THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE opened within weeks of a second Wilde biopic, titled simply Oscar Wilde. Both 1960 dramas had strong casts, both can be credited with prying open the subject matter door regarding “the love that dare not speak its name”.
This version of the playwrights private distress and public disgrace after his slander lawsuit against the Marquis of Queensbury backfired has the distinction of color and richer production values than its competitor, and better direction (Ken Hughes).
Peter Finch does an impassioned job as Wilde, bravely going where few actors had trod—his courtroom summation is splendid—and he’s backed by John Fraser (effectively outing himself on film 44 years before his candid autobiography, “Close Up”) as Wilde’s vain, scheming paramour, the son of the outraged philistine Marquis (Lionel Jeffries, afire with venom), Yvonne Mitchell, Nigel Patrick and a brief turn from James Mason as Wilde’s cagey and ruthless opponent in court, the renowned barrister Sir Edward Carson.
Running 123 minutes, with much of the script taken verbatim from court transcripts, there’s plenty of pithy Wilde wordsmithing as well. Filling in the cast are Maxine Audley, James Booth, Paul Rogers, Laurence Naismith, Michael Goodlife and Naomi Chance as Lillie Langtry. (the other Wilde, directed by Gregory Ratoff, starred Robert Morley, Ralph Richardson, John Neville and Dennis Price.)
Fate having its own wicked sense of humor and playing no favorites, the movie had a side effect on popular history both wild and un-Wilde, and a cheeky tweak (or slap on the rumpus) in acceptance of relaxed sexual mores. Produced by partners Irving Allen & Albert R. Broccoli, who had a string of lowbrow action hits with their company Warwick Films, this thoughtful, prejudice-free drama involving discreet homosexuals got good reviews but failed at the box-office, and basically ran into a distribution brick wall in the United States, where advertising any movie dealing with that taboo was D.O.A. The flop prompted a bitter split between the fractious partners. Broccoli took his idea for filming Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories (which Allen dismissed as rubbish) and two years later started the spy craze bonanza with Dr.No, offering a rampant male character about as far from the parlor repartee and partner proclivities of Oscar Wilde as you could get. Not one to be out-grossed, Allen followed suit in 1966 by unleashing the Matt Helm series (so much for trashing trash). From the catty epigrams of sneer-swapping Mr. Wilde to the tom-catting misogyny of bed-hopping 007, one thing the marketplace of socially accepted morality produces in abundance is a pantload of hypocrites (let’s assume Wilde would say it with more finesse).