So much has been remembered, said, and written about British-born Dennis Pratt, who would later be known on a worldwide level as Quentin Crisp. In his trademark fedora, makeup, and flamboyant wardrobe with touches of pink and lavender (Incidentally, his look changed little throughout his life…), Crisp was an openly gay man long before it was fashionable, safe, or even legal to be so. In 1975, the story of Crisp’s early life reached mass audiences on the TV screen when a movie named “The Naked Civil Servant” was made. In that film, Quentin Crisp was played by Academy Award-nominated actor John Hurt. “The Naked Civil Servant” was often shown on American TV via PBS, and the landmark film became something of a classic in the archives of GLBT cinema to this day. It remains a rare true story of both survival as well as the celebration of individuality. It was Quentin Crisp’s unique life story that attracted the attention of so many, but it was his unyielding wit and wry observations of our society (both gay culture and culture at large) that made him an enduring, albeit sometimes controversial, gay icon. Since “The Naked Civil Servant” was shown in the seventies, Crisp remained in the public eye well into his death in 1999. (Committed cinemaphiles will note that he popped up in cameos as himself in “Philadelphia” in 1993 and the 1995 HBO movie “The Celluloid Closet”; and appeared as Queen Elizabeth I (!) in the 1993 film “Orlando”.) A new film about Quentin Crisp’s life, “Englishman in New York“, directed by Richard Laxton, premiered at The Tribeca Film Festival on Monday, April 27, with Crisp played again by– Academy Award-nominated actor John Hurt! This film picks up where “The Naked Civil Servant” le ft off (The new movie even references the 1975 film…), when Crisp– with no American relatives or money– left his native Britain for New York City at age 73, and never looked back. “The moment I saw Manhattan I wanted it. But did Manhattan want me?” he ponders at the beginning of the movie. The answer, it becomes clear, was affirmative. Crisp found his place as a movie reviewer, speaker, and one of New York City’s most envied party guests (“I don’t shop for food anymore. I attend every cocktail party I’m invited to.”). He became a cult figure, cautiously admired by the younger generation of gays and looked upon with fascination by the media. Throughout the movie, Hurt-as-Crisp offers many, many, many of his famous quotes– from sardonic advice on life (“If at first you don’t succeed, perhaps failure is your style.”) to endless commentaries about gay culture. Almost everything Hurt-as-Crisp says in this film is quote-worthy. Even if you’ve never heard of Quentin Crisp, the movie audience will soon learn why people looked upon this gentleman with such awe.
Like its 1975 predecessor, John Hurt completely becomes Quentin Crisp in this movie. Hurt-as-Crisp is on the screen in almost every scene. The New York City of the ’80’s and ’90’s is vibrantly re-created, and even jaded New Yorkers will feel Crisp’s excitement as he walks through his new downtown neighborhood with the excitement of a child in a toy store. After arriving in NYC, Crisp is befriended by Phillip Steele (played by Dennis O’Hare), who becomes his friend for the rest of his life. He’s also soon grabbed by a fast talking agent– the kind we don’t see too often anymore, unfortunately– played by Swoozie Kurtz (who, incidentally, looks amazing here). Always at hand for a comment, his outspokenness occasionally got him into trouble. A pivotal point in the film come when Crisp comments about the devastating new disease affecting gay men: “AIDS is a fad– nothing more. Homosexuals are always complaining of one ailment or another.” After that quote, his writing and speaking gigs dry up, and he is attacked both in the media and in person by many members of the community. The motivation behind that statement remain a bit of an enigma to the audience: Crisp never retracts his statements. Yet, he takes under his wing an emotionally fragile, young artist (Patrick Angus, played by Jonathan Tucker) who ultimately succumbs to the disease, and toward the end of the film, we learned that he made his contribution to fighting AIDS in less visible ways. As the film progresses, Crisp notable ages both in his physical appearance and his mannerisms… but even as he speaks more slowly, his trademark wit always comes through. Just when the audience suspects that Crisp is going to “retire” from the public eye, a new figure emerges in his life: ;the dynamic performance artist Penny Arcade. Ms. Arcade is a close match for Crisp’s wit, and soon becomes his new muse as she introduces Crisp to the underground, pansexual, politically-charged, art-meets-nightlife scene that downtown New York City enjoyed in the early ’90’s. Cynthia Nixon plays the counterculture diva, and Ms. Nixon is unrecognizable at first, expertly capturing Penny Arcade’s trademark quirkiness. An astute observer of queer culture, Arcade points out to Crisp how a sleazy gay bar has turned into a high-end shoe store, and she eerily warns that gay culture was slowly becoming more “straight”. (She was right, of course…) While the testosterone-heavy, sex-dominated, “clone” culture which Crisp met at the beginning of the film may have rejected Crisp as something of an outdated relic, it’s a new scene for the Englishman. The “anything goes”, pageant/burlesque environment that Arcade and other underground New York City stars created, with a focus on individuality, embrace Crisp as a novelty. And he clearly enjoys it.
Quentin Crisp was a pioneer, and his unique brand of gay activism is clearly different from that of many of us today. He didn’t demand respect or equality. He earned it, merely by refusing to fit in and by refusing to censor his opinions or views. Arguably, he seemed to have viewed respect, equality, and even love and prosperity as a privilege rather than as rights . He found a great deal of what he was looking with the new social freedoms of New York City late in his life. Early in the movie, he states, “I was never the kind to grab life by the throat… I was merely who I was, and for that alone I was beaten.” Yet, its unlikely Crisp ever viewed himself as a victim. When asked why he never beat back, he responds, with deadpan honesty, “They would have killed me.” As Crisp taught us, being yourself is the only way to make change happen, a message we too often forget as the LGBT community becomes more “mainstream”. Like it’s subject, “Englishman in New York” may be the first of its kind: a movie where the same actor plays the same character in a film which is not a bona fide sequel. If not, then it’s clearly a rarity. (Hey, committed cinemaphiles out there, I need your feedback!) After the screening, Lady Clover Honey (who can clearly be seen as an extra in one of the movie’s scenes) and I met with the movie’s director Richard Laxton and two of its stars, John Hurt and Dennis O’Hare. When asked, Mr. Hurt didn’t know for sure if the phenomenon of his playing the same character in two different movies was the first of its kind, but he did point out that it was a rarity as well as a great thrill to play the same character 33 years after the first time. I comment to Dennis O’Hare what a revelation it was seeing him play such a sympathetic chara cter in “Englishman In New York” after he had portrayed such an unsavory one in last year’s “Milk”, another film based on a real-life gay icon. He agreed! I also tell him that I’m still hoping to eventually see him on the big screen in a movie version of “Take Me Out“, the gay baseball player stage drama for which O’Hare won a Tony Award for “Best Performance by a Featured Actor” a few years ago. He laughed and replied, “By the time that comes around, I hope I won’t be 80 years old!” That delicious remark made me immediately think of Quentin Crisp. If he were there that night, he would have no doubt had a wise and witty comment about still being fabulous in your eighth decade of life…
John Hurt’s performance in “Englishman In New York” won a “Special Teddy” Award at The Berlin International Film Festival . Make sure to catch this superb film when it comes to your neighborhood.
Photo 1: Lady Clover Honey, John Hurt, & Jed Ryan
Photo 2: Dennis O’Hare & Jed Ryan