The Importance of Being Earnest
Step through an ivyclad archway into an immaculate rococo landscape garden, and it's like travelling back 100 years. Indeed, given the clinical attention to detail and the ornate grandeur of the Dashwood family mansion in Buckinghamshire, the only betrayal that this is not, in fact, the upper-class opulence of the late 19th century is a pair of shiny, white trainers just south of Rupert Everett's dapper slacks. (Although, had Nike been in production at the time, it's the sort of thing Algernon Moncrieff may well have gone for.)
Mr. Everett is, however, unavailable for comments on matters of filming, comfy footwear or any other. So, too, Mr. Firth (Jack Worthing) - both concentrating on their lines. And with good reason. For this is An Ideal Husband director Oliver Parker returning to Oscar Wilde, namely The Importance of Being Earnest, which concerns the wooing of Gwendolen Fairfax (O'Connor) and Cecily Cardew (Witherspoon) by Jack and Algy.
"It's been really intimidating walking onto a set with a load of English people and having to do English dialogue," says Witherspoon of the Wilde witticisms. "I think the older you get, the harder it is to hear a different 'language', which is what it's like when you start studying different sounds."
After Mansfield Park, Frances O'Connor had less trouble plumming over antipodean tones, and regarded the Italianate façades and lavish adornment favoured by Sir Francis Dashwood (founder of misbehaving aristo society, The Hellfire Club) as inspiring. "It makes it easier, I think. It's all around you, and you just can't help but soak it up."
One person who won't worry about the accent is Dame Judi Dench, for whom Miramax juggled the shooting schedules of the Shipping News, Iris and Earnest to allow her to grace all three. "It's exquisite," says Dame Dench of her current shooting experience. "Like the Marriage of Figaro and Twelfth Night: absolutely perfect."
And yet, despite all the frockery, fine period setting and established thesps, this promises to have a distinctly modern edge. "The words and attitudes feel very contemporary," says Witherspoon. "I thought it was really well adapted and it just felt so different to Legally Blonde," laughs the model of understatement. "So here I am, a proper English lady."
For a cast full of capital-T thespians steeped in the Wildean tradition, including Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Tom Wilkinson and Judi Dench as a very formidable but also surprisingly human Lady Bracknell, performing in the film required looking at the material with fresh eyes, almost as if they had never been exposed to it before.
"It's one of the things that people grow up with, whether they've ever seen it or not," said Mr. Firth, who first caught "Earnest" onstage in Southampton, England, in the 1970's. In the film, he plays the juicy double role of Jack Worthing and his alter ego of wicked repute, Ernest. "What has amazed me is how open it is to being interpreted, to being played with. I thought everything we'd do would be straining against the nature of the piece and would look wrong, but it's not."
Mr. Firth welcomed the script changes and the chance to utter Wilde's words in a way that seemed perfectly natural, as if he spoke that way in daily conversation. "There's always someone out there who, if you change one word, would act as if you'd burned the last surviving copy of the play," he said. "But this is the only way we could do it without being utterly stilted."
"I quite like the range of interpretations that can be teased out of the script," said Mr. Parker, who himself played the part of Jack in a Welsh staging of "Earnest" when he was 29. "I wanted to be careful not to load it with too much ballast, but nor did I want it to be a banging-door farce. Wilde's wit is on the one hand very challenging and, on the other, very humane. He's never more poignant than when he's being lighthearted and light-footed."
Evidence of such lightheartedness comes particularly in the scenes between Mr. Firth and Mr. Everett, playing the louche, mischief-making Algy. "We were thinking on our feet," Mr. Firth said. So that when the two men - both hopelessly ensnared in high-comedy misunderstandings about their identities, and both passing themselves off as people named Ernest - repaired to the woods to gather bluebells, they found themselves doing it perhaps more vigorously than they had planned.
"We picked bluebells together and started to argue, and then it got physical," Mr. Firth said. "I scrunched his bunch of bluebells, and then he pushed me over."
All this makes for a film that is familiar and at the same time new. "Some of what frustrates me about Wilde is the way it can be done on the stage in the traditional way," Mr. Parker said. "It's almost as though the cast has the appearance of assuming it's funny without really knowing what they're saying. It's something people seem to feel safe about. But what excites me is that he's not safe; he's subversive.
