An Ideal Husband (review)

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Whose Ideal?

In the lobby of the theater where I saw An Ideal Husband, a bank of televisions runs continuous trailers. Killing time before the movie, my female friend and I sat and watched for a bit, and eventually the trailer for Husband came on, during which we giggled and sighed over the scrumptious Rupert Everett.

Sitting next to us was a rather scruffy man also giggling to himself. He unfortunately felt the need to share his amusement and his Hollywood-insider knowledge with us: Did we know (*snicker*) that Everett is (*snicker*) gay? Hardly a news flash — though there’s probably someone out there reading this saying to herself, “Ohmigod, he’s GAY?!”
My friend and I were like, Hello, who cares, he’s gorgeous, which means we rolled our eyes at this man. But the guy would not be dissuaded — he obviously found it too funny for words, and thought we would too, that a gay man was playing a straight romantic lead. My friend invoked Rock Hudson (though of course none of us knew his big secret when he was courting Doris Day onscreen), but this guy would have none of it. Everett is a homo, fer pete’s sake — isn’t that hilarious? (If these fossils still exist in worldly, cosmopolitan Manhattan, I shudder to think what middle America is like.)

Plenty of straight couples have no chemistry onscreen, and anyway: Gay or straight, what does it matter? Sexual or romantic chemistry is not the same as screen chemistry (which is why Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise — rumors about his sexuality notwithstanding — needed some pointers on making their sex scenes in the upcoming Eyes Wide Shut more, well, sexy), and it is called acting for a reason. Why do I feel the need to go into this, when it really has nothing to do with the movie? Because this weird little man watching the trailer with us made me suspect that there are plenty of other people out there who feel the same way.

To whom I say: Grow up.

I saw a stage production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband on Broadway a few years ago, and it was brilliant. I liked Oliver Parker’s film adaptation even better, for reasons I can sum up in two words: Rupert Everett. And not cuz he’s scrumptious. Or gay.

The only thing worth watching in My Best Friend’s Wedding (and, I suspect, in the forthcoming Inspector Gadget) and scene-stealing in an uncredited cameo in Shakespeare in Love, Everett’s onscreen persona is like Pierce Brosnan’s, only better: charming, sophisticated, debonair, handsome, but without Brosnan’s modernity and cold unapproachability. Everett was so perfect in Wedding because he was the gay friend every girl deserves to have: warm yet capable of delivering withering wit when necessary, supportive yet sarcastic, a guy a girl can really shop with and trust to let us know when that dress really does nothing for us. And it’s that same combination of savoir faire with shoulder-to-lean-on accessibility that serves him so well in An Ideal Husband.

Everett was born to play Wilde’s alter ego, Lord Arthur Goring. The “idlest man in London,” a bachelor and “resolutely so,” Goring could easily be an affected, pompous, self-centered playboy. Yet Everett dispatches Wilde’s wit effortlessly, with no self-consciousness, and makes it sound like real conversation and not famous one-liners. A man who says that “other people are quite dreadful — the only possible society is oneself” seems unlikely to be the center around which a gaggle of wonderful friends swarms. Yet Everett’s vibrancy and warmth makes him believably such — not only is he surrounded by the kind of friends we might all wish for, all of the dears turn to him for help when social disaster strikes.

Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam, from Amistad), an upstanding member of the House of Commons, is the golden boy of British politics. He and his wife, Lady Gertrud (Cate Blanchett, from Elizabeth and Oscar and Lucinda) — who is active in the Women’s Liberal Association — are said to represent “what is best in English public life.” Oh, but there are always skeletons in the closets of politicians, aren’t there?

The year is 1895, and canals are all the rage: Suez, and now some scheme down in Argentina, which Robert has roundly denounced in Parliament as a swindle. But along comes the seductively sleazy Mrs. Laura Cheveley (Julianne Moore, from Psycho and The Lost World: Jurassic Park), “a force to be reckoned with.” She wishes Robert to have a change of heart and support the canal, in which she is very heavily invested. And she backs up her request with a revelation: She has, in her possession, a compromising letter that divulges “the real origin of your wealth and your career.”

Arthur knows all these people. Righteous Gertrud is quite his best friend, and he’s had a roving flirtation with Robert’s sister and ward, Mabel (Minnie Driver, from Tarzan and Good Will Hunting), for some time. He knows Mrs. Cheveley’s wily ways, too — they were once engaged to be married. The scene in which they all unknowingly converge on Arthur’s house, seeking his advice and support, shows off Everett at his best as he desperately tries to keep them all separated, juggling several schemes to resolve the crises at hand with nary a hint of consideration for himself.

In my review of Wilde, I wrote that the writer “is timeless and timely in the same way that Shakespeare is.” An Ideal Husband cuts to the core of human experience, like the best of Shakespeare’s work: how the politics of marriage and the politics of power are alike, how public life and private life are both separable and inseparable, how we none of us is perfect and shouldn’t even aspire to be.

Now add on top of that timeless perfection a dream cast. Everett, as I’ve noted, is brilliant. Northam seems to have finally hit his stride in period pieces. Blanchett continues her streak of playing women who are simultaneously strong yet vulnerable, combining the best traits of men and women without losing a whit of her glowing femininity or steely backbone. Moore gets more interesting all the time, and her Mrs. Cheveley is a more-than-worthy foil for the sharp-tongued Arthur– they’re as Machiavellian as each other, in their own ways.

Sparkling with wit and candor, An Ideal Husband is a delicious, and biting, confection of a movie. And I don’t care if Rupert Everett is gay — he’s still hot.

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