Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

By Jeffrey C. Kessler, Indiana University

If Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray distilled an aesthetic attitude of the 1890s, the 1945 adaptation of the novel aspired to capture its own aesthetic of the silver-screen. According to The New York Times, that aspiration failed. At times the film feels rather melodramatic with heavy orchestral music guiding viewers’ emotions, and a narrator diminishing most of the film’s subtelty. Some of the silver screen’s classic actors are featured in Dorian Gray, including George Sanders as Lord Henry Wotton, Angela Lansbury as Sybil Vane, Peter Lawford as Basil Hallward, and Donna Reed as Hallward’s niece Gladys. Despite what The New York Times reviewer called the film’s “mawkish pomposity,” the film adaptation merits further attention on both aesthetic and historical grounds.

Directed by Albert Lewin, the film translates much of the original novel, though incorporating a more orientalist tone and adding a second love interest for Dorian. Reed’s character deviates from the original plot. She embodies an angel-in-the-house-like purity absent from the novel. Gladys begins the film as a child in Basil’s studio and remains in the background of the film until she grows up to be of marriageable age during the time when Dorian has become most dissolute. Towards the end of the film Dorian enters into a triangulated romantic competition between Gladys and her suitor. In fact, at the end of the film, Dorian considers repentance for the sake of Gladys in order to restore him into her graces and redeem his soul.

By including Gladys as a romantic interest for Dorian, the film washes over much of the homoeroticism of Wilde’s original novel. Instead of changing some of the suggestive dialogue or attempting to portray the sexually suggestive passages of the novel, the film affirms heterosexual norms with this change in the plot. Dorian loves not just one woman, but a second one. Even when his soul is most corrupted, he finds the possibility of redemption through heterosexual marriage.

The film may be best remembered for commissioning two original paintings to represent Dorian’s transformation: the portrait by Henrique Medina (1908-1988) showing Dorian’s original beauty and the portrait by Ivan Albright (1897-1983) showing Dorian’s corrupted soul. The film recreates the fateful painting of Dorian with particular cinematic effect. The painting appears in full Technicolor in an otherwise black-and-white film, overwhelming the viewer and literally coloring Dorian’s key moments of realization into aesthetic brilliance. One can’t help but hear Lord Henry’s words: “Sin is the only real color-element left in modern life” (31).

The paintings provide both the film’s grandest cinematic effect and its highest aesthetic ambition. While Medina’s portrait of the handsome Dorian is a remarkable work, I’ll focus on Albright’s painting of Dorian’s corrupted soul, which is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago with a number of other Albright paintings. In the film, the painting comes as a shock to the viewer with its iridescent and swirling colors infecting both Dorian’s dress and the entire painting’s atmosphere. Dorian’s dissolution manifests itself not only in his physical decrepitude but also throughout the painting’s background. Albright places on the table in the painting the knife Dorian used to kill Basil, the same knife that Dorian uses at the end of the film to destroy the painting, and, as a result, himself.

While Albright’s painting is an original twentieth-century work of art, Lewin fills the film with allusions to the nineteenth century. In the film, Dorian quotes Wilde’s poem “The Sphinx” in a playful rhyme, Basil reads Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia (1879), and the film begins with an excerpt from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám (1859).

Although the film may be imperfect, if at times heavy-handed, it offers both students and critics a chance to think through some of Wilde’s own meditations about the critic and artist. Lewin translates the novel into a new form of art that emerges from its own moment, using technological advances in film and Technicolor as part of the film’s reimagining of Dorian. The Albright portrait is a genuine work of art in line with Albright’s other work (see his “Into the World Came a Soul Called Ida” and “That Which I Should Have Done”). Lewin’s Dorian Gray is not one work of art but a collection of different moments and attempts. If, as Wilde suggests, it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors, this film still has a lot to show viewers.

Questions for discussion

Take some time and look at the painting by Henrique Medina, showing the youthful Dorian. How does it convey Dorian’s beauty?

Now take some time to look at the Albright painting. How does the portrait attempt to convey the corrupted soul of Dorian? What passages from the novel might have inspired Albright? What individual details contribute to this effect?

In the Preface to Dorian Gray Wilde writes that “The Critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impressions of beautiful things.” How does the film translate the novel? Can a film be a work of criticism? Is beauty something we value as students and critics?

Also in Preface, Wilde writes: “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” Albright’s painting of Dorian is ugly, and intentionally so. Does this contradict Wilde’s definition of the artist? Can there be an aesthetics of ugliness? How so?

The film contains many allusions to Victorian literature and culture. Are they just toss-away references to the nineteenth century? Look up one of the allusions above and think about how they might resonate with other ideas in the novel or film.

Read Bosley Crowther’s review from The New York Times. Is Crowther fair to the adaptation? What does he seem to value in a film?

Works Cited and Further Reading

Albright, Ivan. Picture of Dorian Gray. Art Institute of Chicago, 1944. Oil on Canvas.

Alexander, Jonathan. “Dorian Gray In The Twentieth Century: The Politics And Pedagogy Of Filming Oscar Wilde’s Novel.” Approaches to Teaching the Works of Oscar Wilde. 75-82. New York, NY: Modern Language Association of America, 2008.

Crowther, Bosley. “‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ Film Version of Wilde Novel, With Hatfield and Sanders, Opens at Capitol Theatre.” The New York Times. March 2, 1945.

