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January 17, 2007

Rupert Everett is rare in that he is bright, yet has entered into the world of shallowness: Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins - Rupert Everett

Posted by Richard D. North

Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins
by Rupert Everett
London: Little, Brown, 2006
Hardback, £18.99

If ever a book cried out for a timeline and an index, it is Rupert Everett's extraordinary autobiography. A timeline because his career has been so varied, but above all confusingly patchy. And an index because this is the socialiser, one might say, from hell.

A friend marries Bryan Ferry so Rupert goes off on a New Year's holiday on Barbados with a crew which includes the crooner (crotchety) and Isabella Blow, the fashionista, only to be thrown off the gig and to end up broke in LA (at the Château, mind you) with a crew which includes Helmut Newton. He's gay (for all I know, you have been on a desert island for the last few years) but steals Susan Sarandon from a mutual friend and a bit later ("my final heterosexual love tryst") shacks up with the latest, hottest French starlet, Béatrice Dalle (just re-entering Earth's orbit after her success in Betty Blue, 1986).

There are a couple of organising principles, however. Firstly, he loves the world of fashion, photography and the glossies. Secondly, directors - perhaps especially directors with eccentric projects - know that he can stand and deliver. Or ride a horse and deliver in the case of And Quiet Flows the Don (2004) filmed in the steppes and pretty well only shown on TV there.

Everett is not exactly an under-rated actor but you can see why he hasn't been a huge mainstream success either. It's not that he's in a camp ghetto: he did well as a nasty straight public school shit in Julian Fellowes' nostalgic Brit-thriller, Separate Lies (2005). And he managed to be more the aesthete than the poof (more mannered than camp) in a strong account of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband (1999). But he is built like a snake: as he says,

no arse or arms or chest or shoulders.
He is a very gifted performer. The Wilde reinforced the message we got from his co-starring role with Julia Roberts in My Best Friend's Wedding (1997). The faltering rom-com reliably came alight when he was on the screen: he conveyed wit and energy and style with every flicker. He even sang well. People tend not to admire The Next Best Thing (2000) but it was deftly done at least in parts and both Madonna and Everett were attractive. He has perhaps struggled to portray warmth or vulnerability and to that extent he may be condemned to a narrow range of offers. Age may become him better than youth did.

This book, though, is something else. It is way beyond being interesting merely because his life would be absorbing even if it was written by a word-blind dolt. Everett is a novelist, but he is excellently un-literary, at least here. Rather, he writes as though he couldn't help finding himself intriguing, is used to showing off, and wonders if we might not be interested, too. He is that ideal: a memoir-writer who knows that everything he saw was extraordinary and yet typical of his age, and that his role might not have been pivotal but not merely observational either.

It is common to say that a piece of work is "honest" because it is revealing, or self-critical. But Everett seems to do better than that: he is crisp: neither self-pitying nor self-congratulatory. So here, in all the gossip about Versace (seen here usually as a Miami host) or Julie Andrews (Everett's childhood fantasy mother and later a co-star), and all the low-life and high-life encounters with every class of tart and châtelaine, there is not merely an appetite for the peculiar or the picaresque, there is the vividness of a life which wasn't lived so as to be recounted. He isn't a voyeur, or brilliantly conveys that he isn't one. Unlike a journalist or a novelist, he doesn't enjoy the bad stuff on the basis that at least it's good copy.

Of course, he's desperately ambitious, but he gets so much failure in return that there is comedy there too. Some of the best writing is about amazing acting experiences which produced the makings of what he thought were perfectly good films which have never seen the light of day. Along the way, he drops us sharp details about how latter-day Hollywood works, and is especially tart on his own failures as a power-broker. You probably won't forget his account of the smelly mannishness of the leading ladies he plays alongside as they burn oceans of starry rocket fuel.

There is nothing odd about being intelligent and also either an actor or fashionable. Plenty of people are bright and like clothes and the camera. Everett is rare in having been a male model and an actor, though plenty of females have done both. (He combined them in a role in the too-easily-dismissed Prêt à Porter, 1994.) Where he is very rare, I think, is in his being bright and yet really entering into the world of shallowness. He hangs out with the Versace's and Lagerfeld, say, and you don't get the feeling that he holds anything back: he's not thinking they are in any sense ridiculous but great fun, or amusing as objects of observation. Rather, they are his world.

This is a good point to mention the homosexual bit. We are largely spared eye-watering non-gynaecological detail and instead hear about lovers and encounters without the pitfalls of feyness, gay pride or evasion. But this is at least as good a memoir of homosexual love as is, say, the remarkable A Young Man's Passage (2005) by Julian Clary. But then, Everett is not defined by queerness, nor stuck in it, in quite the way that it is Clary's tragedy to be.

Everett is an adventurous man, and being so provides some of his very best pages. In Colombia and Manaus (Brazil), he loves his river trips - the latter, movingly, with his very English father:

there we were, an old man gently snoring in his cabin and a son unable to sleep on the deck.
On the steppes he enjoys living in a log shack and riding out for miles,
the dogs too cold to bark.
He lives happily in eccentric houses in the Hollywood hills or - less cheerfully - behind St Tropez, being ripped off by the French he employs. These are only the most obvious examples of a certain sort of courage, and the stories are told with the understatement which makes them all the more attractive.

People may return to this book to understand Everett's life or his times. They will be richly rewarded.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and the just published Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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