This year for the first time, I have invested in an appointments diary. It’s big and blue and looks important, with a ribbon for a bookmark like a Bible. Up until now I have committed everything to memory—my mantra being that if I don’t remember something it can’t be that important anyway. This modus operandi may have worked in the 70s when I still had a short-term memory and little to recall, but now—back in the cold May of 2010—the fringes of my brain have frayed while the interior looks like a tie-dyed T-shirt during a recent scan searching for drug-induced black holes. Still desperate to please like a toothless old circus dog, I yap yes to everything and then forget all about it until it’s too late and I am doing something else. In such a way I have lost the friendship of Joan Collins, among other things, having double-booked myself one evening after a performance of Pygmalion when I was supposed to be dining with her.
I am sitting with two young men and a skeletal lady in J Sheekey’s restaurant in the West End of London. They are from Paramount Pictures or Twentieth Century Fox, I can’t remember which. What I can remember is that this is the last meeting I have had at such an exalted level—actually feasting with the high priests of Hollywood—to discuss possible involvement in a picture, rather than what is to come crashing in next, and is, by the way, the harsh reality faced by most actors competing for jobs today, which involves recording a scene on your iPhone and texting it with fingers crossed to the casting director. The rest, as Hamlet said, is normally silence.
But all this is for the future. For the time being I am at a comfortable corner table holding forth. The men, Andy and Loeg, lean in black suits, white shirts, thin ties, and neon teeth, are producers. The thin lady is called Hope. She is an executive from another studio and is there for the ride. Her face is fixed in a surgical grin. Over her shoulders a frayed fur coat at which she distractedly picks. The men are as unfathomable as Martians, downloading my every gesture, while Hope chatters away like a self-harming parrot about the project, a family-viewing fairy story in which the villain is a giant.
The men play that trick of not talking or moving a muscle so that the room spins around them and I babble on, revealing too much too soon while they fix me with their Paul Newman eyes, pupils like pins, unwavering in their scrutiny, ready to play back later against the wall of their hotel suite in a satellite linkup with their superiors back at the studio.
I am used to this by now, although perhaps I have been too long back in England to know exactly how to measure myself or them, added to which I am definitely drinking more these days and have already hoovered up a couple of dry martinis to conjure up a bit of sloshed sparkle—the dregs of my star quality.
But I am strutting my stuff, acting butch and generally giving the impression of being a no-nonsense, take-charge kind of giant, and things seem to be going pretty well. A couple of well-wishers have enjoyed me in the play tonight. I have been gracious and natural, waving them on with bonhomie and will settle up with them later. But now I must finish my pitch for the role, which, considering I have only read three pages of the script, has been quite long and detailed. (The first, the last, and a couple in between are largely sufficient for the seasoned hack to be able to spout preludes and fugues of shit.)
I am definitely drinking more these days and have already hoovered up a couple of dry martinis to conjure up a bit of sloshed sparkle—the dregs of my star quality.
I grind to a halt and they stare back—no helpful chirrup of encouragement—and there is a moment of silence.
“What you say is true,” proclaims Loeg finally. “This picture will die without soul.” (Translation: It’s so bad we’re going to need some good actors.)
“It’s a smart script,” trills Hope, pecking at her coat. “Smart” is a Hollywood word.
“There’s got to be a three-dimensional quality to all these characters. We need actors who know how to do that,” continues Loeg. (Take the money and don’t ask too many questions.) “Otherwise they’re just … ” A long, important pause.
“Giants?” I have a terrible habit of finishing everyone’s sentence, but I can’t stand silence. This is the fifth time I have done it in the last 10 minutes, and a shadow of impatience scuds across Loeg’s face.
“What we need is”—I surge on regardless—“a bit of rehearsal. Will there be any time for rehearsal, Loeg?” I am intense, a humble craftsman, Daniel Day-Lewis in fact. Simple. Direct. And deep. (The polar opposite to interior me right now, which is devious, superficial, and bored.)
“Oh yeah. Sure. We’re going to rehearse out there at Pinewood.” He beams at me, reassured. “You Brits,” his eyes are saying, twinkling with shock and awe. I am an actor brandishing his tools. He is about to say “You got the part” when Johnno, the plotting Queen d’ (new word incorporating “maître d’” and “queen bee”) of the restaurant, a man campier even than me, sashays over with his little finger up at his mouth and baby eyes twinkling, wide as saucers.
“Houston, we got a problem,” he hisses in that flat South Coast drawl of his, bending towards me in a vaudevillian aside. Everyone looks up.
“What?,” I snap. I cannot be put off my stride at this delicate stage and be forced by him to slip into giggly-girl banter. It would be fatal. Needless to say, he’s clocking that I am acting butch and his eyes narrow slightly.
“Ooh. Very Victor Immature, dear,” he sneers, at the same time gathering the table with his hands. “Well. Get this. Joan Collins is waiting for you at the Ivy. You stood her up. She’s FURIOUS!”
It takes us all a moment to move from one fairyland to another.
“Oh no! I completely forgot,” I moan, cancer cells replicating.
“Joan Collins?” Andy lights up. “Is she still around? Maybe we could get her in the movie.”
“Maybe??” barks Loeg. “She’s been circling the studio in a helicopter, ready to drop in—fully made up—since the last episode of Dynasty.”
The three Americans explode with mirth. Queen d’ watches with a delighted smile.
“She’s dizzy!” he declares when the laughter dies down.
“Dizzy in the helicopter,” screams Hope. “You English get me. That dry frickin’ humour.”
“Not Joan. I’m talking about HER,” giggles Q’d, prodding me in the ribs. I scream. “I don’t know how she remembers her lines.”
