- Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins: The Autobiography
- Grand Central Publishing, 416 pp.
A Man for All Salons
The universe appears to have cheated Rupert Everett. By rights, he belongs to the Edwardian age, the gay with a capital “G” nineties, Oscar Wilde and the pursuit of beauty, art for arts sake, and to hell with propriety.
But instead, as he details in his autobiography Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins, he has lived with us, drinking in the headiness of the seventies and eighties and waking up to the cold morning hangover of the decades that followed.
That is not to say, though, that his book is depressing, for it is not. From his early beginnings as a pampered boy in a well-to-do English family, complete with a military father and an emphasis on riding to the hounds, to the present, he obeys the cardinal rule of theatre: keep the audience entertained.
He certainly had all the makings of a modern Edwardian. While flower children skipped naked through Woodstock and Paris rioted, he was cosseted by a nanny, immersed in a conservative education, and haphazardly tutored in the ideas of an Empire long since dead.
But it was in his second theatrical performance, in a Catholic public school where homosexuality was either hidden between the midnight gravestones or trumpeted to the back seats of the balcony, that he found salvation.
As Titania, Queen of the Fairies, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Everett entered with a high-pitched giggle and left the audience roaring in appreciation. From that point on none could deny him his theatrical instincts, though a critic noted wryly that his performance “left one with the distinct impression that what Titania really needed was a good spanking.’
After dropping out, it was straight into the heart of wicked, wonderful London, where Everett enrolled in drama school and joined the panoply of queens and queers (as he labels himself) that frequented the anything-goes night clubs and bars.
What followed was a drug-induced psychedelic ride that he looks back on with some nostalgia. He tried everything, slept with everyone, sometimes for money, and went everywhere. People like Andy Warhol and an alluring transvestite named Delphine in Paris’s Bois du Boulogne became friends. It was, as he writes it, thrilling.
No surprise, then, that the conventions of drama school, where he was consistently cast as an old man, didn’t suit him. He was summarily ejected but managed, after some trials, to end up in Glasgow with the Citizens Theatre (after auditioning as Nina from The Seagull). He became a bona fide hit in the play “Another Country,” whose lead character was based on the spy Guy Burgess, and rode its success to the West End and then to film.
Success, though, does not seem to be easy for Everett. Helen Hayes once said that Catholicism should be the actor’s choice of religion. The cycle of sin and repentance, guilt and expiation that is part of the faith finds a certain parallel in Everett’s narrative. That is not to say that he is particularly religious, or that he believes himself a sinner, but that he is always wary of stepping on the serpent in the garden.
This is made clear in his narrative, which occasionally leaps forward to a funeral or revisits a forgotten poignant detail, and he often looks back with an actor’s crushing insight on his own talents. “A real diva,” he says, “is split between utter conviction of her brilliance and secret crashing panic,” and for him glory is often accompanied by the knowledge of coming failures.
And come they did, albeit slowly. He acts in a series of both bad and good films, such as Arthur and the King and Dance with a Stranger, that provide a bouquet of enjoyable anecdotes in his narrative, and meets yet more famous and not so famous people. (Forget Kevin Bacon – it’s one degree with Everett.) Candice Bergen gives him advice on taming his lip tension, a pair of queens in Holloway Road provide him with a padded body stocking to buff his muscles, and Susan Sarandon cavorts in his bed.
A call from no less a personage than Orson Welles sends him flying to Hollywood, only to be left unemployed in a city that has all the flat sparkle of cheap tinsel. Not for him the bright lights of Hollywood – he reserves poetry and feeling for places such as the seedy, spectral Chateau Marmont, junkie retreat and Old Hollywood backwater, and actors like Roddy McDowall, child star of the golden age.
At this juncture, AIDS, a figure whispered about in clubs during the seventies, enters in the eighties with all the aplomb of a silent star’s entrance, killing off many of Everett’s male and female friends and lovers. The epidemic acts as a background narrative throughout the book, cutting into the glossy gossipy accounts. While he works on a film with his idol, Julie Andrews (amidst the jealous glares of his gay colleagues), acts with Bob Dylan, and makes a visually hilarious attempt to become a rock star, the crowd that surrounded him in his youth is thinning.
Incredibly, Everett escapes the virus, but as the decade wanes the beautiful boy of the early years admits to losing his professional way. He moves to Paris and buys a decrepit set of buildings in St. Tropez, borrowing heavily from his father. He jets from hot spot to hot spot, mooching off friends and snogging, with her approval, Madonna’s boyfriend. He acquires a black labrador named Mo, a high point, and indulges in his last heterosexual affair.
