By Louis Bayard,
whose most recent novel, "The Pale Blue Eye," has been nominated for a 2007 Edgar Award
Tuesday, February 6, 2007
RED CARPETS AND OTHER BANANA SKINS
By Rupert Everett
Warner. 406 pp. $25.99
Life, in some respects, would have been easier for Rupert Everett if he'd been born a half-century earlier. Tall, posh, raptorially handsome, he would have carved out a George Brent-ish career as leading man to excitable actresses. He would have given interviews to fan magazines about his trouble finding the right girl. (For affidavits, he could have pointed to a failed marriage or two.) Every Sunday, he would have played bridge with the gay crowd around Hollywood director George Cukor's pool, shrouded from prying eyes by bougainvillea. Press agents would have taken care of the blackmailers, and his career would have gently run to ground by the mid-1940s, with a brief character-actor renaissance in the '60s. The obituary writers would have recalled him as the sort of gentleman one no longer sees in the movies.
Coming of age, though, in the era of AIDS and the Enquirer, Rupert Everett had no bougainvillea to screen him. And so, with who knows what combination of calculation and impulse, he became one of the Anglo world's first openly gay movie actors (one of the very first not to have his hand forced by disease). That has made his ensuing career a mirror of our era's confusions. What, finally, do we expect of those great, lustrous, empty people on the screen?
Everett expected only to become one of them. By the testimony of his unwholesomely delicious memoir, the act of watching "Mary Poppins" at the age of 6 set in motion "a giant and deranged ego . . . a desire to succeed at any cost" that coalesced a decade later in a drug-fueled quest for fame. London in the '70s was full of young men like that, of course, but how many would have fallen asleep at a restaurant and woken up next to Andy Warhol and Lady Diana Cooper? ("Oh, isn't it marvellous?" cries Lady Diana on learning that Everett is strung out on morphine. "Doesn't one just want to curl up and have a lovely scratch? I was on it throughout the war.") By evening's end, he has gotten his picture taken with Bianca Jagger -- and still hasn't earned his Actors' Equity card.
That would come in short order, thanks in good measure to those Pre-Raphaelite looks. The breakout property was "Another Country" (1984), in which he plays a thinly veiled teenage version of the traitor Guy Burgess. Double agentry would serve him well in Hollywood, where, like his friend Roddy McDowall, he would develop an off-screen sideline as courtier to female stars, chief among them that family-values avatar, Madonna. From there it was a natural progression to playing Julia Roberts's gay buddy in "My Best Friend's Wedding" (1997), his biggest hit and a performance so snappy and magnetic that the film's heterosexual love interest (Dermot Mulroney, for the record) seems to vanish into the frosting.
A true courtier, it will be recalled, carries all confidences to the grave. (McDowall did.) Everett's gal pals are not so fortunate, but readers of "Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins" are in luck. Here is the author's first take on the Material Girl: eyes of "the palest blue, strangely wide set; any further and she would look insane, or inbred. . . . She was raucous but poised, elegant but common. . . . Manners were something she had discarded at base camp." Good friend Julia: "beautiful and tinged with madness, that obligatory ingredient for a legendary star. Most of the time she was a calm, practical earth mother, curled up on a director's chair in a Marilyn cardigan with her knitting needles and a bag of wool. But sometimes she would rear up like an untamed filly, with flared nostrils and rolling eyes, at some invisible lasso. She had a vein on her forehead that occasionally stood out. That was a sign not to make any fast moves. She could buck you, or kick out."
No one, it seems, is quite safe from Everett's camera eye. Not Bob Dylan, "hunched and crumpled under a wistful afro. His skin was parchment, and the famous nose seemed to stretch his face to breaking point." Or Andy Warhol's manager: "a collage of dress codes and mannerisms, stolen from the wealthy, cut out by a discerning eye and a piercing wit, and stuck onto the relatively blank page of his Houston origins." Or ancient actress Luise Rainer, "perched like a little old featherless lovebird. . . . She stared into her cocktail as if it was feeding her lines." Everett has equally choice words for himself. "Brash," "nasty," "self-obsessed," are some of the printable ones, and it's worth adding that the following sentence is not, strictly speaking, a joke: "Nineteen-eighty-six. I killed my first director." And yet, for someone who so freely cops to narcissism, Everett has managed to glean a great deal about the world at large, and he displays a casual fund of allusion and a feel for language and anecdote that are inconceivable in an American actor of comparable education. (Perhaps we can blame it on the British public school he describes so witheringly: "The headmaster, Mr. Trappes-Lomax . . . was shrouded in a wispy microclimate of foul-smelling smoke, and his wife Mary . . . was dressed for the Second World War. They introduced us to Matron Walters, a little old hunchbacked hag who, dragging herself one banister at a time, took us upstairs to see the dormitories.")
"Red Carpets" opens with the burning of stubble in the Essex cornfields outside Everett's boyhood home, and that tang of ashes returns with a vengeance in the final chapters, as he contemplates the burnt shells of heart and career.
Being "the gay guy in films," it turns out, is no picnic. In the wake of successes like "Brokeback Mountain," straight actors are now monopolizing the "serious queer" parts, and the only big-studio offer to come Everett's way was the voice of Prince Charming in "Shrek 2," a role he would never be offered in a live-action film. "I am going to disappear," he announces, with more than a trace of weariness, but not, happily, before delivering this scabrously witty chronicle, which promises a second career every bit as fruitful as the first.