a narcissus in edwardian england
by Douglas Messerli
John Osbourne (writer, adapted from the fiction by Oscar Wilde), John Gorrie (director) The Picture of Dorian Gray / 1976
There have dozens of film adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, several of which I have reviewed in these pages. But there is little doubt the one that most hints at the central character’s queer behavior is John Osborne’s 1976 made-for-television adaptation by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). Arguably, in fact, “hint” is not the proper word since all of the versions imply far more than they actually tell. But this production—with the beautiful young Peter Firth playing Dorian, John Gielgud playing the corrupting aphorist Henry Wotton, and Jeremy Brett acting the role of artist Basil Hallward who, having fallen in love with Dorian, paints the picture that reveals what Dorian’s face does only upon his death—almost shouts that character’s queerness to the rafters.
But then everyone in Osborne’s adaptation of Wilde’s fiction is totally narcissistic in their absolute adoration of surfaces and appearances. The most complex of these narcissi is Basil, who while painting the beautiful Dorian falls in love with him so much—reporting to Henry that “it’s better in life to not be too different,” surely a justification for his own closeted love—that, not being able to express it through sex (even kissing another male was a crime) achieves the very opposite of the Cypriot sculptor Pygmalion whose kiss brought his ivory sculpture to life. Basil instead has killed the soul of his beloved friend by breathing life into his portrait.
Once he has finished the painting, the “simple, affectionate” boy and friend suddenly finds himself bereft of any true human emotions, just in time to be intrigued by Henry’s ridiculous twists of human values into two-part sentences such as his description of “romance”:
If it may seem, much later in the story, that Dorian kills his beloved Basil because, in seeing the changes of Dorian registered in his painting, he must die to protect the now soulless, unchanging Dorian from the truth. I’d argue, however, that Dorian murders his friend because of his admission of love which is expressed not only in words—Basil having just admitted to him that “he worshipped him” upon first sight—but in the painting itself. The art reveals his love of Dorian far more that any words might express it, and Dorian clearly cannot admit to loving Basil in turn, particularly since he is now incapable of it.
As for Alan Campbell, Firth as Dorian
literally flits around his old friend’s body, reminding him of something in
their past that so terrifies Alan if were revealed that he is willing even to
When Alan appears to reject all involvement, Dorian moves over to the seated friend standing closely before him as if ready to receive fellatio saying, “I’m sorry for you Alan, but I can’t help myself. You are the only man who is able to save me.” As he undoes the cloth belt, opening up his short dressing gown, he sits closely next to him, almost as if to purr words of love into his ear, continuing, “I am forced to bring you into the matter. I have no option, Alan. You are scientific....” What else would bring a former university friend to commit such a dastardly act that he would later commit suicide by hanging himself?
If Sybil takes her poison because Dorian has abandoned her, attesting he will never even think of her again, Alan hangs himself because his long ago lover is still demanding his unrequited love.
Los Angeles, Christmas day, 2020
Reprinted from My Queen Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (December 2020).