Actor Rupert Everett and The Right Hand Man (1987)

*contains spoilers and strong course language

The fact actor Rupert Everett was gay was an open secret long before he appeared as Julia Robert’s pal in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997). It just took him a long time to come out on the world stage.

Everett probably would have come out on the world stage far earlier had his role in the movie Another Country (1984) been more of a success and that pursuing a gay lifestyle in those days didn’t suffer the taint and stigma of AIDS. As it is, his role as a gay teenager in that film remains ground-breaking in terms of depicting LGBTQ youth and their tolerance in a certain closed environment rather than outright bullying and rejection. The movie almost predicts the LGBTQ wish to exist in a more tolerant world that exists within Another Country.

Quad poster for Another Country (1984)

You see, homosexuality is tolerated in the English public school in Another Country because many of the boys had either a circle jerk or some other type of intimate experience with another of the same sex, even if it wasn’t their preferred or ultimate sexual orientation. Beyond the haven of his school, however, Everett’s gay character in Another Country will encounter snobbery because of his sexuality, something which exists to this day even by those who pretend to be tolerant and accepting of that lifestyle.

A program for the play Another Country

Another Country was based on a play written by Julian Mitchell (1935-) and first premiered in November 1981 at the Greenwich Theatre in London with Everett in the role of Guy Bennett which was loosely based on the British diplomat and Soviet spy Guy Burgess (1911-63). Burgess went to Eton to be educated, where sexual relationships between boys were common before he transferred to Cambridge University where he knew the actor Michael Redgrave (1908-85 Parkinson’s disease) who was “a terrible homosexual. Poor Rachel (his wife) …” according to actress Googie Withers (1917-2011) when I asked her about the actor’s sexual orientation.

Spy and traitor Guy Burgess at university

That aside, spy Burgess never concealed the fact he was gay and visited Russia in his early 20s and upon his return was recruited among other bright students from top universities to spy for the Soviets. Burgess would be one of the Cambridge Five which also included Kim Philby (1912-88) and Donald McLean (1913-83). Burgess and Philby fled to the Soviet Union in 1951. And it is this pair which are a kind of basis for the play Another Country.

Philby, like Burgess, was a Communist, but Philby was straight. With Everett as Guy Bennett and Colin Firth (1960-) in his feature debut as the straight Communist student Tommy Judd, we have our two outsiders within Another Country. Their fates in the movie are quite divergent compared to the lives of the real Communist spies, as Judd will be killed fighting with the Communists against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War… But this is minor detail.

Rupert Everett and Colin Firth strike a pose in Another Country

The title, by the way, is taken from a line in the hymn I Vow to Thee, My Country which is sung in the film and, in terms of the movie, it refers to English public schools in some ways being another country, as well as Guy Bennett’s eventual flight to Russia. Another Country is also a 1962 novel by James Baldwin (1924-87 stomach cancer) which features gay characters. And gay playwright Christopher Marlowe’s (1564-93 stabbed) play The Jew of Malta (c.1590) refers to fornication being another country.

Everett excels and is a natural in his role and you can see why it was considered award material, as he openly pursues his crush on actor Cary Elwes (1962-) between classes at the school where they all board and live. Elwes would later play Westley in The Princess Bride and have a key role in the Saw franchise.

Cary Elwes in the original Saw (2003)

There are those who look back at their school days as idyllic, as does Everett’s character, who has betrayed his country and since fled it. He remembers those school days in a bookended sequence featuring an elderly Bennett in Russian exile speaking to a journalist.

Yes, he was a happy and carefree boy once and didn’t feel the taint of being forever labelled “a fruit, a fairy, a brown-nose…” and in fact, he couldn’t care less… That is the strength of his performance and it dates back to 1984 when homosexuality was still at its peak as being painted as perverted and dirty and even fatal due to the AIDS epidemic.

An unflattering depiction of gay life in Cruising (1980) trailer

The 1980 movie Cruising starring Al Pacino (1940-) had shown the seamy excesses of the gay lifestyle just before the emergence of that deadly disease AIDS which was nicknamed ‘the gay plague’.

