- The Washington Times - Friday, June 5, 2009

“Easy Virtue” is a classic tale of culture clash between aristocratic England and brash America. The 1924 play was written by Noel Coward, a man equally comfortable in British high society and Las Vegas cabarets.

So one might wonder what a pair of Australians, writer-director Stephan Elliott and his co-writer, Sheridan Jobbins, are doing messing with this icon, not just adapting his play for film, but positively modernizing it.

“I’m the totally wrong guy for this,” Mr. Elliott remembers thinking when offered the project.

The sparkling comedy of manners, which opens today in the District, stars Ben Barnes as a young Englishman who surprises his family by impetuously marrying a glamorous widowed race-car driver (Jessica Biel). The imperious matriarch (Kristin Scott Thomas) is even more dismayed when John brings Larita home and the new bride speaks — she’s an American to boot. The only member of the family, besides John, who appreciates the independent Larita’s charms is John’s father (Colin Firth), whose shattering wartime experiences have left him estranged from his wife.

This raucous “Easy Virtue” is nothing like Alfred Hitchcock’s 1928 silent version.

“Inevitably, I think a lot of people are frightened of Coward, especially rewriting Coward. It was an early play, it needed some modernization — even Coward admitted it needed some work,” Mr. Elliott says, speaking by telephone from New York, where he had just shown the film at the Tribeca Film Festival. “It needed two outsiders, a couple of Australians, to do it.”

“One of the things we wanted to do,” Ms. Jobbins adds, “was make it for a contemporary audience, the same way Coward did. He was 24 years old, writing for 24-year-olds. It was engaging, shocking and surprising.”

That doesn’t mean the pair weren’t worried about what traditionalists might think. Mr. Elliott waited “in horror” for a phone call from the Noel Coward Society. He needn’t have — in a review, the society called his “jaunty adaptation” “elegant,” “satisfying” and “entertaining.”

“We’re thrilled to death,” Mr. Elliott says. “We got away with it!”

Perhaps there was another reason Mr. Elliott wondered if he was the right choice: When producers brought it to him, he “was up to my eyes on morphine.”

He was lying in a hospital bed after barely escaping death in a skiing accident. He had been spending his life on the slopes after deciding to quit the movie business. He had gained worldwide fame after his drag-queen comedy “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” had become a surprise hit — but his subsequent films hadn’t found the same success. He hadn’t made a film since 1999’s “Eye of the Beholder.”

“I couldn’t get out from under ‘Priscilla’s‘ shadow. It was one little movie that cost nothing, just a bunch of mates having a good time. All of a sudden, you have something iconic on a world scale,” he says. “I felt the weight of that for a full decade. I buckled under the weight. I’d always dreamed of becoming a ski bum, and then I skied off a cliff. I cut myself in half.”

He was “bleeding terribly,” but a doctor said he’d be fine, as long as he got some blood into him. Unfortunately, the ambulance that arrived had picked up the wrong container — there was no blood.

“I had a spectacular moment of being told I had 15 minutes to live,” he recalls. “It was the most interesting 15 minutes of my life.”

He woke up in a hospital three days later, lucky to be alive.

The experience completely changed his perspective on his career. “It was my second shot, and I had to get back to work,” he decided. He spent five or six years recovering first, including learning how to walk again.

The brush with death also let him finally come to terms with his success. “Richard O’Brien, who wrote ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ says, ‘Stephen, stop thinking of it as a curse; it’s a gift. Start loving it, because you’re very, very lucky,’” he recounts, adding that he knows some directors spend a lifetime hoping for the kind of success he achieved at 30.

“She is a gift. If I go to my grave being the ‘Priscilla’ guy, that’s not a bad thing,” he says.

The stage-musical version of “Priscilla” opened in London’s West End in March. Mr. Elliott embraced his work on it — which he did from a hospital bed alongside writing “Easy Virtue.”

“On opening night in London three weeks ago, that crowd went bananas,” he says. “I’ve been 15 years, and I forgot what a major effect it has on people.”

“My attitude now is, I’m really aware that the clock is ticking,” he says. The former ski bum put his new impatience into action on the “Easy Virtue” shoot. “Anytime there were problems on set, I would say, ‘In the big picture, your problems are really small.’” A crew member complaining about a dry-cleaning bill would get no sympathy from him.

Ms. Jobbins is even more of a prodigy than Mr. Elliott. Until three years ago, she held the Guinness World Record for youngest television host. When she was 9, she starred in “Cooking With Sheri,” which ran from 1967 to 1969. She’s still a bit of a rarity, a female in a profession — screenwriting — made up mostly of men.

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been watching the titles on movies and seeing women slowly moving up from makeup and wardrobe and hair, to production and production assistants,” she notes.

That doesn’t mean she brings a female perspective to Mr. Elliott’s films. At the end of “Easy Virtue,” Larita finally leaves the English estate, driving off into the sunset with a man. When one of the actors asked about the meaning of the ending, the pair realized they totally disagreed.

Mr. Elliott says with a laugh, “I think it’s soul mates driving off; Sheridan thinks they’re driving to the nearest hotel.”

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