He has got the party going, and the Martians are coming out of their shells. They may even end up being queens, which will mean curtains for my role in the film. (Queens never employ other queens and if they do, watch out. One will probably eat the other. It’s an unspoken rule.)
“That could be a problem. SHE has a lot of dialogue,” trumpets Loeg, throwing his arm over my shoulder. We all laugh heartily, topped by Johnno, who trills like an alarm clock.
“They’re on the phone now. What do you want me to say?”
“Can’t you just say I’m not here?”
Johnno looks at me solemnly. “No. Not really. They already know.”
“I told them. I’ll tell them you’ll come after dinner.”
“That won’t work. Who is she with?”
“Biggins?” screams Andy. He’s tipsy now. Definitely gay.
“No. Chris Biggins.”
Andy is befuddled.
Johnno has got his hand on his hip now and is really getting into the swing. My new job is out the window. “You know,” he hisses in a theatrical aside. “The one that was done for shoplifting.”
“We’ll get them to come here,” says Loeg, clutching at Johnno. “Lemme talk to them. We could ask her to sing at the wedding.”
“Whose wedding?,” I ask weakly. This is getting out of hand.
“Ours.” The two producers wave ringed hands over the table. “Ker-ching!” they scream in unison.
“She can’t sing.” I want to pull the evening back on track, but it’s too late.
“Let’s get them over here right now.”
“I doubt they will,” whines Queen d’.
“I’ll send my car.”
“Oooh, the limo! That could work. I’ll go back and tell them.” Johnno minces off, threading his way through the tables, hands waving.
Queens never employ other queens and if they do, watch out. One will probably eat the other. It’s an unspoken rule.
I try to get the business side of things going again, but there is little point. We are in the world of Joan Collins, Biggins, and Johnno. I salute bravely as my ship sinks.
“Yeah. As Loeg was saying. I agree. It’s important to get a dimensional feel to these characters. Otherwise they’re just … ”
“Listen,” beeps Andy. “We love you. We want you in the picture, but you know what? None of the giants are right for you.” I am about to protest but he ploughs right on. “What could be BRIL-liant—don’t you agree, Loeg?—is the role of the hairdresser!’
I feign puzzled.
“He has this cute little salon right high up in the branches. It’s really neat, all made out of leaves.”
“Oh sure! That’s a great role. It’s pivotal. You could steal the picture.”
I’d rather steal the negative, I think but do not say. Instead, I fix an excited glow onto my face as an image materializes with alarming clarity. On the edge of a vast soundstage there is a little set all made of leaves—leaf sink, leaf hair dryer, leaves through the windows with leaf curtains, and me in the middle, hipsters and a green quaff—back-combing an ogre. It is too vivid to be anything but a premonition and I nearly puke.
Out of the corner of my eye I can see Johnno skimming back over the horizon.
“You’re in deep shit,” he says, swiveling to a halt. “They don’t want a car. They just want to know why you don’t come. I told them you’re in a meeting. I’ve got an idea. Why don’t I nip over with your credit card and pay their bill? That would be a nice touch.”
“Good idea.” Anything to get him away. I hand over my card.
‘See ya!’ he giggles, and dashes out.
I am quite drunk now and longing to be at the other restaurant with Joan and Biggins and having a good chin-wag about Leslie Bricusse and Tony Newley and the old days instead of arse-licking my way up the beanstalk, when Johnno reappears.
“They refused!” he proclaims to the whole restaurant, waving my credit card over his head.
“Oh my God. She must be really angry. What did they say?”
“They said they could pay for their own dinner, thank you very much.”
“I’ll say. A first.”
At which point there seems to be very little else to do than scream and high-five, followed by a little chorus of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” The table next to us joins in.
“Oh my God,” says Loeg. “This is so My Best Friend’s Wedding.”
Needless to say, I do not get the role of the giant, or any other role for that matter. Not for a while. Joan and I don’t speak for years, and darling Johnno is going to die. The evening has all these threads running through it. I walk home in a blur. I’m drunk, of course. The West End on a Saturday night is a funfair. Screaming heads spin across my path on invisible whirligigs. The gridlocked traffic grinds and billows. Somewhere nearby Percy is handing a spangled Joan Collins into a purring limo. Or maybe a mini-cab. Escaping the crowds on Long Acre, I find myself in front of Bow Street police station—boarded up for years—and as usual I think of Oscar Wilde.
He arrived at this place on an April evening in 1895. The libel suit he had brought against the Marquess of Queensbury had dramatically collapsed that morning. At the Cadogan Hotel, pissed as a newt, he was arrested on a charge of gross indecency and brought here in a cab by two policemen.
All for a visiting card left at a club by a lunatic.
I stand there, swaying slightly, wondering what it must have been like in the cell that night. The noise of the crowd outside. The large group of journalists inside, allowed by the police to taunt him in the cell—the most famous man in London, reduced to a fairground oddity.
Shooting star. Shot.
Every time I pass that police station I am freshly amazed. There but for the grace of God. Oscar Wilde is the patron saint of anyone who ever made a mess of his life. More than that, I think to myself, weaving my way towards Holborn, he is also the Christ figure of the gay movement. Crucified so that our sins may be forgiven. After all, Wilde in exile is the first snapshot in modern times of an openly gay man. Still recognizable, still famous. You could see him drifting down the Boulevard Saint-Germain and say, “That man is a homosexual.”
Oscar put a face to it. It was only a matter of time. The road to liberation had begun.
Copyright Rupert Everett 2020, extracted from To the End of the World, published in the U.K. by Little, Brown, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group Ltd., on October 8, 2020