Dec 18, 2012

The Secret of Dorian Gray

If any post-WWII European actor was born to play the role of Dorian Gray, it was Austrian Helmut Berger – the positively peculiarly pretty, passionate and pompous camp prince of arthouse Euro-sleaze – as no other actor has been able to pull off a believably narcissistic pedophiliac Nazi fag in drag nor a homo Bavarian Wagnerite king with an affinity for romantic art over his own people the way this brazenly bisexual star of self-worship and seduction did. For whatever reason, the trans-European (Britain/Italy/Germany) production The Secret of Dorian Gray (1970) aka Dorian Gray directed by Italian auteur Massimo Dallamano (who previously worked as a cinematographer for Sergio Leone) and co-produced by the infamous exploitation producer Harry Alan Towers (who worked with Jess Franco and Ken Russell) – Berger’s next acting job after his groundbreaking performance in his older aristocratic Italian lover Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969) aka La caduta degli dei – was a film that never really got its due in terms of gaining a cult following as it so incontestably deserves. In fact, The Secret of Dorian Gray quickly disappeared after its initial scant appearance in theaters and until its rather recent release on DVD (RaroVideo), it was never released for the home market aside from an obscure bastardized English-language version for certain foreign markets, which was solely the result of the lackluster promotion and distribution from the company that produced it. Indeed, to call the film a ‘lost masterpiece’ would be a bit of patent puffery, unless you happen to be an exploitation/Euro-Sleaze junky, but I would be lying if I did not admit that aside from possibly Ulrike Ottinger’s Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse (1984) aka Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press – an innately ambitious total deconstruction and revolutionary reinvention of the tale – The Secret of Dorian Gray is one of my favorite takes on debauched dandy Oscar Wilde’s sole and surprisingly incriminating novel as a sort of clever and thinly disguised condemnation of his own life. Set in the perfect postmodern atmosphere of ill-flavored fag-end 1960s of Swinging London, The Secret of Dorian Gray follows dainty yet decidedly domineering Dorian’s deluge into salacious self-destructive debauchery as the city around him parallels his decisive degeneration into nihilistic sex, brain-damaging drugs, and reckless rock ‘n’ roll. In short, the film feels like the sort of adaptation the belated beatnik auteur Donald Cammell (Demon Seed, White of the Eye) would have assembled, albeit a bit less thematically and aesthetically erudite than a cinematic work by the suicidal Scotsman, The Secret of Dorian Gray oftentimes feels like it was produced by a fan of Performance (1970), although both films were released the same year (despite Performance being produced two years earlier). That being said, I have no doubt in my mind that Mick Jagger would have concurred with Dorian Gray’s declaration, “I would give my soul to stay like that” in regard to the prospective of eternal beauteous youth, as both men certainly had sympathy for the devil, but that did stop them from degenerating into ghastly and ghoulish elderly lesbians of sorts. 

 Starring real-life Dorian Gray Helmut Berger in an iconic, if rarely seen, performance that is at least as memorable as the actor’s roles in Visconti’s Ludwig (1972) and Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty (1976), The Secret of Dorian Gray – a work that shows the lurid and lascivious libertinism that is oftentimes implied, but never gratitiously depicted in Oscar Wilde’s novel, including bisexuality (and – in this case – of the biracial black buggerer sort), needless nihilistic drug excess, and hip unhinged sexual promiscuity – opens in a backdrop that displays an inkling of the kind of blatant signs of post-war debauchery that would consume London and rest of the discordant Occident from about the mid-1960s on. After less than enthusiastically watching a tranny cabaret show (echoing Berger's Dietrich-esque performance in The Damned) with his friends, Dorian Gray (Berger) meets the love of his life by mere happenstance – a self-proclaimed starving would-be actress and feisty virgin (at least until Mr. Gray has his gentlemanly way with her) named Sybil Vane (Marie Liljedahl) – but ultimately a painting of himself by his painter friend Basil Hallward (Richard Todd) proves be his true “soul mate”; as he symbolically sells his soul to the devil in order to retain the boyish beauty that is expressed in the sexually androgynous portrait.  Describing the inspiration behind the portrait, Basil states, "I did it because the subject is exceptional.  An extraordinary combination of pure beauty and male virility.  Incredibly sensual...timeless," but little does the artist realize that sometimes beauty kills. Of course, it is not only the painting that propels Dorian into a life of self-debasement, flesh usury, and drug use as a fated life-changing meeting with a fashion chic and cultivated homosexual gallery owner named Henry Wotton (Herbert Lom) who haphazardly parrots Mr. Wilde with the words “What is vice anyways? Simply pleasure without shame” and his loose and salacious yet imbecilic socialite wife Gwendolyn (Margret Lee) – both of whom want to fondle and fuck the lad – also help to groom the young man into a debauched daredevil of decadence who seeks soulless pleasures to make up for the emotional void in his personal life. Although Dorian is already on the road to degeneration and overwhelming narcissism before her untimely death, it is ultimately his sweet ladylove Sybil’s tragic death via self-slaughter after the two have a heated lover’s spat that the decadent dandy fully embraces his tormenting thirst for eternal youth and unquenchable excess. As the portrait painting of himself deteriorates into a grotesque caricature of himself that parallels his positively perverse personal life of terribly trendy and solely superficial sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. In the end, Dorian Gray is, at best, a poor man's Ronnie Kray and a shameless and opportunistic whore with a faggy fashion sense who will fuck anything and anyone, including elderly women, to reap materialistic earthly rewards and, at worst, a gaudy and grotesque living and breathing monstrosity of the mischievous molesting and murdering McFagger-wanna-be sort.

Lying on the floor was a dead man with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the ring that they recognized who it was,” or so concludes The Secret of Dorian Gray with the words from Oscar Wilde’s source novel. Admittedly, I would not call myself a fan of many films adapted from classic novels, nor am I generally fan of many traditionally critically revered ‘classic’ novels themselves, but The Secret of Dorian Gray does make for a notable exception, not least of all because it one of the very few cases where the degenerate cinematic art at that time complimented the theme of the literary work itself as a magical marriage between softcore Fin de siècle Europa and semen-drenched Swinging London. Starting in a rather traditional and quasi-Victorian London and concluding in a nefarious Negrophiliac bongo-drum-blasting, curiously corrupt, gender-bending, drug-devouring, back-stabbing, player-hating and miscegenating nation of lost souls,The Secret of Dorian Gray effortlessly excels in managing to execute a clear-cut depiction of London of the old and the overzealous Zeitgeist of the new and needlessly narcissistic as a work that ironically wallows in the same sort of degeneracy it commends; no doubt an idiosyncratic Italian specialty on director Massimo Dallamano’s part.  Naturally, The Secret of Dorian Gray is a must-see film for Helmut Berger fans as the marvelously manic and crazily camp Austrian actor proves once again why he is one of Europe's greatest queens of the sophisticatedly seedy and satanically suave silverscreen.  Indeed, the thought of Berger staying perennially pretty and pernicious is a particularly palatable and prepossessing prospect, but as one can readily see from his steadily declining acting career and current physically flaccid and fatigued appearance, such an idea is nothing short of being a preposterous pipe dream, thereupon making The Secret of Dorian Gray seem like the next best thing.  Indeed, few things in life make more sense than Helmut Berger Gone Wilde.

-Ty E

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