Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Trials of Oscar Wilde

(UK, 1960)

If there was a contest to determine the wittiest man in the English language, I think Oscar Wilde would at least have his name on the final ballot. The story of his life was a terrible tragedy, as forces were gathered against him that his wit could not protect him from. He realized this far too late, and it shattered him.

Peter Finch plays Wilde here, and does okay. Most of the facts seem to be presented as they happened. There were two trials, one extremely ill-advised libel suit brought by Wilde himself when the Marquess of Queensberry called him a sodomite, because he was keeping company with his piece-of-shit son. (I do wonder what would have happened, though, if Wilde had let the accusation stand, unanswered. Wouldn’t he have been admitting to sodomy? Remember, homosexuality was illegal, punishable by prison.) Wilde was forced to with draw the suit, which meant the Marquess could drag him over the coals, legally, leaving Wilde bankrupt. Then the Crown tried him for unnatural acts. There was a hung jury at first, and then a conviction. He served two years at hard labor, and it just about killed him. Might have been better if it had, as he was totally ruined in every sense when he came out.

All this is shown very well here. What is missing is any hint of whether any actual homosexual acts occurred. We all know they did, that, in spite of his marriage and children, Oscar Wilde was gay. But it’s possible to see this film and conclude that he was an innocent man unfairly hounded because he stuck up for his friends. “Unfairly,” without question; it was a horrible law. But he was in fact guilty as charged. However, in 1960 “the love that dare not speak its name” had to be handled with kid gloves. Dirk Bogarde (suspected of being gay) made a movie called Victim in 1961, the first English-language film to use the word “homosexual” (!!!) and it seems to have stunted his career in Hollywood, where the MPAA would not approve it for public showing! He was shunned by many people. I suspect young people find this hard to believe, but it was true, and in my lifetime.