The end of the world, as far as Joan Collins was concerned, was being stood up by Rupert Everett. She’s waiting in the Ivy with Christopher Biggins; Rupert is in J Sheekey, down the road, recklessly spending the last of his Hollywood fame-currency with a trio of producers (he sums them up as “thin ties and neon teeth”). Suddenly, the maître d’ informs Everett that Miss Collins’s people are on the phone. She is very angry, and is leaving. They don’t speak again for ten years.
I only mention this anecdote – hilariously told by Everett in his book, with his customary mix of self-shame and disdain – because I once stood him up. A head- first appointment with a kerb as I was cycling intervened between me and the recording I was due to make with him. I could feel him glowering at me, from the apologetic unanswered emails I sent from casualty. Of course, that only made me love him more.
I’ve loved Everett’s writing ever since his first novel, Hello Darling, Are You Working? (1992). “Nancy Mitford on Ecstasy”, I wrote in a review for Vogue, feeling very pleased with myself. I’m sure he would have mocked my presumption with an upraised eyebrow and a fine-tuned, arch quip. But of course, that is the paradoxical measure of his charm. Rather like his friend, the film-maker Derek Jarman, Everett’s unrestrained ability to outrage, decorously, merely causes the public – we mere mortals – to squirm with delight. We’re saying, “You can’t possibly say that,” but he knows exactly what we want to hear.
Everett’s latest and third volume of memoir is an extended love letter to his decadent hero Oscar Wilde, whom he was determined to play in a film of his own directing, The Happy Prince (2018). It is also a sustained and picaresque stream of filthy gossip and bathetic insight. Like he cares. The author fixes us only for the period it takes for his profundities and profanities to take effect; by the time we realise what he has done, he has already moved on. The secret, as Noël Coward, another of Everett’s heroes, advised David Lean, was always to pop up out of another hole, darling.
[See also: The ghosts of Mark Fisher]
Everett’s unabashed adventures certainly dealt with plenty of holes, not least in his younger Earl’s Court days, when he found sex with strangers only acceptable – that is, exciting – if enacted en plein air, up dead-end lanes, or behind parked cars. Like Kenneth Williams (only with more sex), the notion of following anyone with a key to their door terrified him.
Ostensibly, the book tells the story of Everett’s attempt to make his film about the last years of Wilde’s life, but it is really a series of flash-lit scenes. Thus we spin back from his brilliant 2016 stage performance in David Hare’s own take on Wilde, The Judas Kiss, to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London’s Swiss Cottage in 1979, where Viennese widows wander with eyes “marbleised by cataracts”, and Everett receives a disastrous first year crit prior to being dismissed from his course. The inquisitors sit at a trestle table, “a kind of theatrical Last Supper”. Oh yes, the adult Everett now admits, young Rupert was “devious, superficial and bored”; and yes, he was “already taking heroin and fucking everything in sight” (and never wearing shoes). But who was the one who ended up in Mustique, partying with Mick Jagger and Princess Margaret?
Everett’s barely grown-up petulance powers this book. He sees Wilde’s fate echoed in his own meteoric rise and fall. Achingly self-aware, dismissed from college, he wanders the King’s Road in Seditionaries wraparound shades, acting on a forlorn rumour that Ken Russell is looking out for casting talent there.
Cut to the present-day Eurostar. He’s on his way to Paris, in the period after he was famously “Madonna’s best friend”, to continue his research (“[like] a shark I am at my best on the move”). The young man in the seat across the aisle catches his eye: his shades are diamond-studded, he is decked out in Prada and Gucci, and he has kissable ears. Everett starts chatting. The man says he’s a footballer. Everett can’t believe that: “He must be the boyfriend of some fabulous sultana or other, but I play along.” Who does he play for, he asks? “He says something like ‘Arsehole’.” Everett is impressed: “Arsehole? Great answer.” “No, ArsenAL,” Thierry Henry corrects him.
Cut to the infant Rupert, aged five. His mother is just about to go out. She’s dressed like Jackie Onassis. To placate her stroppy boy, she starts to read Wilde’s The Happy Prince and Other Tales. There’s a Freudian fairy story for you, full of pathos and abandoned love: a statue who gives up his bejewelled features to feed the poor, only to be melted down for his pains, leaving behind only his leaden heart. It’s the first time that Everett hears Wilde’s name; the beginning of a fatal, glorious attraction. He so identifies with Wilde that he accuses the playwright of stalking him. It is from Wilde that Everett learns, far too early, that love always has its price.
Cut to Paris, in which he first cavorted in the cocaine-fuelled 1980s. Now Everett is making a pitch for a remake of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. His showreel is to be shot in a Japanese drag restaurant, and costumed by his friend, the designer Azzedine Alaia. Everett looks forwards to his performance en travestie: “I hope my dress will be ready in time for the State-ball.” The event is a disastrous triumph. He rips his borrowed white fur coat in the heels of his Manolo Blahniks as he staggers, already drunk, on to the metre-wide stage, screeches out his karaoke, and passes out, half-naked in his dressing room, abandoned by this friends. “What c***s,” groans the divested Everett, from the gutter outside, homophobically abused by a cab driver (“Nique ta mère,” he responds), while looking up at the stars.
We await Rupe’s saviour; he comes in the shape of Wilde’s own genes, as Merlin Holland, the grandson of the playwright, appears. Glowing in Holland’s encouragement to make his film, Everett sets off again. It’s another journey to the impossible past. Everett, who spends his life on trains, in hotels and restaurants, decamps to Italy in search of costume designs from Luchino Visconti’s dresser in a decrepit Roman villa. There he realises the glamour has gone from modern existence. “This was the world I searched for but never found. Right place. Wrong time. Story of my life.”
In Naples, by miraculous coincidence, he finds that a friend of his producer lives in the Neapolitan house on the cliff in which Wilde holed up with Bosie Douglas. Everett’s fantasy turns the location into an extension of Wilde’s own sensual life. His own favoured haunts of leather bars and dungeons here become the villa’s marble steps leading directly down to the sea. At any moment, we fear, our intoxicated hero will trip into the ocean. Instead he merely stumbles, stoned and naked, into the bidet in his bathroom. It is classic Everett.
It is not until the last few chapters of the book that his film actually starts shooting. Of course, it’s a disaster. His Wilde fat suit is nearly confiscated by airport security (the inspector squeezes its phallus to check for terrorist intent), and it nearly succeeds in drowning Everett as he re-enacts Wilde’s last swim. The money runs out and Colin Firth gives up his fee. The film gets made, is wonderfully reviewed, but the audiences do not appear. The Prince totters on his pedestal. A beautiful failure. And yet not, of course. The evidence for Everett’s persistent brilliance and desire to be loved lies beyond this account and his film. It is incarnate in the one long performance of his life, a work of art in itself. Like he cares. Like he does.
Philip Hoare’s new book, “Albert & the Whale”, will be published by 4th Estate in March
To the End of the World: Travels with Oscar Wilde
Little, Brown, 337pp, £20
This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden