NEW YORK — Stephen Fry, a giant of a man who’s had a long and varied career in film, television and theater, enjoyed reading Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel of society, “Vile Bodies,” as a teenager. So when he was asked to adapt it into a screenplay, he happily obliged. But when the producers asked him to consider directing the movie — a first for Fry — he was so surprised that “I fell backward onto my bed, nearly crushing the prostitute,” he jokes.
The screenplay, he explains, was not an easy journey — Waugh isn’t very big on character psychology — so Fry welcomed the opportunity to visualize the story of a man-turned-gossip columnist caught up with the Bright Young Things of Thirties London.
Sitting in his hotel suite eating croissants with butter, he explains that he was against calling the movie “Vile Bodies.” (The film version, “Bright Young Things,” opened Friday in New York and Los Angeles). The title change, says Fry, “allows you more freedom, at least psychologically.”
From his point of view, period films wind up telling you more about the time during which they were made than the era during which they supposedly take place. “The Great Gatsby,” Fry elucidates, tells you about Seventies’ excess.
“No one was interested in making ‘Vile Bodies’ in 1979,” he says. “It didn’t seem to crystallize. Now, we have a great self-consciousness about our young people in nightclubs, our gossip columns and our celebrities. It suddenly seems more apt.”
That said, Fry is quick to disclose that there’s no such thing as a Bright Young Thing anymore. They were a specific group who responded to the First World War by ignoring their responsibilities. They threw “paradox parties,” where everyone had to dress up as a paradox. They were influenced by Dadaism and Surrealism. They resurrected the ideas of Oscar Wilde. They experimented with gender bending.
Asking who are today’s Bright Young Things “is like saying, ‘Who are our cowboys? Who’s our Wyatt Earp?’” Fry says. “The Bright Young Things were pioneers.”
According to Fry, the fact that the label has trickled down to signify society types or budding newcomers is a mistake. “Today’s young things are rather dull.” he adds. “The Hilton sisters are distinctly bourgeois. They have no sense of dash or spurt. What do they collect? This new generation wouldn’t know Michelangelo from a pizza. There’s no active engagement with the world. They get their inspirations from magazine advertisements. The [wilder] nightclubbers are just fashion victims, and usually they die in a pool of vomit three years later.”
Parties, especially, are not what they used to be, meaning, they used to be parties. “They’re all vulgar commercials funded by the studios or sponsored by Grey Goose and Tattinger champagne. I never, ever accept an invitation to something that has the name of a luxury goods company on it.
“You can’t ever be a Bright Young Thing,” Fry goes on. “You can be a youth with a zest for life and a love of language and nothing that is part of a commercial. You mustn’t be selfish. You mustn’t be thinking, ‘Look at me.’ If you find yourself following, just go ‘Baaa.’”
— Marshall Heyman