PROFILE : Wilde at Heart - Stephen Fry is witty, informed, and no stranger to criticism. Who better to play Oscar Wilde?

Stephen Fry was born to be Wilde--or at least to play him. One of the most widely recognized celebrities in Britain, Fry is known as much for the wit of his writing as he is for the stature of his performances.

Fry rose to fame as a writer/actor for the Cambridge University Footlights, a celebrated comedy revue company whose members included Emma Thompson, Martin Bergmann, Tony Slattery, and Fry's future writing partner Hugh Laurie. In the early '80s, Fry and Laurie became two of the most prominent figures in British television comedy. Besides their own immensely popular show A Bit of Fry and Laurie, they appeared in series such as The Black Adder, Not the Nine O'Clock News, and the four installments of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster, which aired in the U.S. on PBS.

Fry's film career has been less exciting, but distinguished nonetheless: small character parts in Cold Comfort Farm and I.Q., as well as the title role in Peter's Friends, a film that writer Bergmann based on the Footlights' annual alumni gathering at Fry's country estate. As a writer, he has authored bestselling novels such as The Hippopotamus and The Liar. But it was writing the book for the musical Me and My Girl which earned him his earliest major success, garnering him a Tony and making Fry a millionaire by the age of 30.

Like Wilde, however, Fry seems to have gained greatest fame from his bon mots and his humorous criticism of English society and culture, first revealed through his bitingly satiric comedy sketches and later through the numerous columns he's written for British newspapers over the past 10 years. Decidedly pro-Labour and unapologetically liberal, yet still terribly proper in every way, Fry epitomizes a new breed of English gentleman, one who captures the changing face of English politics. In a word, he is a wit.

As far as further similarities go, Fry, like Wilde, has had his share of scandals. For one thing, he is openly gay, something he doesn't hide from the public eye. In fact, he went into great detail about his first experiences with sex in his 1997 autobiography Moab Is My Washpot. More of a scandal for Fry, however, was his publicized breakdown in 1995 while starring in the play Cell Mates in London's West End. In a fit of despair, the actor fled the show mid-performance, left the country, and intended to commit suicide.

However, in the past three years, Fry has come to terms with the pressures of celebrity and success, and his past trials seem only to have strengthened the humanity of his performances, evident in his richly subtle portrayal of Oscar Wilde in the recent Sony Pictures release Wilde. The film is unabashedly honest in its depiction of Wilde's affair with the younger Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie"), as well as Wilde's subsequent trial as a result of accusations made by Bosie's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, the playwright's conviction, and ultimately the breaking of Wilde's spirit in prison.

Fry recently sat down with Back Stage West to discuss the historic Wilde, his own take on the subject, and the not-so-wild experience of living under daily public scrutiny.

Back Stage West: Oscar Wilde seems to be the rage nowadays. We've got The Judas Kiss on Broadway. The past year saw the production of the tremendously successful Gross Indecency. And now your movie. Why the recent resurgence of this figure in popular culture?

Stephen Fry: I think it's a number of things. One, which sounds banal but is not to be sniffed at, is that we are getting to the end of our century, just as he was very much the symbol of the end of his.

Another thing is that over the last hundred years, as we look back at it, a lot of figures in whom we invested some sort of faith, political figures and so on--leaders--have lost all vestige of integrity. Students used to put posters of Che Guevara on the wall. They used to think that rock music would set the world free to some extent, but it's all become essentially commercial. Since the death of Lennon, there's no sense of hope in it.

So oddly enough, I think more and more young students, the sort that would have put Che Guevara and John Lennon up on their walls, would now put up Einstein and Wilde, probably. Because the ability of art to set people free is still somehow a viable idea. I think Wilde's sense of the supreme individuality of the artist, individualism found through art, still has immense power over young people who see themselves standing on the threshold of bourgeois life. Any sense of something beyond--something to delight the mind and the spirit which is not incoherent ravings from someone waving crystals and talking about birth signs but something from a superior intellect that actually makes sense about art--I think is wonderful.

So that's why, in a vulgar sense, he's become the great T-shirt of our age. He's on shopping bags from Barnes & Noble. He's on wine coasters and mouse pads and everything else. Wilde is sort of a symbol more than perhaps any other writer, and I think will continue to be so. It's rather like when you move away from a tall building: When you're right up against it, you can't see how tall it is, but the further you move away from it, the more it reveals its height. Thus Wilde seems to grow. The farther we get from him, the more we realize what a tremendous figure he was.