Another Country paints a far different picture. Here we have two teenage boys almost spooning in a romantic embrace as they wonder about life and love… There are no girls or women on hand in the school and so it seems only natural in this environment or another country. And while the movie opens with the suicide of a boy who was caught “doing it” with another boy by a teacher, it is not buggery or anal sex which was their crime… but it’s still something the Bible recommends punishment with eternal fire and no entry into the Kingdom of Heaven! I guess it all comes down to what you really believe and who you believe and the difference between love and rape. Gay or straight or whatever. But I digress.

Everett is more concerned with love than sex in Another Country (1984)

Director Marek Kanievska (1952-) was a British director, now retired, of Polish origin. He worked in Australian television before returning to England where more tv work and a short film led him to make Another Country. The film relied on funding from Goldcrest films which previously produced such quality movies as Chariots of Fire (1981) and Gandhi (1982). It was also one of the last films be financed by the National Film Finance Corporation before it was abolished by the Thatcher government.

Director Marek Kanievska

Everett said upon meeting the director: “Marek was an eccentric Pole, only ten years older than most of the actors and quite unlike the normal British Directors of those times. He was not class obsessed and did not put himself on a pedestal.” The actor said further in his book Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins about the director’s aesthetic: “He was addicted to tracking shots where the camera is put on a kind of railway and moves around during the action like a silent voyeur. Marek directed it beautifully. Another Country was the best made film of my career.”

The director would go on to make an adaption of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Less Than Zero (1987) which the author originally hated but has “really warmed up to now”. Kanievska would work with Everett again on Kim Philby related material with A Different Loyalty (2004) which also starred Sharon Stone (1958-). But Kanievska would produce little more in a brief career with a short resume.

Robert Downey Jr. is out of control in Less Than Zero (1987)

His evocation of the college, which is supposed to be a composite of Eton and other schools, is one that is striking and some of the tracking shots are unforgettable. He captured the era incredibly well although Eton College declined to be used as a location. The film cobbled together several locations including Oxford University.

Everett was nominated for a BAFTA Award as Most Promising Newcomer but perhaps it was the paranoia of AIDS and the failure for the world to accept an openly gay character that he lost the award. If it were today, he would be a shoo in, if only in terms of political correctness.

William Hurt’s tour de force as an effeminate homosexual in Kiss of the Spider Woman

However, this film and his award nomination was part of a movement which helped open the floodgates and pave the way for other mainstream films based on plays which featured gay lead characters. Films such as The Dresser (1983) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985). The difference with Everett’s portrayal is that it is not an effeminate one. He may be posh but he is not, to use a derogatory term, “a faggot”. Even my best friend Paul, who threw his The Smiths LP in the garbage bin when he heard Morrissey (1959-) was gay, enjoyed and was moved by Hurt’s performance in Kiss of the Spider Woman when we went to a preview as teenagers. And it was just that, a performance, and the actor himself wasn’t gay which made it all the more acceptable and so William Hurt won an Oscar for his sympathetic portrayal in Kiss of the Spider Woman.

William Hurt scores an Oscar for Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

Meanwhile in England, closeted bisexual actor Denholm Elliott (1922-92 AIDS) took home two consecutive BAFTA’s for his performances in A Private Function (1985) and Defence of the Realm (1986). He wasn’t playing gay characters though. An early Daniel Day-Lewis (1957-) film My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) showed both a tolerance of race and sexuality but ignored giving acting awards or nominations to its gay characters and instead honoured the straight character. So, even in the mid-1980s there was a kind of roundabout acceptance or tolerance of homosexuals who starred in and were characters in films but not a direct embrace.

Daniel Day-Lewis (left) in My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Everett lost his award to Haing S. Ngor (1940-96 shot) for The Killing Fields and the Most Promising Newcomer award was discontinued the following year.

