Youth and beauty are lovely while they last, but, alas, they can become an obsession in life’s middle years.
It’s not a battle easily won. Even in an era of Botox and Restylane, keeping up a youthful appearance is tough slogging.
Except if you’re Dorian Gray. Dorian is the titular character of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, a tale about a man who never ages. It was the Irish playwright’s only novel, and it has been adapted for the screen several times over the past 100 years.
Now, Sanders doesn’t portray Dorian Gray; that part is played by Hurd Hatfield, who gives us an aloof and unsympathetic – yet utterly fascinating – character.
Dorian G. is a young man with looks, money, and a fabulous wardrobe. When we first meet him, we note his youthful and innocent appearance, but that is only Skin Deep. Dorian G. is easily manipulated and, as it turns out, easily corrupted.
The corrupting influence is a new acquaintance (Sanders), a titled Englishman with a mutual friend: the artist who has just finished painting Dorian’s portrait.
Sanders’s character is a hypocrite. He spouts inflammatory (and witty) opinions, but his behaviour doesn’t really stray outside acceptable social norms.
Yet he is dangerous. He likes to push people into situations he would never venture himself, then shrugs away any responsibility.
He goes to work on Dorian G. during their first meeting, when the portrait is presented as complete, and the young man gazes upon it with Sadness and Regret. Indeed, he’s envious of the painting because it captures him in a moment of perfect youth; while he himself will age, the portrait will remain unchanged, taunting him.
Naturally, this longing does not escape Sanders’s notice, and he begins to rhapsodize about the brevity of youth, how it’s the only thing worth having, et cetera.
Dorian agonizes over the painting. If only he could remain at this age forever while the portrait does the aging for him!
So, instead of realizing he needs to Get Over himself, Dorian G. is given his wish.
Here’s the thing: Dorian G. and the portrait are intertwined. One is integral to the other.
As Dorian ages and explores unsavoury aspects of his character, he remains as youthful and handsome as ever, although he doesn’t cultivate charm or an interest in his fellow man. His interest is in himself.
Some marvel at Dorian’s unchanging youthfulness. They attribute his countenance to a virtuous life, which is très amusing because Dorian G. lives a life that is anything but wholesome. He frequents places that his friends – Sanders included – find scandalous. (Note: These things are merely hinted at in the film, because the script is unconcerned with such details. It is dedicated to Dorian’s narcissism.)
Dorian’s secret is the portrait, his surrogate in aging. The figure in the painting bears the weight of Dorian’s lifestyle, and it reveals the damage to his soul. Judging by the revisions in the portrait, it’s been quite a ride.
The first change we see is when Dorian G. uses, then dumps, a young girl (Angela Lansbury). It’s a slight change to the expression in the portrait, but there’s no mistaking the “lines of cruelty about the mouth.” Dorian then locks the painting away and fires any household staff who might have noticed it.
Over the years, Dorian G. has occasional periods of self-loathing where he pledges to Reform. He isolates himself and studies the portrait, but, the film asks, does he study it for signs of sin, or signs of age?
Regardless, the brief periods of contrition subside and Dorian returns to his usual haunts. Why should he change? He lacks charisma, but he does possess eternal youth and beauty, which excuse him from treating others justly.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is nearly a perfect film, in our opinion. The story is suited to the gorgeous black-and white MGM treatment, with occasional interjections of colour.
It captures the feel of Wilde’s novel, we think, even though it takes liberties with the story. But it preserves Wilde’s wit and his societal criticisms. It’s drama with a Message, but there are some very funny lines, courtesy of our pal Sanders.
The film won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, and was nominated for Best Art Direction and Best Supporting Actress for Lansbury.
Please give The Picture of Dorian Gray a go. Like any truly great literature, Wilde’s story is timeless and captivating.
This post is part of The CLASSIC LITERATURE ON FILM Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screen Classics.
The Picture of Dorian Gray: starring George Sanders, Hurd Hatfield, Donna Reed. Written & directed by Albert Lewin. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1945, B&W, 110 mins.