Manco’s Movie Reviews: The Picture of Dorian Gray
April 22, 2009
Today’s movie is 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, starring Hurd Hatfield, George Sanders, Donna Reed, Angela Lansbury and Peter Lawford.
The film was based on the 1890 novel by Oscar Wilde. This story continues to be relevant in a day and age where everyone is doing everything they can, no matter how ridiculous the circumstances, to cheat the aging process. I don’t know when aging became a crime, but someone needs to take these slugs aside and point out to them their efforts are meaningless. It’s the fate of every human to grow old and die. You are not special.
We all have a story arc – a beginning, a middle and an end. One is no better than the other, they all serve the purpose of the story. However, many are only interested in the beginning of the story, and they will do whatever it takes to delay the ending as long as possible. These are the health nuts and plastic surgery idiots with their carrot juice and their botox. They tell themselves they’re going to live forever, despite the evidence to the contrary.
There’s an old cemetery not far from my place. Sometimes I take a walk through there. It’s a nice way to remind myself of my mortality. Not that I would ever have myself buried. No, I’m not interested in feeding the worms. Instead, I’m going to be cremated and have my ashes scattered at a location to be named later.
I’ve always found something intriguing about cemeteries. There are usually few people around, it’s quiet, it’s respectful and there are a number of stories throughout the place. Walking through the cemetery you come across names from over the years. Some recent, others long gone. Passing through there recently I came across a grave marked 1890, the year Dorian Gray was published.
Life goes on without us. You, me, all of us, we are insignificant when it comes right down to it. Sure, the assholes of the world like to tell themselves they mean so much, and there are usually buttsniffers there to facilitate that belief, but there were assholes before them and there will probably be assholes of some sort after them. They are not special, no matter how tight they pull their skin back, what they eat, how they dress, their bank account or what they’ve accomplished or failed at. The person occupying the grave from 1890 remains in the world only as a patch of grass, some bones maybe, and a fading tombstone. Probably not the future they had in mind, but a far more plausible future for us all than we care to admit.
Spending time with Moe the other night, who is also trying to avoid the inevitable, reminded me of the story of Dorian Gray, and subsequently led me to watching the 1945 adaptation after not seeing it in some time. I also recommend reading Wilde’s novel, because, as usual, the movie and the novel are quite different in their presentation.
The movie opens with George Sanders as Lord Henry Wotton paying a visit to his friend, the painter Basil Hallward [Lowell Gilmore]. Basil has not been seen in weeks so Lord Henry drops in to see what the fuck’s going on. After all, it isn’t like Basil to miss a social outing or two. He thought they were tighter than that.
It turns out that Basil is hard at work on the portrait of a young, handsome society figure by the name of Dorian Gray [Hurd Hatfield]. Basil thinks this portrait is his greatest work. In fact, he believes that it has been painted by a force guiding his hand. In other words, Basil’s a little hot for Dorian. Lord Henry is also taken by the image in the painting, wishing to meet this young stallion. Lord Henry in some ways represents the Devil in this film. He is a witty, hedonistic and influential man of society who will soon seduce Dorian into following his desires, no matter their consequences on other people.
As Dorian seeks out these pleasures of the flesh and mind, he commits terrible sins against those he loves and himself. These include ruining his romance with a vaudeville singer by the name of Sybl Vane [Angela Lansbury] who then kills herself out of sorrow, murder, defiling men and women, soliciting prostitutes, frequenting opium dens and blackmail. Ah, the joys of living.
As he does this, the portrait that had been painted and given to him by Basil begins to change form, aging and rotting with each sin he commits. The painting is his soul. For on the day when the painting was completed, Dorian, spurred on by the ramblings of Lord Henry, made a wish that he would like to remain young and beautiful while the painting aged. His conviction was so strong he even offered his soul for this to happen, which it did. His soul manifested itself in the painting. And even though Dorian was handsome on the outside, the painting, which he kept locked in a room, increasingly decayed, showing Dorian the damage he had wrought on his soul.
The years pass on with everyone aging but Dorian. People talk about the oddity of Dorian Gray, but they keep it under wraps. After all, Dorian has the dirt on his fellow members of high society. He has seem them at their Victorian naughtiest. Step out of line and he’ll lay their dirtiest secrets bare. People begin to hate Dorian, which seems to delight him more than upset him.
As the years go by, Dorian begins to realize the emptiness and evil he has brought upon himself and others. He seeks to end the cycle of destruction he has wrought by confronting the painting and destroying it. However, when he stabs the painting with a knife, he suddenly feels a knife pierce his own chest and realizes too late that he and the painting are inexorably linked. He falls to the floor dead. Upon discovering his body, it is revealed that he now bears the age and rot of the painting while the painting itself has reverted back to the young image of Dorian from years before.
The movie was a hit upon its release on both sides of the Atlantic, with numerous accolades bestowed upon it. Angela Lansbury was nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting turn as Sybl Vance [She won the Golden Globe for the performance], Harry Stradling, Sr. won for Best Cinematography, and the film was also nominated for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration.
The movie uses a series of paintings, painted specifically for the film, with which to highlight Dorian’s continued descent into the abyss. The paintings were done by Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, an artist well known at the time for his use of the macabre in his work. The painting of Dorian in his degenerative state is now part of the art collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The performances are all solid, particularly George Sanders. One gets the impression that he liked the character of Lord Wotten quite a bit. Also of note is the score by Herbert Stothart, which is very beautiful despite the grimness of the subject matter.
The movie remains a nice slice of Gothic horror, with a tale of vanity, greed and shallowness that unfortunately continues to shine a mirror on this globe of humanity. How many of us truly know the image of our inner self, and would we want to if given the opportunity?