It would be quite a few years before the Americans would praise a story which dealt with a gay main character who wasn’t necessarily effeminate. Philadelphia (1993) starring Tom Hanks (1956-) as a gay man with AIDS who suffers homophobia won him the Oscar for Best Actor. I must admit I wept along with the moving song Philadelphia by Neil Young as it doubly manipulated its audience when I first saw the movie. I bet I wasn’t the only one!

Harrison Ford (left) and Denholm Elliott in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

In the years since, Oscar has kind of made it a cause celebre to honour good performances about gay characters. Jared Leto in the Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) are examples, along with Natalie Portman (1981-) in Black Swan (2010). Malek turned up the awards with his girlfriend just to make sure there was no confusion as to his true sexuality. It seems a major Oscar is yet to go to a gay playing a gay character. It’s seems all very strange.

Real and unreal are interchangeable or so it seems

The closest they’ve got in terms of Oscar were nominations for Sal Mineo (1939-76 stabbed) and his coded character in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), James Coco (1930-87 heart attack) for Only When I Laugh (1981) and Jaye Davidson (1968) for The Crying Game (1992), all for Best Supporting Actor. Davidson, incidentally, was the first one out at the time of his nomination. As for Best Actor only Ian McKellen (1939-) playing gay director James Whale (1889-1957 suicide by drowning) in Gods and Monsters (1998) has received the Best Actor nomination. Perhaps John Gielgud (1904-2000) who won a Best Supporting Oscar for his turn as the butler in Arthur could be the first and only real winner. In terms of Best Actress: Jodie Foster has won an Oscar for her straight roles while actresses Charlize Theron, Hilary Swank and Olivia Colman have won for playing lesbian or transgender characters. The actresses don’t appear to be lesbian.

Gay or bisexual actors, albeit closeted ones, playing straight roles have won a couple of Oscars going back to Charles Laughton (1899-1962 renal cancer) for The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933).

Joe Jackson performs the song Real Men

The bitter lesson that Everett’s character learns at the end of Another Country is minor compared to the suffering of other gay characters in ensuing movies such as Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) but it is universal in terms of those who are rejected or even crucified for their sexuality.

I remember visiting a video warehouse in the early 1990s in search of cheap VHS tapes. All that was left was the dregs and they included about a dozen or so copies of Another Country unwanted and unloved. It was a film long before its time. And even if it were released today perhaps the Blu-rays would be just as unwanted by straight customers.

Everett followed Another Country with other cult performances which included many straight roles. He had to make the decision of playing it straight or simply not work in the film industry at all. It’s just that gay men playing straight men doesn’t seem to work… They are not judged as ‘real’ and so are summarily dismissed. Yet they’ve won a couple of Oscars from the closet with Kevin Spacey for American Beauty (1999) being the only example other than Laughton! Do we count Marlon Brando?

The Comfort of Strangers (1990) had Everett admired for his body rather than his acting

Dance with a Stranger (1985) was about the last woman hanged in the United Kingdom and Everett played the murdered lover of killer Ruth Ellis (1926-55 hanged). Release-wise, in terms of notable films, he made Hearts of Fire (1987), the musical which also starred Bob Dylan and that film’s failure really put the brakes on Everett’s acting career. I’ve discussed it in another article and I find it to be loveable trash.

It would be years before he made another memorable movie – The Comfort of Strangers (1990) – a psychological thriller directed by Paul Schrader (1946-) and starring Christopher Walken (1943-) and Natasha Richardson (1963-2009 head injury). Everett was still playing it straight and this film, which is initially set in Venice, and has a shocking sadomasochistic ending.

By this stage of his career, Everett wasn’t known for his acting ability, but rather as more of a mannequin, whose perfectly chiselled physique could be admired by women as well as gay and straight men.

A poster for Cemetery Man (1994)

In terms of cult movies, my favourite is Cemetery Man (1994) aka Dellamorte Dellamore which is an Italian comedy horror film. This surprisingly delightful horror has zombies called “Returners” who rise from the graves of the cemetery where Everett is the caretaker or “engineer” along with his mentally handicapped assistant Gnaghi played by French actor Francois Hadji-Lazaro (1956-) who can only say the word “Gna”.