"Comedies can touch things that are very important, in a very light way," Mr. Parker added. "Wilde's wit still glitters. That's what feels incredibly modern." .
director revisits oscar wilde [I]
LONDON (AP) - "Rise, sir, from this semi-recumbent posture!" snaps Dame Judi Dench, digging into the role of Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's classic comedy The Importance of Being Earnest.
And rise Colin Firth does, even if his character, the gently smitten Jack Worthing, would rather be alone with Lady Bracknell's daughter, Gwendolen (played by Frances O'Connor).
After all, when you're dealing with one of the most formidable women ever written - and a no less formidable actress - you don't dillydally.
"Semi-recumbent," says Dench later, savoring the word during a break in filming Heaven! She stars in a new film version of Wilde's 1895 play, which is due for a possible Christmas release in one or two cities and a far-wider release in the spring. The movie also stars Firth, O'Connor, Rupert Everett and, as the fresh-faced young ward Cecily Cardew, Reese Witherspoon.
The director is Oliver Parker, who two years ago came out with a film of another Wilde play, An Ideal Husband. That one cost $10.5 million and grossed $40 million, which makes the slightly pricier Earnest a good commercial bet.
The problem, of course, is that Earnest is a far better-known play and was already successfully filmed once, in 1952, with Michael Redgrave and Edith Evans under Anthony Asquith's direction. Evans established the gold standard for Lady Bracknell's horrified question, "A handbag?"
Parker, who once played Jack in a staging of the play a dozen years ago, sighs. "You're bound to make decisions that a lot of people won't agree with, and I actually liked the old film of Earnest. It's charming in its way," he says. But he adds, "the thing that frustrates me about productions when I see them is that they tend to become the opposite of what I think is the play; they've become establishment property." The spirit of Earnest he says, demands something different. "There's something wonderfully light but anarchic in it."
That's certainly true of the scene being filmed on this particular day. Lady Bracknell - the play's gorgon-like comic motor ("To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.") - is checking out Jack's suitability for her daughter. She also, perhaps, is eyeing him and his friend Algernon Moncrieff (Everett) in some vague way for herself.
"She's cheeky," smiles the 40-year-old Firth. "There's sex involved here; these lines are a lot more alive than I had thought."
"I mean, she's frightfully flirtatious," says Dench, 66, who played Lady Bracknell at London's National Theater in 1982. "There are so many allusions to how fond Lady Bracknell is of Algy particularly, and then there's poor old ailing Lord B. stuck up in a room with a tray." As she talks, Dench's blue eyes glisten. Her face looks tiny under an elaborately bedecked hat. "She's done frightfully well for herself, hasn't she," Dench asks of her character, "for someone who started out with no fortune?"
"It's a bit of a scary monster, that part," says Parker. "You really need to break it down and give it some humanity and vulnerability, as well as power."
The actors talk about the importance of approaching the famous play without preconceptions - of not being too earnest. Says Firth, the movie "offers you the opportunity to escape the cliches of the play.
Oliver Parker: "I was given a lot of encouragement and heart on working on 'Ideal' and was thrilled to find how fresh Wilde's own stuff worked. I did quite a lot of adapting on 'Ideal' and 'Earnest,' in one sense, I felt if you went for it needs less meddling with the text. It just needs a little more interpreting in different ways."/.../
Q: While it's been years since I saw "Earnest" on stage in London, much of the film's dialogue does sound like it came straight from Wilde's text.
"Yes, a lot of it is there," Parker said. "Of course, it's stripped down a bit here and there and reorganized (in) different scenes. But nearly all of it is Wilde's. The worst jokes are mine - and we've already removed some of those in the editing. So we spared the audience some of that. When I was considering it as a play I knew it better than 'Ideal' originally because I'd been in it onstage about 10 years ago and was fascinated by it. I got to know the four- act version, as well. He originally wrote a four-act version, which was trimmed down to three before it was ever performed.
"The four-act version had some rather interesting characters and ideas, which you could see why he abandoned for the play (which opened very successfully on Feb. 14, 1895 at the St. James's Theatre in London). But (they) were quite fun inspirations for me in that there were these creditors who come after Algy. And I began to think, 'Oh, you could start with Algy running away.' You get a better picture of this sort of rake, man-about-town figure and use some of those ideas. I was talking with Harvey and he said, 'Yeah, you could start with a chase' and I'd literally just been telling Barney that. And for a moment I wondered whether we were being bugged. So there was a moment where we definitely all thought, 'Fun idea.' And then I went away and thought, well, I don't want to do it immediately, but actually it all started to form in my head as an adaptation."
