Ours is the Dorian Gray Age

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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