The Wickedest Woman in Paris

Colm Tóibín

  • BuyRed Carpets and Other Banana Skins by Rupert Everett
    Abacus, 406 pp, £7.99, July 2007, ISBN 978 0 349 12058 4

In listing Rupert Everett’s offences against decency, decorum and respect for his betters, it is hard to know where to start. For example, he is filled with pride over the telephone hoaxes which he – out of work and idle more often than not – in the company of a woman called Min Hogg, perpetrated against people who were, one presumes, rich and famous for very good reasons. ‘Our idea,’ he writes, ‘of an enjoyable night at home was to get on the phone to rich and famous people whose numbers we knew . . . pretending to be the Water Board, and ask them to turn on all their cold taps because there was a “build-up in pressure” under their house, with a risk of explosion.’ He and his friend would give them the number of other celebrities, pretending it was the emergency number of the Water Board, to call when the taps had finally run dry. Often, they gave them the number of poor Lord Snowdon.

Sometimes this was done out of sheer unpleasantness, but the night it went wrong it was done for pettier motives. Nona Summers, a society hostess, was that evening minding her own business in her own nice home in the company of Jack Nicholson and three hundred others. She had, understandably, drawn the line at Rupert and Min, who seem to have been upset by this. Rupert’s idea of a Water Board worker was a man with an Irish accent. He tried out his ‘vague leprechaun lilt’ on Nona Summers, who explained that she was not an ordinary subscriber to the Water Board, but a person who owned a house with many, many taps. They would all have to be turned on, Rupert insisted, and the taps of all the houses in the street, adding that he was having trouble making contact with some of the neighbours, thus forcing Nona Summers and her husband to go out and wake everyone up on their street, alerting also the management of Gateways, ‘an ancient lesbian club on the corner’.

The Summers couple eventually grew suspicious and, much alarmed by the Irish accent, evacuated their three hundred guests, leaving Jack Nicholson to end up ‘dancing the night away with a couple of lesbians at Gateways’. This time, however, Rupert had not given Lord Snowdon’s number but the number he was actually calling from, which belonged to Robert Fox and his wife, Celestia. Fox was arrested. ‘Robert’s been arrested,’ his wife said when she rang Rupert and Min. ‘We were just going to bed, and the doorbell rang. Twelve policemen burst into the house and pinned Robert to the wall. Now he’s in prison, but I don’t know where. What shall I do?’

Rupert Everett, it is clear, has no respect for the living, however eminent. Take Mike Newell, who wanted Rupert to do a bit of work for the role of David Blakely, the guy killed by Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England. Newell wanted to see Rupert’s pain. But, as Rupert himself admits, he was ‘a riddle as an actor. On screen, I had a lot of “feeling” but I couldn’t really act. On stage I could act, but people said I had no depth.’ Newell was having none of this. ‘I want to see the agony,’ he said. Later, Rupert managed to drive over Newell’s foot just as Newell was telling him once more that he wasn’t seeing the pain: ‘“Ahhhh!” he bellowed right in my ear, like a bear in a trap. I quickly reversed and ran it over again.’ But it all ended happily: ‘For all the problems during shooting – and I was a cunt – Dance with a Stranger was a great film.’

Then there was the time when Laurence Olivier died, and Rupert was performing in Noël Coward’s play The Vortex with my friend Maria Aitken. At the end of the performance on the night in question, Maria called for three minutes’ silence in honour of the great actor. It is not hard to imagine what happened next. ‘All of us knew,’ Rupert writes, ‘that we would never work again if we started laughing on the night Larry popped his clogs.’ After one minute, Rupert became aware, however, that the body of one of his fellow actors, Anne Lambton,

was shaking like a spin-dryer next to me . . . Soon I was shaking, too . . . Tears were streaming down our faces but we were just about under control when a lady in the audience said: ‘Ahh, those two must have been really fond of him.’ That our mirth had been mistaken for grief had never occurred to us, and I’m afraid we began to howl with laughter. The audience watched us with deep sympathy. Maria stared ahead with a pained expression, and mercifully the three minutes came to an end as the lights faded dramatically in the entire theatre to pitch black. Anne and I were crying so much we couldn’t find our way off the stage, so that when the lights came back up we were still there, arms outstretched, banging into the furniture, wailing like Russian women around a grave.