BSW: So much has been made of the similarities between you and Wilde. In what way is Oscar Wilde most unlike you?

Fry: He's different in all kinds of ways. This is a man who as a very young boy won bets for his older brother--his brother would bet schoolchildren in their neighborhood in Ireland, he'd say, "Choose a book, a three-volume novel, and Oscar can read it in 20 minutes." And they'd go, "Ah, I don't believe it's true." So he'd raise money and Oscar would be presented the book, and he'd read it in 20 minutes and answer questions on the plot. If you gave him 50 minutes, he could quote whole sections of it. He had a very unusual brain. It is very sweet when people say that anybody who is capable of the odd bit of waspish wit is Wildean, but I think it's a bit of an insult to the real genius.

In other ways unalike? I don't think I have his courage, really. I'm sure that in the same situation, I'd probably run and wouldn't even look back for fear of Queensberry. What is extraordinary is that when the case against him came up, he stayed in England. He was given two days grace before trial. One can talk about how the English wanted to destroy Wilde, but they did give him two days to get to Cornwall. It would appear that he could have lived very happily in France if he'd left. But he didn't. I'm afraid I wouldn't have stayed.

BSW: The film focuses on Wilde's sexuality, some critics have said too much. But you could argue that this is the central way in which Wilde defined himself in relation to the world.

Fry: Most certainly. And it's the reason he fell. The fact is, lonely eyes meeting across a room and cutting gracefully away is not what it's about. The film is about love. And I think it shows a passionate, impossible love. I think that it would be grossly wrong not to show that it was also his nature. The physical sex was important. It's not the be-all and end-all. There are more scenes of people eating than there are having sex, if it comes to that. Of course, people always say they're not shocked by the sex, they just don't think that it's necessary. So why don't you mention the food? That's not necessary either. You are shocked by the sex, so you should just admit that you're shocked by it instead of pretending to be sophisticated. Instead they say, "Well, frankly, I found it all rather boring." "Oh, so you found the sex boring, but not the eating? What kind of person are you?" I think people are so irrational about that.

The film falls between two really Puritanical schools. One is the person who doesn't like to see men making out on screen, and the other is the kind of in-your-face Queer Nation person who thinks that the queering of Oscar hasn't gone far enough, that he should be more in your face, that he should have a sort of 1990s sensibility. If that's the case, you might as well have Oscar have an e-mail address. It's simply so out of time, it's nonsensical.

Of course, when I saw the Peter Finch movie on Wilde, which I actually thought was a very good movie, I remember thinking, Well, why was he sent to prison for patting people on the head? The fact is, if people confront the fact that they're uncomfortable about seeing men go to bed with each other, then they are confronting the essential nature of the scandal, because that is why Oscar Wilde went to prison: because genital areas rubbed against genital areas. There was ejaculation. There was sex. That's why he went in for two years. If people are still uncomfortable with that, then that's something that we all have to confront in ourselves and in society. It should be the sins of the spirit should count, not sins of the flesh, as Wilde himself put it.

BSW: I find it interesting that in the reviews criticizing the overtly sexual nature of the film, it's more the kissing and cuddling than the sex acts themselves that seem to make critics uncomfortable.

Fry: Absolutely. To me that's always been the key to homophobia. It's the fact that it's love, that it's affection, that is scary. And rightly so, because love is very, very frightening. And sex isn't particularly: It's rather banal, slightly messy, and sticky. Damp, tufted areas of the human body that were best left on their own, possibly hosed down from time to time. But affection, real love--that's scary. That moves mountains. We still live in a very infantile society.

BSW: What was your first acting experience?

Fry: I played Mrs. Higgins in a production of My Fair Lady. I must have been about eight or nine. One exciting review said that I could grace any drawing room. From then on, I was dying to get on the stage.

But it was at Cambridge University where I started to really do musicals and plays. I did about 30 plays in two years. It's funny, I actually played Oscar Wilde at Cambridge. An undergraduate wrote a play called Have You Seen the Yellow Book? It was my first play to get a national review. It was in The Gay News. My mother carried it proudly around without telling anybody what newspaper it came from. It said my Oscar carried the lilt of Irish without the brogue, which I thought was flattering.