The project began to evolve, he noted, "fairly organically. There was a moment when I nearly went and did the other one, but that didn't happen. One or two other things came along. At one stage, I was wondering whether I should direct it, but as often happens I find the more you work on the adaptation the more interesting it becomes for you as a director. You see it more specifically. So it kind of went from there, really. It's one of those strange ones where you expected a hurdle to crop up any moment and bring you down, but it's almost been inexorable (that) Wilde will out. And here he is again."
Parker didn't actually begin work on the screenplay until about a year and a half ago.
"I spent a few months on the adaptation," he said, "and then decided it was in quite good shape and started to polish it up and talk about actors. Various people were immediately interested in Rupert. I even discussed the idea with him at the press junket for 'Ideal.' He was always interested. He was more interested in (playing) Lady Bracknell, but Judi was there for that one in the end. I'm not joking! He would have been marvelous! He sort of set a good standard for this and for the tone that we were looking for (by) straddling the period and giving it a contemporary feel without blowing its roots.
"Judi was the one I'd always wanted for Bracknell. We had a little bit of a headache trying to fit (it into her schedule). She did so much work. It was at that sad time when her husband had died and she was working on about three pictures at once, I think. But she was pretty determined and the various producers got together and managed to squeeze a few days (from the schedule she'd need to fit into). She had about 13 days to do all her stuff. She came in and it's not one of those parts where you can sort of hang about for a couple of days. You hit the ground and you run, you know. She was amazing. She did 'Earnest' at the National, probably over 10 years ago. Her main concern was that it would be a too theatrical grasp of it, but what appealed to me about her in the first place is that she always brings a very deep humanity to whatever she does. For me, that counters any fear you have of it being theatrical. It's inevitably going to be theatrical in some respects. That's its roots and I don't think you need to shy from it. But, at the same time, the bad side of that coin is often a less rooted emotional characterization. She's incapable of not giving a full-blooded performance, so I never had any fears about that though she (was) a little nervous to start with. But within a few epigrams she was roaring along."
While Dench was almost an obvious choice to play Lady Bracknell, Parker's casting of Reese Witherspoon to play Cecily was more of an inspiration.
"I really liked the idea of Reese, having seen her in 'Election,' " he told me. "It's a tricky part, Cecily, because I wanted somebody who's genuinely young. Too often I've seen it where it's usually somebody pretending to be young and also pretending to be sort of innocent and pretending to be a lot of things that end up being arch, which is the opposite tack we're trying to take with it. What's so good about Reese is her terrific directness and I don't mean fierceness, but she's got an amazing terrier-like grip on truthfulness. So she makes that character for me."
"Immediately you believe the context and there's not a wink at the audience or any tongue-in-cheek. It's a very strong and genuine performance. It's tricky (to cast) because we don't have much experience for young actresses. The two or three that were feasible for me didn't have yet the chops on screen. What I liked (about Witherspoon) is that she is so -- mature sounds condescending -- so at home and experienced already at her age. And she brings all that (to the role), which is sort of what Cecily is. Cecily is a bit of a tigress in sheep's clothing. So that was always appealing to me and I liked the idea that Algy comes along and here's this pretty little thing he thinks he's going to sweep off her feet and actually she's a darned sight tougher than you first give her credit for."
Inasmuch as Witherspoon isn't English, her accent posed a potential problem.
"It's always a nerve wracking one because in the casting process - especially if you're dealing with somebody who is of some status or name - you rarely get a chance to work with them before offering them the role," Parker explained. "But I did some research on her and she's a bit of a good impressionist. She's extremely good at accents. When she came into rehearsals, she hid her light under a bushel for some weeks, but worked like crazy. I kept very close to the coach, who's definitely one of the best I know and she was extremely encouraging about her. What I like about her take is that she doesn't just do an accent, she does an accent for the character. She gives it a slightly old-fashioned (sound). She puts a lot into it. The thing about Reese is she is a perfectionist. She's not going to do it unless she believes in it. She worked like crazy. There was a time when I think she was nervous about how much she'd bitten off, but she certainly chewed it all by the end. I was incredibly impressed."
