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    Off the Wahl: Genius at Work

    By Jan Wahl–

    I have had love affairs with Oscar Wilde and Somerset Maugham for most of my life. As a teen, both took on me on trips of adventure, fantasy, and lust. When I discovered Wilde’s spooky The Picture of Dorian Gray, suddenly every gorgeous phony (and there were a lot of them where I grew up in showbiz land) made sense to me. Maugham’s tortured women in Rain and The Letter not only were thrilling but also took me to exotic places I would someday visit.

    Surprisingly, there are truly wonderful movies made from their remarkable books, short stories, and plays. I will look at those in a moment, since an evening with Wilde and Maugham is something quite amazing. But let’s begin with an expert on these two, popular performer and playwright John Fisher, who is the Executive Director of Theatre Rhinoceros.

    Regarding Wilde and Maugham, Fisher told me for the San Francisco Bay Times: “Though both of these men are gay icons today, they lived as bisexuals at one time. Both were married to women and had children, providing well for their families. Their lives interconnected when young Maugham experienced Wilde’s trial, horrified at the persecution of the artist and genius who stood up as a proud homosexual.  Like many, Maugham left England at that time, never to return.”

    While many of us know Wilde and pay homage every time we see his name on the Castro’s Rainbow Honor Walk, Maugham is often overlooked. I am captivated by two favorites: The Razor’s Edge and The Painted Veil

    John agrees. “The Razor’s Edge was so far ahead of its time,” he said. “Maugham created a true flower child way before the sixties, a protagonist who is bisexual and searching for meaning in his life. He would have journeyed to the Castro and to the Haight if he had lived in our time. He traveled to India and all over the world, returning to childhood friends.”

    He continued, “The Painted Veil takes place at the edge of the world, reflecting Maugham’s years living in China. A couple lives in desolation and discovers themselves while doing so. This was made into a wonderful film a few years ago, starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts.”

    John and I both got excited speaking about our favorite movie about Oscar Wilde, Wilde, starring the magnificent Stephen Fry as Oscar.

    John said, “This performance captured Wilde perfectly, including his inability to read the signs of his own pride at being in love with a man. At the top of his career, Wilde wanted the world to know that his love was pure and gorgeous. He felt entitled and anytime you feel entitled, you are in trouble. The famous trial took him down, he went to prison, and his life after was destroyed.  I visited his grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Go past Jim Morrison’s and there is a large monument with kisses all over it. I love Wilde and my favorite saying of his is when he was showing his passport to officials and they asked him what he had to declare: ‘I have nothing to declare except my genius.'”

    There are so many great Wilde quotes, my own favorite being, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”  I’m looking at a photo over my computer of me at the Oscar Wilde statue in Dublin. It’s a large rock with Oscar in his smoking jacket overlooking the world. Fabulous. Do not miss it, across the street from his alma mater, Trinity College.

    John makes it clear that both men had totally different trajectories: “Maugham was determined to make a lot of money so he could be free. He wanted to be able to protect himself and not let a government persecute him. He led a great life of adventure (even was a spy in pre-revolutionary Russia) and the arts, dying at 91 living big on the French Riviera.”

    Most of us know what happened to our dear Oscar, and it still breaks my heart.

    John Fisher is a raconteur, a storyteller who performs his passion for characters like G.B. Shaw, Robert Preston, and Modjeska. He takes us on his travels and philosophies, including that George Washington was gay. “Performance and culture are essential in our world,” he said. Check out his website at

    I also recommend finding some great movies from Oscar and Maugham, two geniuses. Maugham: Being Julia, Up at the Villa, The Letter, The Razor’s Edge (original!), Of Human Bondage, The Painted Veil, and Rain. Wilde gives us The Canterville Ghost (Charles Laughton brilliance!), The Importance of Being Ernest, The Ideal Husband, and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

    Jan Wahl is a Hollywood historian, film critic on various broadcast outlets, and has her own YouTube channel series, “Jan Wahl Showbiz.” She has two Emmys and many awards for her longtime work on behalf of film buffs and the LGBTQ community. Contact her at

    Published on September 9, 2021