Dorian Gray (1): Helmut Berger

The Picture of Dorian Gray was Wilde’s only novel, published first in Lippincott’s Magazine and then in innumerable editions ever since. It tells the story of a feckless young aristocrat, Dorian Gray, who strikes a Faustian pact with fate by which his portrait ages while he remains young and beautiful. For self-evident reasons, Dorian keeps this portrait hidden away in an attic. Thanks to the novel’s continuing popularity, the phrase “picture in the attic”, and variations of it, have passed into common usage. Anyone middle-aged who looks enviably and undeservedly youthful might be accused of having a “picture in the attic”, that bears the scars of their cunningly disguised dissolution and wickedness. Sometimes a youthful-looking older person might be referred to as the “Dorian Gray” of whatever racket they’re in. For instance, the British chef Ainsley Harriott has been called the Dorian Gray of cooking, and US senator Mitt Romney the Dorian Gray of the GOP, and so on.

There are many film and television adaptations of the book from 1916 onwards. None of them are uninteresting, and all have sparked much earnest debate as to their fidelity to or betrayal of Wilde’s original creation. One of my personal favourite is the actor Peter Firth’s 1976 Dorian, with Jeremy Brett as the artist Basil Hallward and John Gielgud as Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian’s mentor. I also like, though it is fashionable among purists to despise it,  Massimo Dallamano’s 1970 extravaganza, set in the Swinging Sixties, with Helmut Berger as Dorian and Herbert Lom as Lord Henry.

By virtue of the undiluted plutocratic sleaze it relentlessly delivers, this film demonstrated that the Sixties as a setting was more than a match for the Belle Époque. Look out for Marie Liljedahl as the jilted actress, Sybil Vane. The film follows the book in recreating the harrowing scene where Sybil’s lovestruck bad acting in the role of Juliet causes Dorian to despise and reject her. It is not easy to act bad acting and she does it brilliantly. Berger, Lom and Todd are superb. The screenplay has been much criticised for not retaining a sufficiency of Wilde, but its occasional aberrations are incredibly and appropriately funny. Berger: “Why should I grow old and this stay for ever young?” Todd: “Don’t ask me. I’m not a bloody alchemist.” Here is the film.

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