As for Colin Firth, who plays Jack, Parker noted, "Colin I know from way back. He's a dear fellow and, also, I think what I like about him is that role Jack is often a bit of a stooge to Algy. Algy tends to have the funny lines and having played Jack I sort of understood that it's not necessarily appealing. But in my adaptation I was quite concerned (about) that. In some ways, his is the story with the most change to it. I was quite interested to try and get a little big more compassion into the story than is normally the point. I would say originally its intention is more satirical and wickedly sharp. With time, the objects of satire are perhaps less evident and particularly on screen I felt it important to try and create this world where you give them a context you believe in a bit more. The great thing about film is that you can actually draw out the world they're living in much more and immediately you're getting a rapport between them and their environment."
"And Colin, I find, is a terrifically detailed and sensitive performer. He can bring the sensitivity and complexity (to the role). What I was really thrilled with was I feel there's a lot of range to him in this part. I think there are moments that I was surprised that they're sweetly affecting. I wasn't quite sure how they'd turn out. (And that's) partly because of the rapport between the two guys. They worked together many years ago on 'Another Country' on screen and that rapport is there. On set it's there. I'm pretty confident that that's what sort of (resulted in) what they do on screen. Rupert is a terrifically sharp-witted fellow and you've got to keep your own about you. And Colin and he had some terrifically good fun almost fraternal tangles. It was so clearly aimed at what they were doing and they became even firm friends, I think, by the end, which was lovely."
Shooting got underway in April 2001 at Ealing Studios, the historic British studio that opened in 1902 and became a center in the '40s and '50s for the production of classic British comedies like "The Ladykillers" and "The Lavender Hill Mob."
"We shot the country stuff at West Wycombe Manor, about 45 minutes drive west of London," Parker said. "We saw quite a few places. I was enchanted with this one because there's something rather unusual and slightly magical about the place. It was actually built by one of the founding members of the Hell Fire Club in West Wycombe in 1760. His descendants are still there now. There's a huge Italianate entrance on the place. A lot of murals and very curious little statues. I found it rather intriguing because what I was looking for in the country was not just the English lovely countryside but just a hint of something a bit magical. Its roots are, I think, not just Restoration, but Shakespeare and, more specifically, 'A Mid-Summer Night's Dream.' I've always liked the idea that in their dream the lovers leave the city and go to the woods where they sort of wrestle with themselves and each other. There's something about in this story leaving the town and strange things sort of happen. These are rather repressed Victorians, as many of the upper classes were, and there's a whole lot of intriguing fantasies lurking not far beneath that surface. So the play, for me, had a bit of that.
"Otherwise, I was quite keen in the early stuff just to get a bit of London just to get some contrast. Town and country seem to be a quite strong split an image in the piece in that they sort of reflect Ernest and Jack. They really (only) have a few scenes at the beginning, but it was crucial that we got them and we see a sort of humming London and the nightclubs and we seen the gambling rooms and then you get more a sense of poor Cecily imprisoned in this place until things start to stir up and various intruders arrive. Also, in the design I found myself using Luciana Arrighi as set designer. I'd been working with her on that Italian thing (Parker's 'Fade to Black' project) and got to know her. She's got a lot of flair. I quite liked just little hints of not-Englishness about it. Partly because Wilde, himself, wasn't, you know. We sort of claimed him over here, but, of course, he wasn't. He was an Irishman with his perspective on it. And it's quite nice having just a little tilt at it. The costumes were Maurizio Millenotti, who's worked with Fellini and Zefirelli. And they knew of each other and worked together. I quite liked the combination of their sensibilities."
How did production go?
"There should be more than 24 hours a day when you're shooting a period piece," Parker replied. "It takes forever to get everybody assembled in their period costumes with their period hair on. And then you break for lunch and they go down the hill in a car and then you miss two hours for lunch. You add up the hours of the day and you think, 'We'd better get a move on. So that was a continuous strain. But we had a terrific atmosphere. There was something fun about sort of an ensemble piece. I often find with something like that, if the majority of the folks are committed to it, it has a momentum of its own. It seemed to me crucial to have that sort of atmosphere with this sort of thing. So it was really enjoyable and there were some lovely moments. In the countryside, I'll never forget Judi (driving) around the English lawny slopes in this sort of golf cart that used to take her from her (trailer) up to the set. She used to be driven the first couple of days and after a while she booted her driver out and you'd see her (driving about herself). We called it the Brackmobile. She would race along. On the whole, there were lots of fun bits. Working with Rupert again was a great treat. Frances is, I think, an amazing actress (playing Lady Bracknell's daughter Gwendolen Fairfax) and I would work with her again at the drop of a hat."
