Johnny Depp stubbornly refuses to take on conventional roles. Even when he plays archetypal roles such as his now famous Captain Jack Sparrow, he is compelled to do weird things with the performances. The Keith Richards homage is just the latest in a long line of quirky outings that flout convention, and it's exactly this rebellious streak that makes him a perfect casting choice in The Libertine.
Centuries before the Rat Pack or the Algonquin Roundtable came into being, a similar group of legendary personalities dubbed the Merry Gang gained notoriety for their unique combination of wit and bawdiness. Members included several famous wordsmiths, intellectuals and royalty of the day. One such man, the second Earl of Rochester, qualified under all three titles.
John Wilmot's birth in 1647 was followed by his death a mere 33 years later. In the interim of this flammable existence, he somehow managed to alienate, violate and/or instigate anyone with whom he came into contact. His rakish behavior was the subject of controversy by one and all. Perhaps Samuel Johnson (you know, the Dictionary guy) summed it up best when he described The Libertine in this manner: "He lived worthless and useless, and blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness."
This leads to the query of why anyone would be making a movie about him 350 years later if his existence were worthless and useless as Samuel Johnson indicated. The reality is that Wilmot's life was far more than that description, though in the end, how much more impacting it might have been is questionable.
A graduate of Wadham College in Oxford at the age of 14, Wilmot sought his fortunes on the sea. He returned a hero after a famous victory in nautical combat against the Dutch. Back in England, he married at the age of 20. This was noteworthy due to the fact that his blushing bride was the very woman he had unsuccessfully attempted to kidnap two years prior to that. I can't decide if that sounds like the makings of a Harlequin Romance or Dear Penthouse Letters.
As a way to woo her, Wilmot began to write poetry. Quickly, though, the nature of his words changed from romantic in tone to overtly sexual. Many of his works were declared obscene and destroyed. The most famous of these, “Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery” - well, it has a title that speaks for itself. The respect he garnered from other noted scribes of the time guaranteed the immortality of his work despite the Fahrenheit 451 crew's attempts to quell his quill. Even authors such as Tennyson, Goethe and Voltaire were squarely in the camp of Wilmot as a hallmark literary talent.
Nonetheless, the love of his life was not the woman he kidnapped/married. Instead, that title was carved out for his mistress, Elizabeth Barry. You might know her as the most famous actress of the Restoration stage (if you were some sort of Restoration era scholar anyway). Wilmot's tutoring is what carried her through struggles early in her career but after a time, he grew bored and lusted for new adventures. In the end, it was this constant need for new experiences that left him riddled with syphilis. On his deathbed, Wilmot attempted the only aspect of life he had failed to explore previously. He was proclaimed to have found religion and repented all his sins. So legendary were his prior transgressions that for two full centuries after his death, the Earl's redemption was still being mentioned as a hallmark moment in religion.
Perhaps no aspect of his life better defines the Earl of Rochester than this one. While banished from Charles II's court after a lampoon failed to amuse His Majesty, Wilmot went into business as a doctor. His area of expertise was the treatment of married women struggling with infertility. During this period of crossing the country and impregnating women right under the noses of their cuckolded husbands, Wilmot went by the all-too-appropriate moniker of Doctor Bendo. What a character.
In addition to Depp, John Malkovich, a man who just can't seem to resist the chance to wear a good period costume, and Samantha Morton also have major roles. Morton will take on the character of the actress Elizabeth Barry while Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich portrays King Charles II. Since Wilmot's life was an endless cycle of times when he fell in and out of the favor of the court, this part of Wilmot's life might be highlighted in a similar fashion to the French classic, Ridicule.
Describing Wilmot's life in words sounds surprisingly like a plan once espoused by Bart Simpson. He lived life recklessly and lecherously. His sinful carousing and eschewing of pious living was legendary in his time. Once the vessel of his body had been destroyed, the Earl of Rochester recanted all of his misdeeds from his deathbed in order to cleanse his immortal soul. I don't know about you but I can't wait to see how Johnny Depp pulls it off.
If you think the whole thing sounds like a younger man's Quills, I am right there with you. (David Mumpower/BOP)