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 naivete 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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