So Rupert has no respect for the living or the dead. Normally, however, people of his sort turn out to have, as compensation, immense respect for something else – their audience, perhaps, or in quieter and more solitary moments, for God Almighty. But what is interesting and perhaps novel about Rupert is that he has no respect at all. Take the case of Lorraine and Peter Landau, a couple in Northwood, who took time from what one presumes was a busy schedule to write to Rupert, having seen him in The Vortex, to comment on ‘the audibility of my performance in rather pompous terms’. Rupert opened the letter while ‘deeply hungover from a Tuesday night at the Fridge in Brixton’ and ‘replied to the letter saying that I was “so sorry for the audibility problem and would they please accept my heartfelt apologies”. I then cut a clump of my pubic hair from my groin and sellotaped it to the letter. “And these few pubic hairs, in the hope that they may make up for any inconvenience. Ever yours, Trudie Trumpeter.”’ When the Landaus complained about this, Rupert had his agent issue the following statement: ‘Rupert gets between five hundred and a thousand letters a week, and as you know some fans do ask for some rather strange things. I spoke to Rupert this morning but he doesn’t recollect having any requests for pubic hair from Northwood.’

In the midst of all his frolicking Rupert remained a Catholic. As everyone knows, one of the great comforts that Catholics have at their disposal is the sacrament of confession, and there can be nothing lovelier than receiving absolution from the priest and a small penance and leaving the church with what is known as ‘a firm purpose of amendment’ and a soul free of the stain of sin. To abuse such a comfort is very serious. Rupert was playing a violinist in Duet for One, a film based on the life of Jacqueline du Pré, and

after almost a year of failing to get anywhere in Hollywood, I decided to try the ‘method’ approach. I borrowed a jacket from Adam Ant and modelled my character on the latest prodigy on the violin scene, a rockabilly called Nigel Kennedy. I developed a quiff and a nasal Bromley twang, wore my costume at home and at work, and never came out of character, even when going to confession at the Holy Redeemer in Cheyne Row. My fake London accent couldn’t have been that successful because the priest peeked out from behind the curtain. ‘I thought it was you,’ he said, before disappearing back inside.

It should be pointed out to readers not of the Catholic faith that the priest in the moment of hearing confession represents God himself, and has full God-like powers to absolve sin. There is no mention in the Bible of what punishment awaits people, including method actors, who put on funny accents in the confession box. Such a sin was, one presumes, something which even God himself, at the time of writing the Bible, could not imagine. As a child Rupert Everett ‘wanted to be a saint with my own basilica’. This, he can be assured, is now unlikely to happen.

I have to admit that before I read this book I wasn’t quite sure who Rupert Everett was. I was writing books, it seems, in the years when he was doing his main cavorting. In my head I had him slightly mixed up with Kenny Everett, who was a disc jockey during my youth; Rupert, it turns out, is no relation, though they both made films (Kenny’s was called Bloodbath at the House of Death) and did voiceover in animations, and they both announced themselves homosexual in the second half of the 1970s, being both admirers of Julie Andrews.

One of the reasons I have never heard of him much is that Rupert Everett has, in fact, made very few films; his autobiography is mainly an account of the huge amount of time and equivalent amount of fun he has had in between these films. Often, the films he has made have been very bad indeed, and he, as he himself admits, was often either the reason why they were bad, or at least the worst thing in them. I do remember, however, seeing him being caned in Another Country and feeling rather pleased about it and wondering if the scene were faked or if, it being England, they really did smack him. I remember at the time wishing they had given him more.

He was born into a nice home in 1959. So nice indeed was his home that when he heard rough boys shouting, ‘Show us your quim, Karen,’ and asked his mother what a quim was, she replied: ‘Your little toe, I think.’ He took to theatricals in school and soon had disreputable and bohemian friends. It has to be said that Rupert’s ghost-writer does a very good job of describing London in the late 1970s, when Rupert began to have a whale of a time in gay bars, helped along by what he calls ‘my brief foray into commerce’ – i.e. his time as a rent boy. It was, after all, the beginning of the Thatcher-Tebbit era, when commerce was all the rage.

Having taken London, Rupert took Paris, his mother having found him a nice family with whom he could learn French. His host was ‘very Chirac, a bull of a man with dyed black hair and big murderer’s hands. I could imagine Madame’ – the man’s wife – ‘dropping her coat on the floor and walking obediently to the bedroom, nude on her heels, as Monsieur followed, with his big fat cock sticking out of his suit.’ Soon, he discovered the Bois de Boulogne and a Brazilian hooker called Delphine. She asked the ‘English baby’ if he ‘wanted to get fucked by Delphine . . . And she opened the coat and revealed, straining against [a] tiger-skin bikini, an enormous cock. “And baby, don’t ever forget. I got sugar too,” she added, turning around to reveal a thin flat bum.’