Ellman, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, 1987. Print.

Hannon, Patrice. “Aesthetic Criticism, Useless Art.” Critical Essays on Oscar Wilde. Ed. Regina Gagnier. New York: Macmillan, 1991. pg. 186-201. Print.

The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dir. Albert Lewin. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1945. Film.

Ross, Alex. “Deceptive Picture.” The New Yorker, August 8, 2011.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003. Print.

von Hagen, Kirsten. “A Picture Is A Picture Is A Picture: Filmic Transformations Of Oscar Wilde’s Novel The Picture Of Dorian Gray.” Old Age and Ageing in British and American Culture and Literature. 107-119. Münster, Germany: LIT, 2004.

Oliver Parker’s Importance of Being Earnest

By Taryn Hakala, University of California, Merced

From the very opening of Oliver Parker’s 2002 film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, we are aware that the filmmaker is not interested in fidelity to the text. Unlike Anthony Asquith’s 1952 film adaptation, which is effectively a filmedimportance of being earnest stage production, complete with a curtain opening onto Algy and Lane in Act I, Parker’s film opens with Algy, played by Rupert Everett, emerging from the shadows of a dark London alley, the law in close pursuit. This is just one of the many liberties Parker takes with Wilde’s text – liberties that some audiences do not approve of but that I find make the film an especially useful text for the classroom.

One of the liberties that has provoked negative reactions from viewers, including some of my students, is Parker’s choice to set the “cigarette case” scene not in the private space of Algy’s flat but rather in the public space of a cabaret. Such a private conversation, some of my students expressed, should not be held in such a public place, with so many people listening. Oliver Buckton suggests that this scene “emphasizes the heterosexuality of the men and dilutes the homoerotic frissons of the dialogue” (330). While I agree that the scene includes the performance of heterosexuality, I would argue that it nevertheless challenges heteronormativity in subtle yet important ways. I invite my students to pay particular attention to small details in the scene that bring to the fore the queer subtext of Wilde’s play. Yes, Algy is shown ogling showgirls, but when one throws a rose in his direction, it is caught by a man’s hand, soon revealed to be that of Jack. We might say that at this moment the showgirl’s attempt at heterosexual flirting is intercepted by a homoerotic encounter. What’s more, as Lucia Krämer has pointed out, the scene includes both female and male prostitutes, and Algy is played by the openly gay Everett, casting that contradicts his role of heterosexual philanderer. I would add that the presence of cross-dressed women further complicates any easy heteronormative reading of the scene. For example, the showgirls’ can-can is quickly followed by a drag king show, and while Algy questions Jack about his cigarette case, he is flanked by a feminine woman dressed in a black and white dress and an androgynous woman dressed in a tuxedo. In these ways, the scene simultaneously challenges and re-inscribes heteronormativity.

The other liberty that students react to strongly is Parker’s decision to change the play’s ending. Jack does not learn that his name “naturally is Ernest”; instead, he discovers that his name has been John all along. A close-up of a page in the army lists reveals to the audience what only Jack and Lady Bracknell have seen: that his father’s name reads “Moncrieff, John.” As Krämer discusses, Parker extends Wilde’s text by elaborating on the “theme of ambiguity of language” (145). Indeed, in Parker’s adaptation, Jack’s lie further emphasizes that there is no inherent link between the signifier and the signified. His name is not and cannot be “naturally” Ernest.

Other of Parker’s liberties include the use of Pre-Raphaelite imagery to animate Cecily’s fantasies and the depiction of Gwendolen driving a car and visiting a tattoo parlor. Initially puzzled by these choices, students eventually see how they allow us to explore both the play’s historical context and the cultural moment that produced the adaptation.

Questions for Discussion

Critics have argued about the role of queer subtext in Wilde’s play. Pay attention to the small details of the “cigarette case” scene. What strategies (narrative or filmic) does Parker use to participate in this debate? In what ways do the strategies suggest a heteronormative reading of the scene? What strategies suggest a homoerotic reading? Are there any other scenes that contribute to this debate? How so?

One of the themes of Wilde’s play is the unreliability of language. How do Parker’s choices emphasize or elaborate on that theme?

What can Parker’s adaptation tell us about the cultural moment in which it was made? Think, for example, about the characterization of Cecily and Gwendolen. What do you make of the use of Pre-Raphaelite imagery to animate Cecily’s fantasies? What do you think of Gwendolen’s choices and/or behavior?

If you were to adapt Wilde’s play for the screen, what choices would you make? For example, would you change the setting? Whom would you cast? Choose a short scene and imagine how you would film it. Why would you make these choices?

Further Reading

Asquith, Anthony, dir. The Importance of Being Earnest, 1952. Criterion Collection, 2010.

Buckton, Oliver S. “Oscar Goes to Hollywood: Wilde, Sexuality, and the Gaze of Contemporary Cinema.” Oscar Wilde and Modern Culture: The Making of a Legend. Ed. Joseph Bristow. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2008.

Krämer, Lucia. “Subversion in Disguise: Oliver Parker’s Adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest.” Janespotting and Beyond: British Heritage Retrovisions Since the Mid-1990s. Ed. Eckart Voigts-Virchow. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2004.

Parker, Oliver, dir. The Importance of Being Earnest, 2002. Miramax Lionsgate, 2011.