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Fry was born to be Wilde

PHILADELPHIA -- "Why is America such a violent country, Mr. Wilde?"

"Because the wallpaper is so ugly."

Oscar Wilde was famous for his one-liners, but lurking beneath the surface was a serious purpose. That's what Stephen Fry was arguing here the other night in Bookbinder's, where he tucked into a lobster and talked about the doomed wit and playwright.

"What he was saying, I think, is that nature reflects perfection, but if you replace it with the ugliest artifacts of man, you must be violent," Fry explained. "If you rip the earth open into quarries, only to stamp out tin ornaments, of course you hate yourself."

Fry talks like a man who could dictate polished prose. He eats like a man who knows what a good lobster is, and he spreads butter on his bread like a man for whom the recommended daily dietary allowance of saturated fat is a record to be broken. We talked one night during the Philadelphia Film Festival; his new film "Wilde" was not in the festival, but that was a trivial technicality.

In the film, he gives a much-praised performance as the celebrated writer, who produced a series of wildly successful plays and novels, and then unwisely sued the Marquis of Queensbury for slander. The marquis' attorneys were able to prove in court that Wilde was indeed, as the libel claimed, a homosexual, and Wilde was convicted to two years' hard labor from which he never recovered.

A century later, Wilde is more popular than ever. Just as the film is going into national release, Liam Neeson has opened in a Broadway play about the Irish playwright, whose books are all in print and whose plays flourish in countless revivals.

Fry plays Wilde with tenderness, as a man who loved his wife and children but loved even more an ideal of masculine youth. For the young men, both willing and paid, who entered his arms, he felt more like a mentor than a lover. There is the sense that the sex itself was never the real point.

Fry at 40 is a tall man, tending toward plumpness, a master of table chat, an entertainer. He writes as much as he acts; he wrote a column in the London Telegraph for years, and has produced three recent best-selling comic novels ("The Hippopotamus," about a faith-healer who practices his gift through sex; "The Liar," about a gay teenager in boarding school, and "Making History," about the consequences of traveling back in time to prevent the birth of Hitler.)

Like Wilde, Fry is a homosexual, although he makes it a point to say he is celibate--suggesting in some of his writings that the messiness of sexual intimacy is not to his taste. He's probably best known for his continuing role as Jeeves on the BBC's series about the most famous butler-client relationship in literature. The role closest to Fry's everyday personality was probably in Kenneth Branagh's "Peter's Friends" (1992), where he played a character who assembles old friends at a house party to tell them a sad secret. And now comes Oscar Wilde, who he says he was "probably born to play." Why, I asked him, is Wilde so popular right now?

"As we arrive at the end of our century," he said, sounding somehow like a radio commentator, "we seem to look down a long corridor to the end of the previous century, asking what will last and make a difference. My generation put up posters of Che and Dylan and somehow felt rock music might do something to make a difference. We no longer believe that it might. We look back to see whose attitudes and ideas still seem relevant, and with Wilde and Einstein, their authority is still there. He was the crown prince of Bohemia. He was always curious. The best of us want to be students for the rest of our lives. He fills a need. Even cheap detective writers create heroes out of what their time is lacking, and we lack the intelligence and wit of Wilde, who doesn't buy into the whining, sanctimonious culture in which we live."

Yes. He talked about Wilde in the deep, richly confiding tone that first became famous on "Jeeves and Wooster." It was not exactly conversational. His table talk is more entertaining than most conversation, and more coherent.

"Wilde looms higher with the passage of time. Take an Englishman like myself, visiting America. I'm told that I'm driving past the Empire State Building, but as I look out the window all I can see is the next building, which stands in the way. As we continue down the street, however, the Empire State Building re-emerges, and when I get far enough away it towers above all of the others. Something like that has happened to Wilde. The further away we've got from him, the more he's grown."

Fry bears a certain physical resemblance to Wilde: "As I broke the membrane of my 30s and began to develop interesting new chins and a spreading waistline," he mused, "I began to be told I should play Wilde. And he meant a lot to me. If you knew you were gay in the early 1970s, you felt very alone. You went to the movies about Wilde, and of course they were never very explicit; you wondered why that man was sent to jail for patting people on the head. But you knew that in Wilde you'd found a sympathetic sensibility."

The conversation strayed.

We talked about the new movie "The Truman Show," about a man who discovers his whole life is being lived on television: "Of course I felt exactly like that when I was growing up," Fry smiled. "I used to think -- a-ha! I saw that woman 200 miles ago, in another town! The assistant director has confused his extras!"

We talked about the Bad Sex Prize, awarded every year by Literary Review magazine for the worst prose description of sex in the year's novels: "I was supposed to present this year's prize, but I got the date wrong," he said. "I attended one year, when it was won by a writer named Philip Kerr, and everybody in the room went into contortions, trying to twist themselves into the positions he described."

And we talked about the writings of Shirley MacLaine: "The day life has so little to offer that I read the next Shirley MacLaine book, disembowel me."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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