Rupert would often ‘spend the afternoon in the cab of the truck and listen to her spanking businessmen; she would insult them in Portuguese, but she had a terrible cough and sometimes when she got carried away, the whole thing would turn into a tubercular fit and she would have to call off the show.’ One night he nearly met Yves Saint Laurent, Rudolf Nureyev, Andy Warhol, Catherine Deneuve and someone called Betty Catroux. In fact, on the dancefloor, Nureyev took his hand and twirled him round and round for what, he tells us (and it must be so), ‘seemed like an eternity’.

Then Rupert went to drama school, where they found that he was so upper class that he could not pronounce ‘O’. He began to stalk Ian McKellen and got a job tearing tickets in a production of Macbeth at the Donmar Warehouse starring McKellen and Judi Dench. He ‘stole half the money I made selling the programmes’ and caused the star grief by staring at him through a crack in a curtain ‘as his clothes were torn from him by the little witches in their dirty lace mittens’. Eventually, it seems, he had an affair with McKellen, but he manages to go all coy on us about it at the same moment as his ghost goes all twee. (I mean, what was McKellen like? Come on, guys.)

Soon, he is describing another night out, with Lady Diana Cooper, Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger. (‘And so I became friends with Bianca Jagger. She was beautiful. She’d just cut her hair short and was wearing a green Halston trouser suit.’) Next on the list are Bob Geldof and Paula Yates:

According to Alan [Parker], Bob had a cock so big that he needed a wheelbarrow to carry it around in . . . But one didn’t need to have coffee with Alan Parker to know that Bob had a big dick. Everything about him announced the fact: the incredibly thin body, the large pushy nose, the jungle smell of the man and, of course, the delight he evidently felt at the sound of his own voice, this was not the neurotic missionary zeal of a man with a button dick. Oh, no! Bob felt the unbridled joy of a stallion cantering around a field of long grass.

Paula, on the other hand, was ‘like one of those hairless cats with a tuft’. She became one of the many women for whom Rupert fell during these years and he talks about her with awed affection and tenderness. (‘Abandonment and tearful farewells made her feel cosy.’) By this time Another Country had opened and Rupert’s name was, yes, you guessed, ‘in lights’. Instantly, however, when he makes such a statement, you can almost see him and his ghost looking at each other and wondering if the phrase could be improved on. ‘Actually it wasn’t,’ they decide to add, ‘but my face (or one of them) surveyed Shaftesbury Avenue with a haughty regard.’

The marvellous thing about Rupert is how quickly he got bored; he had a need to make a mess of everything that went on for too long. During the run of Another Country: ‘You stared at yourself glumly in the mirror. Only last month those naked light bulbs around the edge were the symbol of everything you loved. Now you wanted to take them out one by one and eat them.’ His charm did not always work either, mainly because he used it only on state occasions. He wished to use it on Franco Zeffirelli, for example, and arrived at a ball ‘dressed from head to foot in black leather and proceeded to scour the house for a sighting of the great maestro fairy. Sadly, when at last he approached me, I had no idea whom I was talking to and simply thought, in the arrogance of youth, that he was just another antique dealer friend of Maria [St Just]’s who was trying to get into my pants. I glanced down my nose at him a couple of times.’

Soon, ‘it was the hot July of 1983, Mrs Thatcher was on her throne, and I was climbing onto mine, for the most productive year of my career.’ It was the movie of Another Country:

A boy in the art department dealt coke and marijuana, and we all lay in the sun between scenes in our cricket clothes, or if there was time we walked to the village pub, and we dreamed out loud of the future and how famous we would become, and what we were going to do with everyone once we were. We lazily compiled lists of people who were going to be cut dead as Colin Firth strummed his guitar, pretending not to listen . . . At first I quite fancied him, until he produced that guitar and began to sing protest songs between scenes. ‘There are limits!’ said Freddy [Piers Flint-Shipman, one of the other actors], when ‘Lemon Tree, Very Pretty’ began. Colin was visibly pained by our superficiality.

Later, Rupert got further revenge when he worked with Firth on The Importance of Being Earnest. ‘As part of my research, I was smoking a lot of pot . . . Strictly for the role, of course, and I was always trying to persuade Frothy, as I now called him, or Collywobbles, that he would find the day less boring . . . if he had a puff or two.’ Finally, Firth agreed, only for the set to be visited by Harvey Weinstein:

He defiantly took another couple of puffs, as he chatted to a bemused Harvey, before handing the joint to me.

‘Here, Rupert. Do you want this?’ he said in his coolest voice.

‘Actually, no thanks, Colin,’ I replied in my most understanding voice. ‘I’d love to another time, but I just can’t do it while I’m working. I wish I could. I’m so envious that you can get high and still work.’

How they laughed!

