Pictures of Dorian Gray, Images of Oscar Wilde; Part Six: Actor and Image

Posted by on May 24th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five.

Different challenges inhere within different media.

Those interpretations of Dorian Gray intended for stage and screen have had an easy task in one regard:  they need merely find an unusually pretty actor to play Dorian.  The painting is the painting, and the actor is the man.  But this poses its own problems for Wilde’s theory of representation.  For in a prose novel it is possible for the representation to be, in a sense, more real than the original.  This idea is lost in a film or stage production:  we see a real man, and a painting of the man.  The one speaks, moves, is human — but doesn’t age.  The other is frozen, though changing, and necessarily derivative.  It is hard, with a live actor and a motionless painting, to invert the relationship between the copy and the original.

In her theatrical adaptation, Constance Cox’s stage directions recommend using a mask to establish Dorian’s fatal transformation, and the production notes say this about the painting itself:

The play is purposely written so that only one picture, the original portrait of Dorian Gray, need be used.  The horror of the changes in it can be conveyed by the expressions of the persons to whom it is shown, and the audience will have an adequate idea of what it was like whey they see the face of Dorian at the end.

If, on the other hand, an artist who can paint on gauze is available, the actual moment of the changing-back of the picture can be done in full view of the audience. . . .

Should intermediate portraits be used, it should be borne in mind that, if their growing bestiality is to be apparent to the back of the gallery, they will require to be somewhat exaggerated, and care must be taken that the effect is not crude from the stalls.

The multiple difficulties here are evident: The changes must be obvious, but not comical.  Perhaps it is better to rely on the actors, rather than the artist, to produce the effect.  One wonders, then, why it is necessary to show the painting at all?  Wilde got by merely with description and, for that matter, focused much more on the reactions of his characters than on the image of the painting itself.  Cox is wise to offer the director a range of options.  Unfortunately, the play gets a great deal else wrong:  It makes a mash of the plot, is mistaken in its assessment of Dorian’s character, dilutes Harry’s philosophy, and unaccountably re-writes Wilde’s dialogue.

The 1945 MGM production — written and directed by Albert Lewin — achieves its effect admirably and uses quite innovative means to convey the magical reality of the painting.  The film is black and white, which inflects it with a heavy, moody, noir feel. But the painting itself — done by Ivan Le Lorraine Albright — appears in lurid Technicolor inserts.  At its first appearance it is highly realistic, rather in the style of Sargent.

The color is a bit garish, but it does well to convey the sense of Dorian’s beauty.  His complexion is light and peachy.  His lips are pink, matching the flower in his buttonhole.</p> <p>Dorian is played by Hurd Hatfield.  He is strikingly handsome, with broad, angled features, slick dark hair and dark eyes.  His persona is prim, but masculine.  By the end of the film, in drastic contrast, the painting pushes horror to the point of the grotesque.  Its figure has a shock of white hair, a twisted grimace, bulging eyes, sagging features, swollen hands, and ragged, almost rotting, clothes.  The background is crowded with terrible shapes, goblins perhaps, or surreal entrails.  After Dorian kills Basil, the painting’s hand is shown dripping with blood — sweating it, oozing it out.

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In the film, Dorian destroys the painting out of remorse — which, unfortunately, breaks from Wilde’s plot and rather undercuts his moral.  When he stabs it, we see the painting blur and transform.  Dorian collapses and we catch a quick glimpse of his face.  It is wart-covered and empty.  For the most part, the screenplay stays admirably close to the original text, and may even be said to improve on it in places.  There are enticing period touches, nods to the story’s Victorian origins.  At one point Dorian reads Sybil a Wilde poem.  At another, we catch a glimpse of a book illustrated by Beardsley.

There is, also, in this version, a second picture of Dorian Gray.  One of Dorian’s former friends, a disgraced artist, produces a caricature of Dorian using chalk and the wooden surface of a barroom table.  His sketch looks like a cartoon villain, with a top hat and a grimace.  The image is framed with a simple gallows.

Unlike stage plays or film, in comics the visual challenges become inescapable.  Obviously both the person and his portrait have to be drawn. There is no chance of cheating.  Since the “real” Dorian and the painting are both necessarily artistic depictions, success depends on adequately “naturalizing” the person while preserving the magical super-reality of the portrait.

In the Marvel adaptation, Sebastian Fiumara meets this challenge admirably — with a great deal of help from the colorist, Giulia Brusco.  The picture only appears but rarely, and when it and the person of Dorian are shown together, it is the picture that is more finely portrayed.  It appears with more careful detail, finer line work, more subtle coloring.  Dorian, though always well-drawn, and amply life-like elsewhere, seems flat — shallow, artificial — when compared to his portrait.  That is, of course, just as it should be.

Next Time:  Victorian Cameos

all images ©2010 their respective copyright holders

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