Ours is the Dorian Gray Age



by Mark Simpson (The London Times, September 4 2009)

Are you tired of look­ing at me yet?” asks Ben Barnes as Dorian Gray in Oliver Parker’s new film adapt­a­tion of Oscar Wilde’s only novel. Ostensibly he’s ask­ing the ques­tion of his admirers, the cyn­ical hedon­ist Lord Henry Wooton (Colin Firth) and the ideal­istic, gush­ing painter of his por­trait Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin), but he could equally be ask­ing the 21st cen­tury when it is going to stop gawp­ing at him.

Since Wilde penned The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1890, for Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, revised and expan­ded the fol­low­ing year into the book we know today, the story of a young man of “extraordin­ary per­sonal beauty” who trades his soul for eternal youth has exer­ted a fatal fas­cin­a­tion. Like its uncan­nily hand­some prot­ag­on­ist, the story itself seems to be time­less and age­less, becom­ing if any­thing fresher and more allur­ing with every passing year.

In the last dec­ade alone there have been at least seven film adapt­a­tions, Will Self’s lit­er­ary update, Dorian: An Imitation, full of debauch­ery and dis­ease, and last year Matthew Bourne’s mod­ern dance ver­sion, full of bul­ging under­wear. Like the 2001 movie adapt­a­tion Pact With the Devil (star­ring Malcolm McDowell as an over-sulphurous Henry), Bourne’s update put Dorian in today’s Faustian world of advert­ising and fash­ion, in which he is the pretty face for a new fra­grance for men.

Fashion itself can’t leave Dorian alone either. Last year the men’s glossy Arena Homme Plus ran a Dorian spe­cial, and Dolce & Gabbana Autumn/Winter Collection is Dorian-inspired.

This fas­cin­a­tion is hardly sur­pris­ing. We live in an age of Dorians, admir­ing them­selves in web­cams, phone cams and online pro­files. If there’s a pic­ture in the attic you can be sure it’s been pho­toshopped. Last month Men’s Health, the magazine for men who want to be cover girls, became the best-selling men’s mag. At least in the world of the glos­sies, men’s breasts are now more pop­u­lar than women’s — for men.

The buttoned-down Victorians, who after all replaced the male nude with the female in art, would have been shocked by today’s ador­a­tion of male nar­ciss­ism as much as, if not more than, by the open­ness of homo­sexu­al­ity. “Have you ever adored a young man madly?” Wilde the aes­thete dandy and mar­ried man was asked at his first trial. He par­ried: “I have never given ador­a­tion to any­one but myself.” As we know, it didn’t go down well and ended up with two years hard labour for gross inde­cency, a fit­ting pun­ish­ment for idle self-contemplation, let alone homo­sexu­al­ity, in Victorian England. An England that per­sisted, of course , for most of the 20th century.


The fam­ous 1945 Hollywood adapt­a­tion The Picture of Dorian Gray, with a crys­tal­line George Sanders as Henry, a young Angela Lansbury as pretty cock­ernee spar­row Sybil Vane, and a some­what sim­per­ing Hurd Hatfield as Dorian, struggled man­fully to “straighten out” the story, even if it por­trayed Dorian as a kind of male femme fatale. It made a star of Hatfield, who was gay in his private life, but he felt that the movie was his own por­trait in the attic: “You know, I was never a great beauty in Gray,” he said, quite truth­fully, “and I never under­stood why I got the part and have spent my career regret­ting it.” (Hollywood would find its own blue-jeaned Dorian in the next dec­ade: James Dean.)

peter_firth_small1John Osborne’s bril­liant adapt­a­tion, filmed in 1976 by the BBC, is prob­ably the most Wildean (Osborne was well equipped to high­light its exquis­itely repressed homo­erot­ics). It also boasts per­haps the best Dorian – a young, golden Peter Firth. But it is an age­ing John Gielgud who steals the show, hav­ing of course been given the most beguil­ing lines by Wilde: “Nowadays most people die of a sort of creep­ing com­mon sense, and dis­cover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”

The latest Dorian is a bru­nette, the 28-year-old Barnes, who has the darkly blank stare of a Keanu Reeves (but of course not so young-looking as the 45 year-old Hollywood actor). In a world where Dorians are every­where, it’s a tricky busi­ness por­tray­ing him, and for my pop­corn money Barnes is a rather dull Dorian — and less attract­ive than, say, the grue­somely dis­pos­able youths in Final Destination 4. Parker’s Dorian Gray mostly works as a rol­lick­ing Gothic yarn, mer­ci­fully set in its proper loc­a­tion, Victorian England, spar­ing us the point­less ‘updat­ings’. But Wilde him­self seems to be miss­ing. There is a glisten­ing still­ness about Wilde which isn’t very movie. So instead we have lots of manly action — in one scene Dorian seduces a mother while the naked daugh­ter hides under the bed — but does allow a brief con­sum­ma­tion between Dorian and his painter Basil.

