The defining moment of Rupert Everett's childhood was his first trip to the movies. His mother and his nanny took him to see Mary Poppins in 1965, when he was six, and he loved it until the ending. When the Sixties super-nanny left without saying goodbye, he became a distraught, screaming lump. At that moment, he explains, "a giant and deranged ego had been born". He began to dress in his mother's red tweed skirt (she looked like Julie Andrews). He took to sitting in the cinematic darkness of an old wardrobe, behind his grandmother's mothballed gowns, watching through a crack in the door. And when his real Nanny was married, to part from him for ever, Rupert clung to her bridal veil in hysterical tears.
The juvenile drama queen with the mother-nanny fixation grew up to be the lanky, elegant, Cary Grant-ish star of perhaps four good films (Another Country, Dance with a Stranger, The Comfort of Strangers and My Best Friend's Wedding) but a lot of terrible dross (especially the steaming pile of ordure that is Hearts of Flame). More importantly, he grew into a life-role far more colourful than anything on celluloid: the decadent nob, spoilt, selfish, trashy, lazily omnisexual, sporadically goaded into a little light acting, more often content to drift into another bout of ligging, shagging, partying and jetting off to Mustique or LA. The result, rather against the odds, is a first-class showbiz autobiography.
The early pages announce the author's intentions: his obsession is not with gossip but words. His early chapters richly describe family homes in Hampshire, Chelsea and Colchester, his stern naval grandfather's Norfolk pile, the sailing picnics, the hunt where he was "blooded" with a fox's paw. His mother's warnings about strange men fell on deaf ears ("I couldn't think of anything better. Travel, sweets and someone playing with my willy: I couldn't wait to trike up there.") At school, he became devoutly religious and prayed for a visitation, waiting "for Mary to come floating down and tell me secrets concerning the fate of humankind," typically seeing the mother of God as a future party confidante. Catholicism, with its candlelit drama, had a big effect on the boy; 20 years later, it's startling to discover that this chronic sexual adventurer still attends Mass and confession.
He left Ampleforth early ("I'd had enough of upper-class blobs") and headed for drama school. In London he discovers liberation in Fulham, a rackety family, a perfect English teacher (Charles Nicholl) and a wine bar called Wolsey's that was his entry to the gay demi-monde. "Parks, disused basement areas, garages and alleyways were the unnamed places of worship," he recalls, "and being gay felt like being part of a... Masonic lodge. You were outside the culture and you loved it." Duck met water with a resounding splash.
Everett briefly flirted with male prostitution in Roll-Royces. As the punks took over Chelsea, he decamped for Paris and the transsexual joys of the Bois de Boulogne, where he strikes up an amitié amoureuse with a six-foot transexual called Delphine, who cruises in a truck fitted with a pink satin boudoir, complete with leopard-skin mattress and glitterball.
After learning little at the Central School, where "emotion and creativity were the domain of the poor; buffoonery was the hooray's lot", he finds his big break at the crazily avant-garde Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. About the same time, he gatecrashes the celebrity universe at a London party. He wakes from a stoned snooze to find three faces inspecting him: Lady Diana Cooper in "a hat like a medium's lampshade", Andy Warhol in "a weird peroxide wig plonked the wrong way round", and Bianca Jagger. "'What are you on?' asked Lady Diana, from inside the lampshade. 'Morphine, I think'."
That sets the template for the remaining 300 pages. Everett sucks up stardust like a Dyson Cyclone. His life tacks hither and thither in a blizzard of three- and four-page chapters, visiting this play, that movie, these rows, those relationships. Despite being ostensibly as gay as bunting since childhood, he contrives to have affairs with glamorous women: Susan Sarandon, Paula Yates, Béatrice Dalle. His social acquaintance is a dream of celebrity: Rudolf Nureyev, Liam Neeson, Derek Jarman, Madonna. He dresses in black leather to meet Franco Zeffirelli at a ball, then fails to recognise him.
On a ligging holiday in Barbados with Lucy Hellmore, he falls out with Lucy's husband Bryan Ferry and is sent packing. But there are always platoons of dear friends to help out. "I borrowed a jacket from Adam Ant," he'll write with cool offhandedness; "Gianni Versace had given me a black silk coat for the show". Even if you flinch from such chronic name-dropping, you'll enjoy the hectic energy of Everett's engagement with the beautiful and damned. And damned they are, many of the supporting cast, as the shadow of Aids falls across the pages. It starts with rumours, then news reports, then the death of Tina Chow and his first "Aids lie" when a friend asks why he has visited the doctor.
It's fascinating to watch how a posh boy half in love with the idea of decadence turns into an emblem of decadence himself. As he gets older, some of Everett's originality evaporates in a cloud of luvvie air-kissing and slackened, 3am prose. Lots of moments - filming a violin concert with Julie Andrews, duetting onstage with Bob Dylan - are "the finest moment of my career". But it's impossible to begrudge Rupert his repetitive ecstasies when the result is a book as glowingly, resplendently alive, as beautifully written and as damnably charming as this.
John Walsh's 'Are You Talking To Me? A life through the movies' is published by HarperPerennialReuse content