Most horror fans would know this movie and Everett gives his kind of disinterested and appreciatively distracted character a kind of centre as the movie blends a jokey script with hardcore Italian-style gore. It is also surreal, at times, as ‘impotent’ Everett is about to have his genitals severed in an operation in one scene while another has Gnaghi having an innocent romance with the severed head of a dead teenage girl he has dug up and placed in his broken television set. There is also a couple of obligatory sex scenes and the ending is just as surreal as the rest of the movie as it hints that the end of the world is already here or that the world itself doesn’t exist.

Gnaghi and his girlfriend in Cemetery Man (1994)

Then came My Best Friend’s Wedding which amused so many people and was a big enough box office hit to score Everett his first Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor as well as a BAFTA nomination. No cigar for a gay playing a gay in terms of an award and he lost to sex symbol Burt Reynolds (1936-2018 heart attack) for Boogie Nights (1997). He followed this with a second Golden Globe nomination for An Ideal Husband (1999) based on the play by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900 meningitis) but still no cigar.

Everett has had a Wilde obsession ever since, playing him on stage for years in The Judas Kiss, something which culminated in the release and some acclaim for The Happy Prince (1918), a biopic of the famed gay writer’s later years. Everett directed and starred in the movie and wrote a book about his Wilde obsession entitled To the Ends of the World: Travels with Oscar Wilde. There was no Oscar or BAFTA buzz.

My Best Friend’s Wedding proved that Everett had a flair for comedy and late in his career, he scored with the comic role of Camilla Fritton in the remake of the film series St. Trinians (2007). He played the role in drag just as Alistair Sim (1900-76 lung cancer) did in the original movie and was given knowing camp support by being reunited with Another Country co-star Colin Firth. Firth is another straight actor nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his gay role in A Single Man (2009). He won the BAFTA for that one. Firth also appeared in Everett’s The Happy Prince.

Rupert Everett in Dance with a Stranger (1985)

Lost in the shuffle of Everett’s early film career is the Australian movie The Right Hand Man (1987). The film was actually shot in October of 1985 a year or so after Another Country had been released and made back its investment for Goldcrest with a slight profit.

Everett may not have set the box office on fire with Another Country but he was the next big thing according to the critics and his Most Promising Newcomer nomination. If only he weren’t gay, I bet the producers were thinking… So, he played it straight. But the soft box office of Dance with a Stranger perhaps doomed The Right Hand Man which failed to be immediately distributed.

The Right Hand Man (1987) advertisement

It eventually played briefly at cinemas in the United States, but I can only remember first seeing it in Australia on VHS tape around the time of the death knell of Everett’s career with the critically lambasted release of Hearts of Fire. In that film he sings a cover of the song Tainted Love by gay singer Marc Almond (1957-) of band Soft Cell and wears a hat which proclaims ‘Boy’ like one worn by a member of gay band The Pet Shop Boys – but Everett’s character is still essentially straight in Hearts of Fire.

The Right Hand Man was originally based on a book by Kathleen Peyton (1929-) who began her career under the pen name of K.M. Peyton when she wrote boys own adventure stories. She would go on to write the much loved Flambards series of stories for children or young adults which was turned into a tv series in 1979. The series starred Edward Judd (1933-2009) and German actor Anton Diffring (1916-89 cancer or AIDS) who is credited among other things for allegedly infecting actor Denholm Elliott with AIDS.

Steven Grives in Flambards (1979)

Also starring in the series was Steven Grives (1951-). I mention him because he appeared in the cult horror Inseminoid (1981) aka Horror Planet and gave a strong performance as a psychotic police officer in cult Aussie movie Dangerous Game (1988) which I have also written about in another article.

