It isn’t very often that out queer actors are cast in queer roles. Usually, such roles are reserved for straight actors who then turn the film into Oscar bait during award season. It’s even rarer still that a film is also written and directed by a queer person. With The Happy Prince, we get all three.
Named after the Oscar Wilde short story of the same name, The Happy Prince is about Wilde’s last days and the events that lead to his demise. Having been convicted of sodomy and gross indecency, Wilde was imprisoned and submitted to hard labor. Upon his release, he was deemed a social reject and having been outcast, the last three years of his life were spent in exile and poverty.
Out actor Rupert Everett initially intended to only write the screenplay and star in the film. However, due to lack of interest from directors he’d approached, he eventually took on the role of director as well.
“The first one that I wrote the screenplay for backed out, and then so did about seven others,” he said of the film. “So, nobody that I wanted, wanted me. Story of my life. And so then I was left to myself, to direct it, or let it die, and I decided to try and keep going.”
Everett defines The Happy Prince as a “project of passion” that took over his life for a period of time while making it. In an interview with Press Association, he expressed that he felt a connection to Wilde as an out gay man in a compulsively heteronormative film industry, where due to his openness regarding his sexuality, he was denied certain roles or they simply were never made available to him.
“My position of working in this aggressively heterosexual milieu of show business has definitely made me feel kind of parallel,” Everett said. “Of course I haven’t been put in prison and subjected to hard labour and I haven’t died from it but I have been constantly on the back foot, really, in my career as a gay actor.”
In an interview with HMV, he references the task of acquiring financing for distribution, noting that with all the distributors, name dropping was never not an option for him, as they were only interested in investing in the film as long as Colin Firth, who plays Reggie Turner, remained attached to the project.
His tenacity and passion for getting the project off the ground is appreciated. Though the film is sure to be a dark, grim take on the unfortunate passing of the “last of the great 19th century vagabonds,” it is a reflection of the hypocrisy and cruelty in the treatment of queer artists; revered only when they hide the truths that make straight culture uncomfortable. Still, the trailer promises to stay true to Wilde’s famous sharp wit, which even near death, he never lost. In one scene, he is shown ill, in bed, staring at the wall as he says, “I’m in mortal combat with this wallpaper, Robbie. One of us has to go.”
It is precisely that spirit of humor and survival, even in the direst of situations, that made Wilde’s such a compelling story to tell for Everett, who credits the writer for igniting the LGBTQ liberation movement.
“There wasn’t such a word as homosexuality before the Wilde scandal,” Everett says, “and with Wilde’s death in 1900, it really was a beginning, a starting point, for the gay movement which then became the LGBTQ movement.”
The Happy Prince opens in New York and Los Angeles October 5.