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Sit down at the table with Brian Gilbert and Stephen Fry, and it quickly becomes clear that they have more than a merely professional interest in Oscar Wilde, the playwright, poet, and dandy who was ruined when he was sent to prison in 1895 for “gross indecency.” Gilbert directed Wilde, the new biopic that stars Fry, but the duo’s enthusiasm for their subject stretches far beyond the film. Ask them why there’s currently a revival of interest in Wilde, and they’re off for a good 20 minutes of traded riffs.

“I think there’s a reason,” says Fry, a large, Marlboro-smoking man in a loud plaid shirt, a slightly discordant plaid jacket, and desert boots. “I think when you’re in the middle of a Zeitgeist-y thing, it’s often hard to tell why. I dare say that in 30 years’ time, it will be like Pauline Kael saying why there were buddy movies in the ’70s. It’s convincing, but when you’re making Freebie and the Bean, you don’t think”—and here Fry switches to a booming voice—”‘We in are a time when we need male companionship.’ You just make the movie. Because Butch Cassidy was a success, or whatever.

“But I think you can certainly say, as we get to the end of our century, we tend to look back. And a lot of the people who were heroes to us, especially to the young, 20, 30 years ago, the kind of people you put posters of on the wall, have lost a great [deal] of their integrity and their promise. I think now we’ve lost a lot of faith in politics, or rock music, if you like. But the figure of Wilde has sort of grown. He has that sense—both through his own life, the tragedy of it, as a rather noble figure, and because of his work—of being a symbol of the eternal student, the student prince, the crown prince of bohemia. I think that’s why he’s such a common sight on bookstore shopping bags, and why he’s such a mouse [pad], a T-shirt.”

There’s no sense that Fry has exhausted his analysis when Gilbert interjects, “At the end of a century, people always become worried about ideas of decadence and decline and degeneracy—those are usually the words that crop up at the end of a century, and they have in our time, too. Wilde was always considered the embodiment of those terrible traits, but we look back now and we see him in a completely different way.”

“There has been a complete change in the moral regard for Wilde,” continues Gilbert, who’s shorter, stouter, and only slightly less loquacious than his colleague. “He was the object of total contempt and loathing in his time, as a result of the scandal. That looks to us like a terrible injustice now. Those things are no longer considered crimes—”

“Also, we live in a time that is more than ever obsessed with celebrity,” counters Fry, “and in some sense he was the first celebrity.”

“Although a lot of people claim that title, don’t they?” interjects Gilbert. “But in many ways he was.”

“He became famous, of course, because of the scandal and because he was the most successful dramatist of his time,” continues Fry, “but even before that he was famous, extremely famous, just for the way he was. We live in a time which is obsessed with the gap between the public face and the private reality. The heat is under every single person in the public eye. In this town, they’re no stranger to it. And they’re certainly no stranger to it in Great Britain.”

“Except with Wilde it’s the reverse now,” says Gilbert. “We look back at it like the line from The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘He’s the hypocrite; he wears the mask of wickedness, but he’s really good all the time.’”

“Exactly,” agrees Fry. “That sense of personal authenticity, of his personal integrity—”

“—has an increasing value,” continues Gilbert.

“I think it does,” says Fry, who is gay. “Of course, to the gay community, that’s bound to be the case. He will always stand as a symbol for them. But it’s much wider than that. In fact, most of the letters I’ve had since the film has been made have actually been from women. Mainly from students. He’s a hero to them. As people stand on the brink [of adulthood], they know that to live a life on rails is deeply wrong. And if there is a way off the rails, it’s just being yourself and believing that tomorrow you may not know what you think about something, rather than being ossified: ‘We don’t like those people; we like these people. I disapprove of this; I disapprove of that.’ But actually having the courage not to know what you think, but to try and imagine someone else’s point of view.”

“That’s why Wilde emphasized the idea of art, not as a form of truth, but as lies,” offers Gilbert. “He accounted for American philistinism, when he came over for his lecture tour, by the fact that one of the founding fathers, George Washington, would never tell a lie.

“What a terrible basis for the founding of a nation!” Gilbert chortles.