Tellingly, he chooses to rush through his achievements – as a junkie in a play called “The Vortex” that went from the West End to L.A., as a writer of novels – and skips ahead to an epic folly, a historical mini-series fourteen months in the making that is shot in a crumbling U.S.S.R. Why the skip? An Englishman’s stiff upper lip? An artist’s self-doubt? Or perhaps again that awareness of the downs that follow the mind-blowing highs.
In any case, his quixotic adventure provides exciting copy. Everett must be a diarist (I’d love to see the originals), for it is a rare bird who can remember that the airborne pollen of Soviet Russia tastes metallic and the specific details of a neighbor burnt to death in his apartment. While he’s there, communism falls and filming, he tells us, goes on as usual.
The Russian sojourn marks a turning point, and not just for our narrator. Yuppies and Wall Street are out, Miami and heroin chic are in. Reworked into an androgynous idol, Everett strides coolly onto the fashion scene, ad-libbing his way through Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter and striking a Gothic pose in Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium campaign.
Fashion is concerned with surface, surface was part and parcel of the nineties, and Everett’s training as an actor, noting what people say, wear, eat, or sleep on, continues to stand him in good stead. But, as with his time in L.A., he notices details many actors cum writers miss. While famous residents flounce through the Raleigh Hotel in Miami, snorting coke and screaming at lovers, Everett pays attention to the scent of the salt-soaked air, the custard-colored pool, and the lives of the Cuban exiles who make up the hotel’s cast of characters.
Meanwhile….events were about to explode, this time for the good. One of the notable exceptions to the “film flops only” rule in Red Carpets is the detailed chapter on My Best Friend’s Wedding. Originally a showpiece for Julia Roberts, the film made Everett into a mainstream gay icon, alerting Hollywood titans to the fact that audience morés were considerably more liberal than their own.
Everett is perceptive on the difficulties of being a female powerhouse – “there is a male quality to the female superstar…she becomes a kind of she-man, a beautiful woman with invisible balls” – and brutally honest on how quickly such power can fade. A subsequent effort with Sharon Stone leaves him impressed by the tenaciousness of women who survive in the industry, however batty they might have to be.
Empathy such as this comes from experience and Everett’s openly gay persona left him in a similar bind: Hollywood wanted his talent, but they weren’t comfortable with his sexuality. Despite his best (or worst, as he acknowledges there is some degree of ego-blindness that succeeds a hit) efforts, his attempt to make a film with Madonna, The Next Best Thing, went down in fiery flames.
Obviously frustrated with being typecast as the “safe,” gay best friend, Everett again omits discussion of his Wildean work, where he does have the lead (The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband), and another scene-stealing role as Christopher Marlowe in Shakespeare in Love, to note how his sexuality cost him the part that went to Hugh Grant in About a Boy and relegated his kind of Prince Charming to the land of Shrek.
The book, in truth, finishes somewhat abruptly and on a slightly sour note, and there is the sense that Everett is not content with its ending. Mo has died, as has his father, with whom he appears to have had an estranged but loving relationship. Uncomfortable with the role of the star as charity-saint, he nevertheless makes trips to Nairobi and Haiti that provide a cannily observed perspective on the all-too-human players in the NGOs and aid organizations, and the consequences for the local people. He has money and a certain amount of notoriety, but mostly for a romantic comedy role he made ten years ago.
In addition, he is no longer the Dorian Gray, the everlasting youth whose photos pad the interior of the book, although after drinking, smoking, and imbibing that many foreign substances he looks remarkably fit for his age. He is morphing into the author, the observer of his life, a frightening time for an actor’s whose face was often his calling card.
Everett seems to know this, for he chooses a photo for the cover that shows him trapped between the two: face half shaded by his hand (the tragic side of drama’s black and white mask), the hair gray but the skin still unlined. Inside he captions it “Queen.”
What remains for him is, pardoning the pun, an open book. If someone were to offer him a role that suited him and not an agenda, that took advantage of this self-knowing, flamboyant but retiring, outlandish but now older and wiser queer’s talents, would he triumph?
It would be nice if Everett and the fates could conspire to bring such a movie role about, for it would bury forever the perception of him being trapped in an era of top hats and cucumber sandwiches and bring him roaring into an age that he has seen so much of already. In the meantime, he’s not doing such a bad job of being an actor-author. Give a man a mask, as they say, and he will tell you the truth.
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.