Colin Firth is fun as a kind of Loaded Henry: “Cheer up, boy,” he chides Dorian on a trip to a gin palace, “you’ve got a face like a slapped nancy!” This isn’t a line you’ll find in the ori­ginal text. Neither is: “ ‘ow about you two gen­tle­men givin’ a wor­kin’ girl a double stuffin’?” All in all, this Dorian is por­trayed as a kind of American Psycho ver­sion of 1960s Mick Jagger, sur­roun­ded by groupies and jaded hedon­ism. Added to the mix is an assert­ive, mod­ern female char­ac­ter: a suf­fra­gette coun­ter­bal­ance to the cloy­ing passiv­ity of Sybil Vane who tops her­self when Dorian spurns her. Dorian’s por­trait, always a co-star in any adapt­a­tion, becomes, thanks to CGI, a Damien Hirst install­a­tion of mag­gots and cor­rup­tion. Or an anim­ated Mr Hyde to Dorian’s Dr Jekyll (a book that partly inspired Wilde). Most of all, Dorian Gray por­trays the glam­our and hor­ror of toxic-bachelor selfish­ness and lead­ing a double life — long before the inter­net made it pos­sible for everyone.

Neil Bartlett, author of the highly-regarded Who Was That Man? A Present for Oscar Wilde, staged The Picture of Dorian Gray at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1994 long before the cur­rent wave of pop­ular­ity. Why does he think Dorian per­sists? “The idea that we can get away with our crimes just so long as they don’t show in our faces, is such a potent one,” he says. “And because, no mat­ter how many times it gets adap­ted or bowd­ler­ised, the bizarre power of the ori­ginal remains. Wilde knew a lot about guilt, dupli­city, the pleas­ure of crime, beau­ti­ful young men — and for all the purple prose, the book is really writ­ten from the heart.”

Why haven’t we tired of look­ing at Mr Gray? Perhaps because, as Mr Wilde might have put it des­pite the warn­ing of his novel, one never tires of look­ing at oneself.

This essay is col­lec­ted in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story

11 thoughts on “Ours is the Dorian Gray Age”

  1. I can’t really con­tra­dict you. I was too kind in my piece, but mostly because it wasn’t a review but rather a ‘think’ piece about Dorian adapt­a­tions pegged to the release of that film. Editors don’t like it when you pre-empt their review­ers in such pieces.

  2. Oliver Parker’s recent adap­tion is shock­ingly bad. I could go on at length but what’s the point? He should be taken into the street and beaten with dead fish.

  3. Much better,Mark! Strangely, when I star­ted writ­ting about “Gray,” the Narcissus myth had occured to me,the irony of which just star­ted me off on a whirl­wind of para­doxes: not being able to have what he desires, which actu­ally seems closer to the book as you relate it– I only had an old and buf­feted memory of the plot at hand, and I was think­ing that in the book Gray was less a con­scious actor. Also, the story is deeply tangled in my own con­cious­ness because through most of my life, I struggled with being attract­ive, and in a gay world that is often more a source con­fu­sion than hap­pi­ness, since for myself , I often think I would have liked being cared for more for my mind. It never really occured to me that I was very dif­fer­ent. At first the response of the young man, Paul, had me in a con­sid­er­able tizzy.

    Needless to say you & Wilde can engender some strong responses.

  4. There’s more to ‘Dorian Gray’ than meets the eye — and some­times Henry seems to know more than he lets on. And then again, some­times less.

    Thanks for shar­ing your thoughts on Wilde’s novel, Mark, they’re much more incis­ive and inter­est­ing than my Times piece.

    Everything you say is true, but Wilde’s novel is also a re-telling of the Narcissus myth. Narcissus was the Greek boy of extraordin­ary per­sonal beauty who was proph­esied by Tiresias to live a long life ‘so long as he knows not him­self’. When he first glimpses his reflec­tion in the pool he mis­takes it for someone else, and falls in love. It’s only when he real­ises that the beau­ti­ful boy in the pool is actu­ally his own reflec­tion that he wastes away, real­ising he can never pos­sess what he desires.

