|Oliver Parker seems to be making a habit of fiddling withacknowledged stage classics and achieving surprisingly satisfying results.|
In 1995 the screenwriter and director took Shakespeare's"Othello"and trimmed it to a relationship-intensive two hour movie, re-interpretingthe dark tale of deception and revenge as an erotic thriller. It was nota big hit, but it is the best Shakespeare movie of the last 20 years notdirected by Kenneth Branaugh (although it did feature him -- opposite LaurenceFishburne -- giving a slam-dunk performance as Iago).
Now, Parker has applied his bold cut and paste style to"An Ideal Husband," Oscar Wilde's drawing roomcomedy about politics, marriage and blackmail, and achieved similar, ifmore slight, success.
What made him do it? Didn't he take enough heat for hisfirst revamp of an English Lit standard?
"You're always going to bump up against the odd purist,"Parker said with a wane, ironic smile during a visit to San Francisco lastmonth, adding with a cheekier grin, "Also, perhaps I'm a little bitmore hardened and I don't give a damn."
But if that sounds impudent, Parker is ready with eloquentand well-reasoned arguments for every line of text he changed, defendingwhat some in theater circles may consider sacrilegious liberties he's takenWilde's play.
A droll, turn of the Century, society sitcom that Parkersays touches on many issues that are just as contemporary now as they werewhen the play debuted 100 years ago, "An Ideal Husband" featuresRupert Everett (very possibly the most consummate Oscar Wilde performerever) as the charming, handsome, aristocratic and resolutely single LordGoring.
"I think he's born to play this part," Parkersays of the actor brought to the attention of most Americans in "My Best Friend's Wedding" opposite Julia Roberts."I watched ("Husband") again last night (at the L.A. premiere),and I thought, god, he just gets it every time!"
It's Everett's cavalier delivery of Goring's satiricaland sharp-tongued remarks the drive the comedy, even though the story revolvesaround his friend, Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam from "The Winslow Boy" and "Emma"),a rising politician and practiced English gentleman who is being blackmailedover a single indiscretion as a younger man. His tormentor is played byJulianne Moore as a delightfully devilish, feminine version of the mustache-twirlingvillain.
Parker's version takes the action outside the confinesof the play's drawing room set pieces, supplementing them with completelynew scenes of his own, including a whole new climax in England's Houseof Commons. Each subplot in the play has been tweaked so they all convergeat Parliament as Chiltern defies his extortionist in a fit of integrity.
"Part of the reason I do those things is to make sureI'm stirring it a little bit," the director says in defense of hisadmittedly audacious alterations. A veteran of the London stage, he's confidentin his right to rewrite when scripting for a film, but clearly has respectfor Wilde's material. "(I have) a passion to deliver what I feel isthe essence of these pieces, and if you do them without making any alterationto the new medium you're working in, I think you're doing the pieces adisservice."
Although he wrote the screenplay himself, adapting "AnIdeal Husband" was not his own idea. "It was suggested to me,strangely enough, by two people, who didn't know one another, within amatter of days. They each came to me separately. So I thought I'd bettersit up and listen."
His initial reaction, however, was not a positive one."Actually, I thought it was a very bad idea to start with...But Iwas intrigued. I went to see the play again, and I was hooked by the contemporaryqualities to it...The plotline of the politician with the dark secret,...(and)the story of a bachelor who can't commit to a relationship seems to bethe subject matter of most romantic comedies you come across."
"Still, (I) wasn't convinced it was good idea...butI did go away into a corner and start doodling a little bit."
Those doodles turned into two and three drafts of a screenplaythat Parker says just flowed out of him. When he finalized the script andstarted sending it out, he almost immediately heard from many of the keyactors in the film, including Everett, Northam, Cate Blanchett ("Elizabeth")and Minnie Driver.
"It was almost too simple. I was sure it was goingto be a terrible film because it was going too well," Parker laughs.
Before creating the screenplay, he read the original, handwrittenmanuscript -- kept in the British National Library -- and discovered someof the story's more melodramatic moments, which the director says he nevercared for, were hastily added just before the play made its debut. Thismade him feel better about taking them out. "(Parts of the play are)so full of coincidence that you can't believe Wilde isn't almost deliberatelytaking the mickey...(and) undermining his plot lines. I think it was partof the satire of drawing room comedy."
In preparation, Parker first "combed the text forall the references to (events) that...didn't take place on stage"in an attempt to flesh out how the characters might have lived outsidethe acts of the play. Some of the information he gleaned from Wilde's dialoguebecame his new scenes in Parliament and in London's Hyde Park, where societytypes often took Sunday strolls at the turn of the century. But he alwaystried to preserve the playwright's delightful wit.
"(The question with) an adaptation is, how much doyou adapt? How much do you change? How much comedy? How much romance? Howmuch drama? How much do we go for the style versus how much we keep realistic?Sometimes the more you change things, the more clearly you are highlightingthe essence of the piece you're trying to deliver. That seems to be thejob, and you can only do it to your own taste and hope that people agreeor like it."
So is Oliver Parker planning to make a career of drasticallyreinterpreting beloved stage classics? Not really, he says, but he hastwo possible projects on his plate that would both monkey with well-known-- albeit wildly different -- figures from the world of film. He and indieczar John Sayles ("Limbo,""Men With Guns," "Lone Star") are working on a post-war politicalthriller in which the main character would be Orson Welles. He's also talkingto horror legend Clive Barker about adapting his graphic gorefest "Hellraiser"for the stage. Go figure that.
And there is one more adaptation being dangled in frontof him: "I've been thinking about doing 'The Importance of Being Earnest'recently, because some of the ("Ideal Husband") cast would liketo do it."
Oscar Wilde purists might rather see him strung up first,but if "An Ideal Husband" is a hit for Miramax, the studio mayjust light a fire under the back burner that project is on.