All this is small beer compared with Madonna:

I had met many stars. At 17 I had sat with David Bowie downstairs at the Embassy Club and been lectured on the mystical potential hidden in the number seven. At 18 I had dined at La Coupole in Paris with Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger. I had sniffed poppers with Hardy Amies on the dance floor of Munkberrys. I had done blow with Steve Rubell and Halston at Studio 54 . . . Yet everything was a pale imitation of the impact Madonna had as she walked from a car across a sidewalk and into a restaurant. Even before she arrived, as I was still sitting there waiting with Sean and Mel, there was a flurry outside. Two people knocked against the window of the restaurant, like leaves in a strong gust of wind that blew open the door, and the Immaculate Conception was among us.

It gets better. ‘She was raucous but poised, elegant but common. She had the cupid-bow lips of a silent screen star, and it was obvious that she was playing with Sean’s cock throughout the meal.’ And better: ‘In those early years there was no male who would not fuck her.’ And better again: ‘Time stands still for a superstar.’

Some of Rupert’s best writing, however, is not about Madonna, God bless her, but about a baboon he met while filming in Colombia. His mother was visiting him at the time, as was his friend Frances. (One can only say about his mother that her shock and suffering on reading this book must compare with that of the Virgin Mary when she was finally shown, after her Assumption into heaven, the most lurid, blood-soaked parts of the New Testament.) Breakfast at the bar at the port was known as ‘blanco y nero’, which meant a line of coke and a strong cup of coffee. One day some men came in with a baboon they wanted to sell. His mother warned him not to buy it:

We bought it, and even though Mother is always right, he was the sweetest thing. He was christened Rupi . . . and he immediately adopted Frances and me as Daddy and Mummy baboon, clinging to our necks with his little hands and winding his tail around our larynxes. Sometimes he nibbled our ears, which was sweet. At other times he had a lovely long pee down our backs. And if you were lucky he made a dirty protest.

Rupert pointed out to his mother that when you removed Rupi ‘he screamed like a little baby and held on to your hair with all his might’ and that this reminded him of ‘myself going away to school’. His mother replied: ‘Don’t bore me, darling. It wasn’t a bit like that.’

In 1986, Rupert made a film with Bob Dylan called Hearts of Fire which ‘brought my career to a standstill’. On set, Dylan

didn’t go to bed like a normal person. He slept for a few hours and then pottered and then slept again . . . he might just have gone to bed at the time of his morning call. If so, it would be hard to move him. He would come into the trailer and collapse into the make-up chair, like a wild animal that had been shot with a tranquilliser . . . He had beautiful hands, twenty years younger than the rest of his body . . . He never said a bad word about anyone. Actually he never said a word.

When he came to do a concert as part of the film, Dylan was too drunk and had to be led onto the stage. (‘I always have girls take me onto the stage,’ he said to the director.) When Rupert came on to sing he got an erection. ‘Fans jumped up onto the stage and tried to rape me. I just stood there as roadies beat them to a pulp at my feet and dragged them off. I was nearing orgasm . . . I never saw Bob again. He didn’t attend the bloodbath of a première in London.’

‘I had always been considered a talentless nob,’ poor Rupert wails, ‘but now there was proof.’ What was he going to do? He went to live in France and later spent some time in Russia, where he made another of his disastrous films, a version of the novel And Quiet Flows the Don:

There had been five deaths and four weddings during the making of the film, and quite a few girls had become lesbians. The man who operated the wind machine, an old aeroplane propeller, was decapitated by it one morning outside Moscow. We watched his head fly across the sky and land in the snow, which turned crimson around it . . . The footage ended up in a bank vault in Naples.

Soon, he was back in Paris working with Robert Altman on Prêt-à-Porter. It was during this shoot, as he bitched about another actor, that the wisest and most true thing that has ever been said to Rupert Everett was uttered to him by Betty Bacall: ‘You are the wickedest woman in Paris.’

Next, it was Miami, and then a script arrived that made Rupert think he ‘had finally arrived at the end of the road’. It was called My Best Friend’s Wedding. In the script he had three lines. Then he got some more. They made him do a test. Then they asked for another. He refused. His agent had to convince them he was the guy for the part. And then, suddenly, after such disaster: ‘The shoot of My Best Friend’s Wedding was one of those enchanted times for me, where the prevailing winds were in my favour.’