    In Wilde’s novel Gray is beau­ti­ful, unspoilt and un-damned until he ‘knows him­self’ — through Basil’s por­trait and Henry’s soph­istry. Only when he sees how beau­ti­ful he is when the por­trait is fin­ished — that’s to say, through the eyes of oth­ers — does he fear los­ing that beauty, and makes the oath that sets him on the path to repuls­ive destruction.

    Wilde seems to have been say­ing that true beauty is unself­con­scious (which of course it is any­thing but these days). But it was Wilde’s spe­cial genius to make his Narcissus novel about ‘know­ing your­self’ in the deep­est and darkest sense: Dorian’s pic­ture is after all a por­trait of his soul. What’s remark­able is that we still retain sym­pathy with Dorian pretty much through­out the book, des­pite his ever-fouler and more selfish deeds, and des­pite know­ing as well as he what his soul really looks like. I sus­pect the reason for this, and Wilde prob­ably banked on it, is our own nar­ciss­ism. As you sug­gest, it could hap­pen to anyone.…

  5. There is, I think, a lot more to “Dorian Gray” than meets the eye, or rather, I think that there is a lot more on Wild’s mind than the tale is cur­rently thought to impart. Today’s obses­sions with phys­ical attract­ive­ness, would on the sur­face give us to believe some­thing very dif­fer­ent than what Wilde exper­i­enced, con­sequently , where we see some­thing of a moral tale, it seems that Wild may well have empthet­ic­ally inten­ded a tragedy in the truest sense; less Faustian than Oedipal .
    As Mark quoted Wilde about his own time: “Nowadays people die of a sort of creep­ing com­mon sense, and that the only things one never regrets are ones mis­takes.” Gray is a story about someone who is rash and ill advised and makes an inno­cent but well mean­ing mis­take. Is van­ity not to be desired, is it wise to not be wanted? Or is that just too much com­mon sense?
    Wisely, I don’t think that Wild gives us a hard and fast answer: Gray’s story is a para­dox; Today souls seem to be up for grabs in exchange for far lesser prices than eternal beauty. Nonetheless, the pro­ject of phys­ical beauty with males has become a ubi­quit­ous obses­sion . Of course, now people are fussier about well dis­closed con­tracts than that which pro­moted Mr. Grays fate; all be they no wiser. Dorian does though seem to have suffered more from naïveté and gull­ib­lity than any­thing; like Oedipus no one can argue that he was bum­bler, first and fore­most with poor legal rep­res­ent­a­tion: Henry(like an oracle). Gray is ill advised, and strikes a bar­gain he later regrets, but which may not have come to dis­aster had Gray not made the bar­gain in the first place. The tale is ironic. His beauty gets him love which he is doomed to lose because his own love of the other depends on their abil­ity of only act­ing to love, some­thing which Sybil’s true love destroys.

    The aspect of great lit­er­at­ure or art, or what in fact makes it great is it’s uni­ver­sal­ity; to note that there are excep­tions is no more than that. While not every­one is blessed with phys­ical attract­ive­ness, there are very few who do not envy that qual­ity in oth­ers, and very few who have it who do not make use of it. And those who do not appre­ci­ate the full mul­ti­pli­city of their gifts are unin­spired at least. It always seems that even in the absence of other qual­it­ies one can avail one­self of sen­sual delights, reserved primar­ily for the attract­ive. Indeed, there is even a cor­rel­a­tion in obtain­ing other of life’s gifts in employ­ment and social accept­ance and ones appearance.

    Dorian’s flaw was not in hav­ing used his gift of beauty poorly in recip­rocal exchanges but in in an inev­it­ab­il­ity that beauty was not worth the exchange of his view of him­self. He was ill fated in mak­ing the error of hav­ing assumed that all things could be resolved in phys­ical terms by hav­ing optimal phys­ical charms.

    I doubt that Wilde could fore­see today , where super­fi­ci­al­ity has sup­planted any sense what­so­ever, and men seem to have exchanged their brain tis­sue for hair trans­plants and face lifts. A fel­low I know spent his younger years slav­ing at a tedi­ous law career; now he’s busy get­ting face lifts and hair trans­plants. Sadly, I can’t help but see­ing that it’s made a failed per­son of him, with lit­er­ally no real values.