“Another very good example of how, when he seemed to be offering a little soufflé, it turned out to be a bomb,” adds Fry, “was when he asked why he thought America was such a violent country. He said, ‘I know why it’s so violent. It’s because your wallpaper is so ugly.’ That carried with it a whole sense of what the aesthetic movement was about, and his sense of what man was about. The world in which we are born is a very beautiful one, but the things that man adds are very ugly. You have a whole species that is neurotically guilty about the fact that it can do nothing but make the world ugly. And guilt, as we know, leads to aggression. Whereas if people are surrounded by the possibility that there is such a thing as art, to take what is around us and make it into something beautiful, then people will not be violent. It’s a political view, in a strange way, of what art can do.”

“In order to provoke,” Gilbert adds, Wilde “stressed the uselessness of art.”

“I think it’s no accident, also,” Fry continues, “that in Britain today people talk about art far more than they ever did. Politics has been reduced as a serious arena for talking about human relations. Art is suddenly once again on the agenda. And I think that’s both wonderful and exciting. And also,” he giggles, “a very, very long reply to your question.”

Cynically, it’s suggested that art is booming in Britain because of the recently introduced National Lottery, some of whose proceeds are reserved for arts groups.

“True!” Gilbert titters.

“That is the burner that has warmed the little vessel in which art is,” Fry concurs.

“It has had a very big effect on film,” says Gilbert. “Just the sheer presence of more money, more stimulus for writers to write—”

“But that is the result of political will,” argues Fry. “Ten years ago, if the National Lottery had happened, it would [have fed] charities and good works and some public buildings. But I don’t think it would have had that direct link to film and other arts. The previous administration just felt art was something that should take its place in the marketplace, like anything else—like apples.”

Unexpectedly, Wilde opens with the writer on his American lecture tour, making a stop in a Colorado mining town. “It was a big question where we should start,” recalls Gilbert. “We did try other things. Then we just sort of hit on it. That this would be unexpected, which was important—it’s a slightly Wildean thing. It was a way of, in a little, of showing a lot about Wilde. Particularly this quality he had, which is forgotten, his noncondescending way with people. There’s a lot of testimony to that. He went down to a mine, in Leadville, Colo., and talked to them at length about [16th-century Florentine sculptor and author] Benvenuto Cellini, and held them spellbound.

“And he drank with them—and that he could drink them under the table was important—and then went whoring with them afterwards.”

“‘You’re a bully boy, Oscar,’ they told him,” notes Fry. “He loved that phrase.”

The film’s other surprise is that it devotes much time to Wilde’s marriage to Constance Lloyd and to his fatherhood. “It’s terribly important,” says Gilbert. “If there was something he really seriously felt guilty about, it was that.”

“He was devastated,” Fry comments, “by the fact that he couldn’t see his beloved children again” after his imprisonment.

“I think he entered [his marriage] innocently,” Gilbert contends. “That’s quite hard for people to understand now. They say, ‘How could he not have known?’ But there wasn’t that idea of homosexuality [at the time]. I tried to show that the younger guys in the film had a more secure idea of their identity than he did, simply being that little bit younger.”

“There’s no evidence at all that he had any same-sex relations before he met Constance,” Fry says. “I assume in school he had the odd rubbings and frottings that we all have the great pleasure of enjoying when we’re young, and look back mistily towards,” he adds, as he and Gilbert both chortle. “I think he entered the marriage in very good faith.

“Those who might like the film to have a stronger, gay, modern, 1990s voice, might say that this makes homosexuality a source of guilt and dismay again. It makes being gay look like a curse. I don’t think Wilde had the view that it was a curse, but I don’t think he had a 1990s view of it,” continues Fry.

“He didn’t have what the Larry Kramers of this world—the aggressive, out-there, sort of Queer Nation people—might want. But to complain about that is like complaining that he didn’t have an e-mail address.”

Noting that Wilde and his circle cited the ancient Greeks as their model, Gilbert suggests that “it was absolutely a different ideal, and that’s hard sometimes for the gay community to realize. Erotic fashion changes, as well as the ideology of sex, and their ideology was Hellenic. Even the erotic ideal changes. People look at Michelangelo’s David and wonder why he’s so ill-equipped. Because that was the ideal; it was not phallocentric.”

“A small, neat set of genitalia,” says Fry with exaggerated crispness. “Highly mobile, flexible. Capable of moving in and out. And back in time for tea.” Then Gilbert leads the pair once again, dissolving into laughter.

—Mark Jenkins