Taking advantage of these winds, he writes beautifully about Julia Roberts:

Sometimes on a Friday night at the end of work, she would give me a ride back to New York on the Sony jet. Then I witnessed the whole machine grind into action, the grandeur of Hollywood in transporting its livestock from A to B. With a cocktail in a cut glass, wearing a towelling robe, she would hop barefoot with wet hair from the trailer to the car. The only baggage was the key to her apartment and her newly acquired gay confidant . . . The Mistresses of the Universe often end up with their trainers, and Julia was going out with hers, a man called Patrick. I was fascinated by these powerful women. Instead of being the escorts of presidents, they ended up marrying their hairdressers. They were the fairy princesses trapped inside ivory towers. They only met co-stars and staff.

Like Madonna, Julia smelt vaguely of sweat, which I thought was very sexy. There is a male quality to the female superstar. There has to be . . . She must learn to fuck them before they fuck her if she is to survive, so she becomes a kind of she-man, a beautiful woman with invisible balls. In her personal relationships, after sex with a man, she quite possibly fights the desire to eat him.

Then there was a movie with Madonna called The Next Best Thing, about which one of the reviews said: ‘Rupert Everett’s performance has all the energy of a pet rock.’ It, Rupert writes, ‘turned my pubic hair white overnight’.

Rupert remained a celebrity despite the new colour of his pubic hair; he writes well about his work for charity, his visits to plague-ridden territories (‘the girls from Oxfam told me that I was the second most difficult celebrity they had ever had’), his efforts to forget what he saw and then his further efforts to do something practical about it. In his attempts to lobby politicians about Aids, he met an aide to Senator John McCain, indifferent to the issue he had come to raise. ‘Her voice was so high,’ he writes, ‘it could only be heard by bats.’

Despite his general sweetness and his social conscience, Rupert remains lovable to the end of this book. When Sharon Stone suggested him for the male lead in the sequel to Basic Instinct, MGM said that the American people would never accept a homosexual as anything other than a pervert, and thus neither would MGM. Everybody was horrified. But they were only horrified for a day or two, except Sharon Stone, who remained horrified and wanted to sue MGM. Instead, she worked with Rupert on A Different Loyalty, a film about Kim Philby and his third wife. There were problems with the dialogue. ‘All of this, however, paled into insignificance,’ Rupert writes, ‘when, at dinner with Sharon early in the rehearsal period, I realised something that had hitherto escaped me. She was utterly unhinged.’

She wanted to know if Rupert had ‘let his character in’ yet. Rupert said he had, sort of. Sharon then made clear that the third Mrs Philby had entered her spirit: ‘Man, she came into me last night,’ she said. Then Sharon ‘banged her chest with her fist, then opened her fingers and grabbed one of her breasts, shaking it with passion. A man at the next table nearly fell off his chair.’ In the film Casino, Sharon explained, just before the mad scene, ‘she came inside me while I was in the trailer.’ Rupert replied: ‘Not very safe! We call that barebacking.’

Then Rupert and Sharon had to have sex. It was in the script.

We were lying naked on a bed in a pool of light from a forest of lamps. I was on top of Sharon, lying between her legs. We both smoked a cigarette, while Sharon’s hairdresser rubbed ice cubes on her nipples and Pat covered up a few spots on my bum . . . Someone measured the distance between the camera and Sharon’s pussy . . . After icing Sharon’s nipples, the hairdresser blow-dried them with his hairdryer.

‘Go in and out real slow,’ Sharon said to Rupert, who replied: ‘Oh my God, now I know why I’m gay.’ As their eyes ‘sparkled with manufactured love’, Sharon looked at Rupert adoringly. ‘Hon,’ she said. ‘I can turn a gay man straight in five minutes.’

Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins is an interesting portrait of someone who believes in celebrity slowly becoming one himself. It is also a picture of an age, presided over by Warhol and Versace on one side of the fence and Thatcher and her kind on the other, with Rupert climbing on top of the fence to see which side of the Atlantic, or which party, or which new friend or lover or city, might offer him most fun. In Rupert’s account, in the middle of all the fun, there is loss everywhere, and this gives the book a sort of gravity, makes it more than a very well-written romp through what must be often-told anecdotes and all the terrible roles and tedious films I played in, darling. As Rupert remembers men having sex with each other to the strains of Gloria Gaynor singing ‘I Will Survive,’ he comments chillingly: ‘Many of them wouldn’t.’ The arrival of Aids, its first appearance, is narrated with real fear.

But friends, such as Versace and poor doomed Delphine from the Bois de Boulogne, die for other reasons too. The death of Paula Yates is a dark business here, and her funeral is brightened only by the picture of Annie Lennox walking ‘up and down at the end of the garden, all alone, looking like The Scream by Munch’. Rupert manages to weave death into his narrative as another aspect of things, and does this without being glib or maudlin. A good ghost-writer, it should be said, is a joy for ever.