BSW: Considering your history with the Footlights, to what degree did Martin Bergmann reflect real life with Peter's Friends?

Fry: It's funny, because I do have a largish house in the country, and friends do come for Christmas. And a lot of these folks are people I was at university with, like Emma Thompson, Tony Slattery, and whoever. But obviously it's a film; we don't all come armed with these designer griefs which are played out in little scenes. More often it's just sitting in a circle watching movies and farting a lot. Like most people. And fortunately, our revue, I don't think, was quite as awful as the one in Peter's Friends--that terrible song about the London underground. Jesus!

One of the things the movie certainly conveyed is that as we're hitting our 30s in full stride, things occur to a lot of people, like the fact that proven friendships are indeed an important part of our lives. It's very typical of Kenneth Branagh, who sort of got this film going, that he wouldn't let us back down. You know, Hugh and I were going, "Oh, God. Everybody is going to think it's so incestuous, so narcissistic, just an awful masturbatory fantasy." And Ken said, "Fuck 'em all, darling. Only point-one percent of the population think like that and they all work for Time Out. Don't bother about that. Just do it. It'll mean something to a lot of people who have been there." And I think it's very notable that it was huge in places like France, where they really know little about the Footlights or any of that.

BSW: You've continued to work in the theatre off and on as a writer and director. What do you get from working in the theatre that you don't get from TV or film?

Fry: Fear. No, I have to be honest and say that when theatre works very well, it's spectacular and astonishing and I really do like it. But as a general rule, I'm not a huge fan of the theatre. I think it's sort of a strange generational thing. It's true of nearly all of my generation, and particularly true for those generations under me: Theatre has lost a huge amount of its cachet and its appeal. It's partly because there haven't really been any significant new theatre writers in the past 20 years. I mean we still look, in England, to the Stoppards and the Pinters and the Hares, all of whom started writing well over 20 years ago.

Whereas films have just gone up and up and up in stock. It's just been a total bull market. People talk about them more. There are more movie magazines. There's a hipness about them. People are going back and studying the history of film. Twenty years ago the average 20-year-old would not be interested in a Carole Lombard movie. Now a 20-year-old is. They're actually interested in old movies just as much as new movies. Each year movies are penetrating deeper and deeper into the consciousness and culture of the nation, of both our nations.

I think when people sit in the theatre and the curtain rises, they just think, "Lies! I don't believe a word of it. This voice is strained and artificial." Theatre works in a rhetorical way, through speeches. We allow characters to reveal themselves in real time in a way that they just don't in movies. In movies, they reveal themselves in action. I wrote in a book that the perfect stage hero is Hamlet, who talks about everything; everything he is feeling is revealed through his speech, but he's incapable of action, and the perfect movie hero is Lassie. Not a word said. Rather, through the camera you see Lassie looks there, looks there, goes over and pulls the sleeve of this guy to warn him that the kid is in trouble, grabs the kid by the collar to save him, licks the face of the little kid, goes and gets the policeman. All that sort of stuff. I mean, Lassie is what movies are.

That's not to say films must be shallow. They can be deeply moving, they can be intellectual, they can be artistic. But they have to be filled with action. And by action I don't mean lit fuses and bombs and things like that. I just mean that people reveal themselves by what they do, not by what they say. And what they say is prompted by action.

BSW: As a public figure, you've chosen to be very upfront about your personal life, a luxury Wilde did not have. Do you feel, as a celebrity, this is the safest response to our tabloid culture--to beat it to the punch?

Fry: That's partly it. I wouldn't want to say I was that manipulative, as it were. I think that is an unquestionable advantage of being upfront. But part of the moral equation is that if you do the right thing it also tends to be the most convenient thing, as well. So that's as good a reason to do the right thing as any deep moral sense. Honesty is the best policy, as well as being the best thing for one's happiness. I mean, there's no doubt that it's better to say something before someone finds it out. But generally, and genuinely, I just find that it's morally grotesque to feel that one has to hide certain things. This is not right.

I suppose because when I was growing up, there were so few role models, so few figures one could use to endorse or vindicate one's own nature, one's own feelings, that the least I could do is to show other people that it's actually fine, that it's not some confession that needs to be made or some terrible secret that you have to come out with. It's just the most normal thing in the world. So that's what I'll always strive to do. BS