Dorian Gray is beautiful, wealthy and famous. However, she repels and destroys all those around her. Strangely, after 20 years as a leading fashion model, she remains completely unmarked and apparently unaffected by age. Why do people hate Dorian so intensely? Why are there attempts on her life? And what is the secret of her ever-lasting youth?
I've been seeking adaptations of Oscar Wilde's novel since reading it, which is something I've also recently done with Bram Stoker's "Dracula" and Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," but there aren't as many Dorian Gray movies available as there are for the other two, so I've been scraping the bottom of the barrel, and this awful 1980s TV movie is at the bottom. It does try to do two semi-novel things in reworking the book, which is welcome, but it entirely mucks them up and, consequently, has very little to do with what Wilde's story is actually about.
One of those semi-novel things is the gender reversal, that Dorian Gray is a woman here. (A now-lost 1915 film adaptation also starred a woman.) I saw a 2007 TV "Frankenstein" movie that did something interesting with a similar gender reversal of its eponymous character. Not so here. Rather, all of the gay subtext of Wilde's tale is gone, although I doubt there would be much left even if this TV movie cast a man as Dorian. This fem Dorian only flirts with the opposite sex, but we never see or are explicitly told that she ever has any liaisons. She begins the movie as a waitress and aspiring artist and becomes a successful model for beauty products. Absurdly, this lands her photograph on the covers of Life, Newsweek and Time magazines. Right, as if that ever happens for mere models. An elderly Henry picks up the Newsweek one, which is inscribed, "What ever happened to Dorian Gray?" It must've been a slow news week.
Like the 2007 "Frankenstein" TV movie, this one is also updated to the present, and it reverses the genders of a few other characters. Instead of Sibyl Vane, it's Stuart Vane, and rather than him being a Shakespearean actor as Sibyl was in the book, he's a singing piano player who prefers to perform at a bar where nobody listens to him because of his stage fright and, perhaps, he has some kind of drug problem. He's also married with a baby on the way and rides a motorcycle. Like the book, Dorian falls out of love with her/him because of their failure to perform, but in this case the lack of performance is unintentional, as it's due to Vane's anxiety. There's also no Basil, the painter of Dorian's portrait, here, but Henry's wife, renamed Angela, is a filmmaker who replaces him.
This is the other semi-novel concept of this one: instead of a painting, the picture of Dorian Gray is a motion picture, or rather a screen test for a role that Dorian ultimately doesn't accept. (This is similar to the use of video surveillance for the Dorian-esque character in "Phantom of the Paradise" (1974).) The scene is of Dorian's portrait being painted, like the scene of Basil and Dorian in the book. Since this Dorian is female and the "Basil" in the screen test is male, however, again, there's no homoeroticism. This alteration from the source is full of interesting self-reflexive possibilities, and this TV movie does next to nothing with it, except to cause the ending to make less sense. Removing Vane from being an actor also subtracts the self-reflexive potential of acting, of a play-within-a-play.
On top of these failures, there are two unnecessary flashforwards. Bernard Hoffer's song of the same name is loudly and annoyingly played a few times in lieu of anything happening in the way of plot. Henry is the narrator, Alan Campbell is a photographer now, and the book's ambiguously gay blackmail plot is reduced to collecting on an IOU. A Tracy character invented for this movie comes out of nowhere--well, actually she comes from just the scene prior--to accuse Dorian of murder, which begs the questions of how does Tracy know this, why does she care and why would we care about her opinion on the matter? The movie lacks all of the aestheticism and hedonism of the original. Although renamed "The Sins of," the only sins the movie shows are murder. No sex. No drugs. Dorian has a party at her relatively-small apartment, which includes drag queens--the closest, I guess, this adaptation comes to transgressiveness, but all they're doing is watching TV. Wilde wrote his novel in the Victorian age and yet his prose was far more daring than this regressive 1980s TV dreck. He had to allude to a lot, but even his Dorian explicitly went to an opium den, had affairs with various women and made a mockery of religion. This TV Dorian is told to pray by Henry, and she dutifully does just that!
The acting is wretched, too. Dorian goes from a grinning fool to a sobbing, wining and sniveling drama queen. And this is the worst Lord Henry I've ever seen. I love "Psycho" (1960), but I'm not sure Anthony Perkins can act hardly at all, especially if this movie is any indication. It's bad enough that the movie removes almost all of Wilde's epigrams given voice by Henry, and that they largely removed his immorality. Perkins is wooden in the part: he delivers his lines with odd pauses and speaks as though out of the side of his mouth, and his movements are stiff and sometimes artificially abrupt. Even the other bad Dorian Gray movies I've seen tend to have the saving grace of the wit of Wilde's original Lord Henry, but here, the saving grace for this Henry may be that it's so bad in every way that Perkins is somewhat disguised.
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