I mention Grives because he optioned Peyton’s 1977 book The Right Hand Man with actor Tom Oliver (1938-) and formed a company Yarraman to make the film. Peyton’s novel was set in Essex and London around 1818 and told the tale of Lord Ironminster who loves horses and racing his coaches until an accident kills his father and he himself loses and arm. He also suffers from tuberculosis and is under pressure from his mother to marry and produce an heir.

The screenplay for the movie is quite different in that Lord Ironminster lives on a countryside Australian estate around 1860 and he suffers instead from diabetes which was then an unknown quantity in terms of medical diagnoses. It is from an infection, as a complication of this disease, that he loses his arm not long after the buggy crash which killed his father.

Everett is Ironminster and is supported by Aussie stage actress Catherine McClements (1965-) and future star Hugo Weaving (1960-) who would go on to make the Matrix trilogy (1999-2003) as well as play Elrond in The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) and The Hobbit (2012-2014) trilogies. Others may know him as V in V for Vendetta (2005).

Frauds (1993) was an attempt to make a star of Weaving and an actor of Phil Collins. Trailer.

The Right Hand Man, should it have been properly released, was obviously meant to make an instant star of Weaving and consolidate Everett’s success.

Weaving, as the right hand man of the title, helps Everett to continue his love of racing by taking the reins himself. McClements is the doctor’s daughter who has read about the newly named disease of diabetes which has no cure and a poor prognosis for those who suffer from it. Remember this is 1860 and before insulin. She complicates things by forming a romantic attachment to Everett when there is no real chance of long-term survival. In the movie, Everett’s mother instead of wanting an heir, sees that it is hopeless for them to marry and for her to become pregnant as the bloodline is tainted by this disease. There is no future in it.

Rupert Everett sulks romantically in The Right Hand Man

It is directed by Di Drew (1948-), who had success on the small screen with the tv series 1915 (1982) and directed a couple of tv movies around the time of The Right Hand Man. Her career as a possible feature film director was harmed by the delayed release and disappointing box office of this movie and she wouldn’t direct another cinema release for almost a decade. She remains an Aussie legend for her dedication to tv work and her association with NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art).

The most striking things about the film are the cinematography and the flawless production design which recreates the period incredibly well. The acting is also first rate. It was cinematographer Peter James (1947-) and the production design team which garnered the film’s only AACTA or AFI nominations back in the day.

Director Di Drew (centre) on the set of tv series 1915 (1982)

The screenplay may at first seem only a rose-coloured Mills and Boon or Barbara Cartland type affair in terms of its mainstream movie treatment but its characters are unconventional nonetheless.

Grives is responsible for the story and there is something to this ‘another country’ which is on the crossroads both in terms of the revolution of cross-country travel from the stagecoach to the train as well as the characters being at crossroads in their lives. It should have been a crossroads for all those involved in the production including Everett and perhaps in a negative way it was.

The Right Hand Man (1987) poster

The original novel was set around the time Jane Austen (1775-1817 breast cancer) was writing and the poet Lord Byron (1788-1824 possible sepsis) was about to die. But the film has, despite being set in the bright sunshine of Australia, a kind of Gothic romanticism which you would associate with the novels of the Bronte sisters (Charlotte 1816-55 tuberculosis, Emily 1818-48 tuberculosis, Anne 1820-49 tuberculosis), which were published a decade or so earlier before the setting of The Right Hand Man in 1860. The Ironminster house is the Gothic heart of the movie and its mansion is where Everett, so tired from his battle with diabetes, is doomed to die. But will he die on his own terms?

The SS Great Eastern is constructed before its launch in 1858

A couple of years before the movie is set, in 1858, saw the launch of the Great Eastern, which was an iron steamship, the largest built at the time which was meant to take thousands of passengers non-stop to Australia…. The Great Eastern was originally to be named the Leviathan. I guess this is why the giant stagecoach captained by Weaving, which was especially built for the movie, and carries dozens of passengers while being pulled by a dozen stallions – is called the Leviathan. The original meaning of the word derives from ancient language “to twine, to join” which is also essential to the plot of the movie and the three main characters. So is the two-man buggy with its fatal stigma which makes another appearance in some scenes which looked like they were terribly dangerous for Everett and Weaving to film.

