My initial reaction on learning that Rupert Everett had an autobiography out was to wonder whether an actor (and not an exceptionally high-profile actor at that) should be publishing a memoir of his life at just age 47. But Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins becomes easier to assimilate once you’ve read the first couple of chapters. Everett, it turns out, is a talented writer (he’s produced two moderately well-received novels before this one) and his book, written in a novelistic style, is as much a record of a colourful era in British theatre and film as it is a personal life-history. The absence of an index of names at the end (a pre-requisite for most memoirs) is the first hint that this isn’t a conventional autobiography; it can be read as a coming-of-age story featuring real-life personalities.
The story begins with a fascinated young Rupert watching his first film (Mary Poppins) and then takes us through his life: a vivid description of first day at boarding school; his first major role in a play (Titania, Queen of the Fairies – an amusing bit of casting, given the direction his life would later take); a blissful three months spent in Paris as an adolescent, where he mingled with the likes of Rudolph Nureyev, Yves Saint Laurent and Andy Warhol; and his foray into serious theatre back in London.
To the average Indian moviegoer, better acquainted with Hollywood than with British cinema or theatre, Everett is probably best known for roles he has played in American films in the last decade, including the Julia Roberts-Cameron Diaz starrer My Best Friend’s Wedding and the Madonna turkey The Next Best Thing. However, his career goes back a long way, and this book is populated by anecdotes from stage and screen – such as the account of him and his fellow actors cracking up in front of a stiff upper-lipped audience when it was announced that Sir Laurence Olivier had died (“laughing onstage when you ought not to is more enjoyable than orgasm, scoring a goal, taking communion, or all of them together”). Or the many entertaining pen-portraits: of Orson Welles (“He was a cobra, a Bond villain and a Buddha. I was mesmerised”) and Bob Dylan (“On the odd occasions when he did talk, it sounded like a lyric. ‘Where’s the toilet?’ sounded as interesting as ‘Lay across my big brass bed’. But he had a hard time remembering his lines and it was touching to be with him during a scene”), among others.
The most notable thing about the writing is Everett’s talent for deconstructing the celebrity machinery. Perhaps because he never became a superstar himself, it was easier for him to chronicle events dispassionately, from the perspective of an outsider looking in. Starting with its title, one expects that this book is going to be a caustic account of life in show-business - a commentary on the fleeting nature of fame and the many foibles of a public life, full of clever analogies and biting observations. And it is all of this, but what one doesn't anticipate are the many moving passages, such as the one where he looks back on a career pinnacle, the success of the play Another Country, and reflects that “on the night a whole future seems to be sitting in the palm of your hand, but the further away in time you move from a moment of triumph, the hollower it becomes. Soon it seems to be no more than the precursor for the next period of struggle…” Or his tributes to the many friends and lovers who died young and unhappy. Or even the tenderness of his observations on life with a beloved animal (his dog Mo, a steadfast companion for 12 years): “It’s a strange and extraordinary thing, life with an animal. When one comes into your life it is so young, so full of energy, and you are old by comparison… As he gets older you become younger, so that in the end he is a grandfather and you are a thoughtless child. In denial of his great age you force him to do things, to keep going and he looks at you with the eyes of an elder, sitting in the shade of the village oak…but he still obeys instructions…”
As a young man coming to terms with his bisexuality, Everett was also part of the growing gay subculture in Thatcher’s England, and privy to that community’s worries about ostracism and the terror of a rapidly spreading cancer called AIDS, which seemed meant only for them: “With the discovery that sex could kill, and in those days specifically gay sex, a new reflex in society was born. Little things: parents held their children closer when you were around; your plate was separately washed in a kitchen after lunch…” These experiences probably account for some of the empathy in his writing. However, this doesn’t mean he can’t joke about some of his exploits – like his stint as a male prostitute in the mid-1970s, which caused quite a stir when he first revealed it in a magazine interview a few years ago (wickedly, Everett quotes a letter from his bank manager of the time, informing him that his debts had been wiped off and encouraging him “to keep up the good work”!).
With a little luck, Everett might have become one of Britain’s biggest stars. Though an actor of limited range, he did wonderfully well when given the right roles – early successes included Dance with a Stranger and the screen version of Another Country. “I should have died in a crash if I had been at all serious about my career,” he writes, alluding to the James Dean story, “my first two movies were classics.” Instead, his career went off track for a few years and it wasn’t until the 1990s that he recovered some ground. No loss. On the evidence of this book (and perhaps others to follow), his contribution as a chronicler of his times might prove nearly as valuable as his acting stints.