Asked what it cost to make the film, he said, "It was about $12 million. Not bad (with such a strong cast involved). We shot for eight and a half weeks. They were all very generous." Parker then added with a laugh, "They paid to be in it, of course."
The costume fittings were in Rome. Nothing but the best: pure silks, linens and the finest brocade was considered, and that was just for the men. Producer Barnaby Thompson calculated that his two leading actors, Colin Firth and Rupert Everett, came away with seventeen outfits each, including Rupert's armour.
"That's possibly right", admitted Rupert Everett. Colin Firth insisted "I never demanded them, I was provided with them". All this before we even get to what the ladies are wearing in the sumptuous film version of Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest.
Rupert Everett plays Algernon, the penniless London playboy, while Colin Firth is John Worthing, who lives one life in town and another in the country.
There's Frances O'Connor, as Gwendolen Fairfax, in a most becoming silk number with a cream jacket fitted so tight she must have been sewn into it. And Reese Witherspoon as dear, darling Cecily Cardew, in a pretty blue and ivory dress. And Anna Massey, prim and proper in plain cotton and silks as Miss Prism.
Judi Dench, though, commands our attention in a hat of immense distinction and a faux fox wrap (she would have strongly disapproved of having a real fur around her neck). She's also sporting thick-soled buffalo boots, because Lady Bracknell must have height.
Judi has been on the set since Tuesday, having arrived late because she was shooting another movie, Iris, in this country, and also attiring in The Shipping News in Newfoundland. Today Judi sails out of a 16th century church in poshest Buckinghamshire and into view in a graveyard. "Prism! Where is that baby?" she demands. It's just one of the great many lines from Wilde's play.
Director Oliver Parker, who shot an opulent film version of Wilde's An Ideal Husband two years ago, looks at the public morality and private vices of late Victorian high society. "But I don't think there's any point in doing a period film if it doesn't have a bearing on the present," Parker said. "There's no reason to just having people walking and talking and looking beautiful. There's stuff going on beneath the surface and no one is what the seem. Gwendolyn hides her dark desires under a cloak of respectability. Her mother, Lady Bracknell clearly used to be a bit of 'gel' in her day, so I didn't want her to be a dragon".
Even so, as Judi Dench explains, Algernon and Jack are frightened of her. "But Lady Bracknell has a soft spot for Algy - she'd probably pat his knee, given half a chance".
The young ladies aren't the innocents they first seem either. Gwendolen, for instance, sports a tattoo bearing the name Ernest. "She loves Ernest - people do anything for love," said Frances O'Connor. "You can dress it up how you want, but people are just people underneath it all. They want basic things - love and romance - and Wilde had a knack of providing that," the Australian born actress said.
Reese Witherspoon, a superb actress, was in the film Election two years ago. Her Cecily is extraordinary bright, but consumed by an inner romantic fantasy life. "She fantasises about an errant knight coming to carry her off," she said.
The ensemble, which includes Tom Wilkinson as Dr. Chasuble, seem devoted to each other. Ms Massey hands out expensive biscuits and explains the meaning of difficult words. Mr. Firth tells naughty jokes while Judi tries not to get the giggles. She knows this piece very well. She played Cecily at the Old Vic in 1959 and Lady Bracknell at the National. [The Daily Mail, 8 June 2001]
It is almost half a century since a major film was released under the distinguished Ealing Studios banner. Now it is hoped the magic that helped create classics like Whisky Galore and Passport To Pimlico can be revived for a new version of The Importance Of Being Earnest.
Planning permission has been granted for an ambitious £50 million project to revive not only the studio, but the name. A consortium of filmmakers and a property developer, which bought the neglected site last year, plans to develop new production offices, refit the studios and bring the most up-to-date facilities to this historic corner of west London.
The latest film version of Oscar Wilde's comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, produced by Barnaby Thompson and starring Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and Dame Judi Dench, is being shot at the studios now and should be released next year - the studios' centenary year./.../ Ealing Studios were established in 1907 and by 1912 were the largest in the country. They enjoyed their heyday in the Forties and Fifties/.../ The BBC bought the studios in the Fifties and produced numerous shows there, including The Singing Detective and Colditz. The new owners aim to make Ealing famous again as a production centre. John Kao of the Idea Factory said: "Ealing Studios seeks to be an innovator - in the quality of the space we create, in the content we make, in the technologies we use. We are very excited about the prospects for the redevelopment." (Full article at the This is London website.)