We sense by the rush of blood through the veins of the horses and Weaving as he steers the giant coach that his veins are definitely untainted by disease and the possible impotence suffered by Everett… it is almost a gay role for Everett but not really. There are also parallels between AIDS and diabetes in terms of being diseases related to the blood. With an incurable illness he is seen as a deficient or incomplete man who may not be attractive to women… despite his money and position. Yet there is the romance of the tubercular Byronic (1788-1824 possible sepsis) poets and a sulking James Dean (1931-55 car crash) about him. Byron once quipped that the attraction of tuberculosis would have ladies saying: “See that Lord Byron – how interesting he looks in dying.” Byron wished to die of tuberculosis but didn’t.

The poet Lord Byron longed for a Romantic death

Everett’s posh voice and good looks as well as his sexual ambiguity make him a natural as a dying Romantic poet anti-hero removed from his natural habitat of England and its aristocracy. His is a lonely and doubly damned existence.

What is unconventional about the romance, which would seem like a cliché today, is that Everett eventually invites McClements and Weaving to pair off and help produce an heir for the Ironminster family which would in fact be produced in the spirit of all three characters. And they do!

The Right Hand Man (1987) trailer

The words cried by Everett as he races his buggy at the beginning and end of The Right Hand Man: “It’s just like flying!” was said in an era when there was no such thing as the aeroplane and yet to fly was the eternal wish of every child and adult since creation. But these fateful and eternal words lead to a death on both occasions as they scream the impossible.

This line was described as “a howl” by an intellectual critic of the New York Times, who dismissed the film and its fanciful upper crust poetic dialogue. On the opposite coast in the Los Angeles Times, however, the film found a critic who loved everything about the production, and the poetry of Everett’s character.

The Right Hand Man isn’t a great picture but it is a crossroads picture for Everett and the world portrayed within. This is symbolised at the end of the movie when the Leviathan stops a train, or iron horse, by briefly blocking the tracks at a crossroads. The iron horse will eventually replace the stagecoach and revolutionise travel as predicted by Lord Ironminster himself… Everett made the crossroads choice to stay inside the closet to the world media and instead also played it straight on the screen. It was the conventional route while straight actors were breaking convention and being awarded for playing gay roles.

Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde in The Happy Prince (2018)

Romantics of opposing sexual orientation can watch either Another Country or The Right Hand Man as the films straddle each side of the sexual divide respectively. Those who don’t care can watch both! Whereas Everett finally reinvented himself as an ‘out’ comic actor in an era beyond the horror or AIDS and the demonisation of homosexuals, it is a shame that the contribution he made with this role, and its symbol of gay teenage youth in Another Country, is more or less forgotten and lost amid the performances by award winning straight actors in gay roles.

His adolescent character in Another Country is all the more tragic as a trailblazer and so is his Lord Ironminster whose suicide by horse and buggy at the climax of The Right Hand Man is just as iconic, like the sexually ambiguous actor James Dean who died tragically young in a suicidal car accident where roads also intersected.

Another Country (1984) trailer

Just a note and that is that The Right Hand Man’s mansion is Abercrombie House in Bathurst and it is shown as the end credits roll and the music swells. Abercrombie House was built by the Stewart family in 1870 and was left abandoned in 1927 for over forty years before it was finally bought and restored in 1968 by the Morgan family. A child from the family which bought the property said: “There was a period when it felt a bit ghostly. It was never a big deal for us, more of a curiosity. We would look down towards the orchard and there would be a man standing there. You would go down there and there was nobody. Sometimes you got a feeling in a room that someone was there and you knew there wasn’t.” Real or unreal, the film has gothic credentials after all.

For an article about Rupert Everett’s cult movie Hearts of Fire PRESS HERE.

For an article about The Right Hand Man producer Steven Grives’s performance in Dangerous Game (1988) PRESS HERE.

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