THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST directed by Oliver Parker, based on the play by Oscar Wilde, produced by Parker and Barnaby Thompson, with Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O'Connor, Reese Witherspoon and Judi Dench. 95 minutes. An Alliance Atlantis release. Opens Friday (May 24). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 76. Rating: NNN
New York -- Rupert Everett is like a thoroughbred horse. He's jittery, and you never know whether he'll race to the finish line or bolt and break free of his reins. So says Colin Firth, Everett's co-star in The Importance Of Being Earnest (see review, page 76).
Everett is perfectly cast as Algernon in director Oliver Parker's adaptation of Oscar Wilde's play. As always, he makes the role look easy, and in this case he makes Wilde's subtle tongue-twisting dialogue sound effortless.
"Reading Wilde's lines is like learning to ride a bicycle -- once you can do it you, you're set," says Everett. "Wilde's dialogue is like that found in 40s American comedies -- it's fast, brittle, sharp and full of double meanings. Lines have superficial meanings and profound meanings at the same time, and that's pure genius."
Everett is holding court in a midtown Manhattan hotel room, wearing a tight-fitting white T-shirt and jeans. He's fit and, like his peer Hugh Grant, beginning to look like a very handsome over-40-year-old star.
He exudes a slighty haughty charm. Everett grew up in a materially well-off family, but it was a military household and he was shipped off for schooling by Benedictine monks at the age of seven.
By 15, he'd been expelled from the Central School of Speech and Drama in London for insubordination. Yet by 1984 he was dazzling critics in the stage version of Another Country. He landed the same role in the movie version, and his screen career was off and running.
In 1989 he shocked the British press when he admitted to being gay and having worked as a rent boy to make ends meet when he was a struggling actor. He remains one of filmdom's few openly gay actors.
His career in American movies took off in 1995 when he appeared in My Best Friend's Wedding, playing Julia Roberts's suave pal and rescuer. Originally, his part was small, but director P.J. Hogan and Roberts were so taken with Everett's comic line readings that they kept enlarging his role as they went along. He stole the movie.
There was a time after My Best Friend's Wedding when Everett was a hot commodity and was working on a screenplay for a gay James Bond-type film. I ask if we're ever going to see that film.
"No, and I am disappointed," says Everett candidly. "But you have to be able to concentrate on something for years to get it made. We wrote the first draft of the screenplay, but then you need a second and a third. Then you take onboard the opinions of a lot of people whom, if I were king, I'd have locked up in prison," he chuckles.
"You have to be really clever and not an amateur like myself to play that game. I've lost interest in every single one of my ideas after the first run- through. That's why I like TV. Everything gets done much more quickly, so I'm trying to get my own TV series together at the moment."Earnest is Everett's second film with director Parker, who also cast the actor in another Wilde adaptation, The Ideal Husband.
"I hated doing The Ideal Husband," says Everett. "Well, what I really hated were the costumes. I was endlessly frothing at the mouth and whining to anyone I could about the costumes, so it kind of ruined the experience for me.
"Yet I loved being directed by Oliver. He's a very gentle director. Sometimes you get into a strange rapport with the director. There's often a battle of wills between guys and that can be difficult, especially for someone like me.
"I'm rather like a dog: if one dog gets growly, I get double-growly."IRingridr@nowtoronto.com