    Henry’s bad advice then though seems to have been replaced by the caste of Corporate advert­ising, cash­ing in on van­it­ies need for butt form­ing under­wear, and pho­toshop­ing, etc . Even Gray could do bet­ter than read tex­ting, which is the limit of lit­er­acy today; Indeed he could fall in love with great act­ing (Sibyl).
    So even though Wilde could sym­path­ize with Gray’s sin­gu­lar error then and write a tragedy, if he didn’t have the pres­ci­ence to see the nutty level of self obses­sion today, he wrote a Tragedy into which we can see a moral les­son only per­haps because it is sys­temic of the gen­eral shal­low­ness of life.

    I would never pre­tend to not appre­ci­ate the joys of being desir­able, and think that attract­ive­ness is not a gift for short lived sexual joys. This may seem shal­low; rel­at­ive to the prudish­ness of America’s cur­rent run of mar­riage obcessed queens. There is a place for many joys in life, bet­ter not over estim­ated, I think Wilde would say. Anymore, in America at least, we suf­fer scald­ing puri­tain­ical resent­ment for free and easy use of our phys­ical gifts. I don’t think that Oscar would object to that but he would find the rest down­right confounding.

  6. Thanks, Mark. I appre­ci­ate it. I will re-read the Portrait Of Dorian Grey again try­ing to cap­ture it’s charm that eluded me the first time. I will read it now in English. Translations usu­ally suck because the translator(s) are often illit­er­ate in their own lan­guage, let alone in for­eign ones.

    As for me being past my prime, well, I have an 18 year-old cousin and appar­ently their friends think I’m cool, because I’m not even 30 yet and I have enough money to live com­fort­ably, as well as because I’m tall, mus­cu­lar and took part in sev­eral semi-professional MMA fights, and have the stitch scars to prove it. So maybe if I have a bunch of 18 year-olds look­ing up to me, maybe I’m not that old. I just don’t want to wake up some day decrepit at age 90 in my death bed and real­ize that all I accom­plished in my life was that I once won some fight­ing bouts, and was looked up to by 18 year-olds. That would be quite sad. Take care.

  7. Pedro: even past your prime, I’m sure you’re still quite rav­ish­ing. Certainly many of your ideas are. But I think you’re hold­ing out against the charms of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

  8. Yes, you’re right The Hunger is rather Dorian-esque, esp with David Bowie star­ring. I seem to remem­ber it being rather fant­astic, in every sense, but I haven’t watched it since the 80s — I had bet­ter look it up.

  9. Mark, what are your thoughts about ‘The Hunger’, the 80’s Deneuve/Sarandon/Bowie new wave vamp movie/moving Vogue magazine spread, as it has some rela­tion to Dorian Gray in watch­ing Bowie’s pre­served youth turn­ing to rot. I rewatched it recently (thanks you­tube) and was impressed with how it was…aging (apart from the non­sensical end­ing). There is some­thing mod­ern in the movie’s creep­ing dread of old age that, sick­en­ingly enough, calls out for…sequel?…reboot?…

  10. The Potrait Of Dorian Grey” is a very hard lit­er­ary work for me to either empath­ize with or be inter­ested in, because in the first case I never saw myself as a sex object — even though I was con­sidered an exceed­ingly good-looking youth by most -, and in the second case because I think a man is defined by his actions, and being borned with a pretty face involves no voli­tional effort that can be seen as admir­able, and striv­ing for phys­ical and facial per­fec­tion does not lead to the cre­ation of val­ues that are rel­ev­ant for the con­tin­ued sur­vival and engrand­ize­ment of the Human Species on Earth, and leads to no fur­ther philo­soph­ical enlight­ment on the Nature of what it means to be a Human, to be alive or what our ulti­mate pur­pose in the Universe and what our final fate in it is. Yes, it would be nice to live forever with the com­plex­ion, well-being and joie de vivre of a 20 year-old, but say, after a mil­lion years of life even youth would become bor­ing and then what would your beauty and vital­ity do to fur­ther your emo­tional and intel­lec­tual well-being? Nothing. It is an exer­cise in futil­ity. Nothing wrong with enjoy­ing youth and beauty, but where does that ulti­mately lead you? To nowhere. I am search­ing for grander explan­a­tions and mean­ings to everything. But then, I am just an old foggy at age 29 and the opin­ion of a man who’s past his best phys­ic­ally is not import­ant to any­one but him­self. That’s fine. I never cared for approval from any­one but me.

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