behavior, and Wilde loses the case. Because homosexuality is a crime in Victorian England, he is subsequently arrested, tried, and sentenced to two years of hard labor. The movie closes with Wilde’s release from prison, his health and spirit shattered and his family dispersed, followed by a reunion, albeit brief, with Bosie.

Dramatizing Wilde’s life is a very tricky business. Unless a filmmaker exercises uncommon restraint, the result will resemble a Monty Python sketch: a salon filled with fops appreciatively tittering at Oscar’s Greatest Epigrams. Gilbert, whose last movie, Tom & Viv, chronicled T.S. Eliot’s tortured first marriage, largely sidesteps this trap by constructing the film as the defense of a gifted nonconformist destroyed by the priggishness and hypocrisy of an envious, philistine society. Wilde is never shown behaving cruelly or coldly. Indeed, his downfall comes from an excess of warmth and loyalty. (That a man of such keen intelligence could be convinced by his unstable paramour to initiate a suicidally miscalculated lawsuit demonstrates the all-consuming power of passion.) One suspects that Wilde himself would approve of Gilbert’s elegantly crafted film. As he observed in “The Critic as Artist”: “Formerly we used to canonise our heroes. The modern method is to vulgarise them. Cheap editions of great books may be delightful, but cheap editions of great men are absolutely detestable.”

Stephen Fry, primarily known in this country for his role as Jeeves in the PBS import Jeeves and Wooster series, is ideally cast as Wilde. Everything about him—the huge head; the elongated face with moist saucer-eyes, framed by a pageboy haircut; the plummy voice and meticulous diction; the aura of amused self-regard—brings the writer to life. With his etched profile and lithe physique, Jude Law makes a magnetic, combustible Bosie, a snobbish popinjay whose alluring façade masks emotional turbulence. Jennifer Ehle is dignified and sympathetic as the long-suffering Constance, and Michael Sheen is touchingly selfless as Robbie, whose support for his former lover never wavers. But Tom Wilkinson plays Queensbury like the villain in a Victorian melodrama—too broadly for my taste—and Vanessa Redgrave, as Wilde’s unconventional mother, is on-screen just long enough to model a few gowns and sound one of the film’s themes: “Artists care nothing about respectability.”

Like its subject’s life, Wilde runs down in its final reels. As society’s noose tightens on the hapless Oscar, the screenplay dissolves into a series of obligatory courtroom scenes, prison torments, and valedictory regrets. But the rest of the movie effervescently communicates Wilde’s iconoclastic brilliance and benevolence, exonerating him from history’s charge of wickedness, which, as he astutely pointed out, is merely “a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.”

I approached Hope Floats with gritted teeth. Following a string of inept performances in lousy movies (Two If by Sea, In Love and War, Speed 2), Sandra Bullock had exhausted my patience, and the prospect of seeing her in a cutely titled, self-produced vehicle playing a character named Birdee Pruitt was, to put it mildly, unpromising. Perhaps because I arrived with such dire expectations, this domestic comedy-drama soon won me over, mollifying even my antipathy for its star.

Steven Rogers’ original screenplay begins with a sendup of trashy TV talk shows. Hostess Toni Post (Kathy Najimy cattily imitating Ricki Lake) introduces Connie (Rosanna Arquette), who has a secret to confess to her best friend Birdee: She’s having an affair with Birdee’s husband, Bill (Michael Pare). Her hitherto cloudless life shattered, Birdee and daughter Bernice (Mae Whitman) retreat to Smithville, Texas, Birdee’s hometown. With the help of Ramona (Gena Rowlands), her eccentric, life-embracing mother, and Justin (Harry Connick Jr.), an ardent, sensitive house painter, Birdee heals her wounds and rebuilds her self-confidence.

The template for Hope Floats is Terms of Endearment: 90 minutes of comedy capped by a half-hour of pathos. Rogers’ characters and plot are generic, but his breezy dialogue, Forest Whitaker’s graceful direction, and Caleb Deschanel’s lyrical photography of provincial Texas enliven the predictable material. Bullock has custom-designed this project to revive her flagging career. Appositely cast as a former prom queen forced to jump-start her life, she’s awarded herself an array of Big Moments: a drunk scene, a spicy dance sequence, several crying jags. In previous movies, Bullock appeared to have synthesized her screen persona by combining other actresses’ mannerisms: Julia Roberts’ smile, Diane Keaton’s stammers, Cher’s hair-fiddling. Although these affectations remain in evidence, this time she digs deeper into her character, achieving some rather expressive moments. After a dozen more movies, should her career survive that long, Bullock could turn out to be a real performer instead of a perky screen presence.

Bullock’s biggest risk in producing Hope Floats was casting Rowlands. This exemplary actress dominates every film in which she appears, and this one is no exception. Rowlands could play the offbeat, warm-hearted Ramona in her sleep, but instead she immerses herself in the role, a Southern-fried variation on her 1996 star vehicle, Unhook the Stars. Intelligent, beautiful, and extraordinarily self-possessed, she may well be the finest, most consistent performer in contemporary American cinema. Whitman (One Fine Day) is preternaturally convincing as vulnerable, bespectacled Bernice, especially in a schoolyard episode in which she has to fight Big Dolores (Rachel Lena Snow), a freckled, porcine classmate with a virulent temper. Cameron Finley is lovable as Bernice’s young cousin Travis, who sports a new costume—dog, clown, frog—in nearly every scene. Required only to be laconic, love-struck, and infinitely patient, Connick gets by as Justin, but the character is unplayable—an idealized, chivalrous heartthrob (like Alan Bates in An Unmarried Woman and Kris Kristofferson in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) who has no counterpart in reality but was invented to provide happy endings for male-directed films about women recovering from wrecked marriages.

Hope Floats is scarcely more than a wide-screen television movie, the customary mix of smiles and tears, defeats and recoveries. But it offers an amiable summer alternative for moviegoers

unamused by explosions and natural disasters.CP