Review : Colonel Moseley reviews "An Englishman in New York" from 30.12.2009
This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2009
Post-Christmas offerings on ITV 1 included the ninety minute biopic "An Englishman in New York." This sequel to 1975 award-winning "The Naked Civil Servant" again starred John Hurt as Quentin Crisp.
It also featured Cynthia Nixon from "Sex in the City" as performance artist Penny Arcade who appeared with Crisp.
As one anticipated, it proved impossible to match, let alone improve upon, the brilliant "Naked Civil Servant" which told the story of Quentin Crisp's earlier life, struggles and apparent eventual triumph to become "one of the stately homos of England" with such brilliance that it remains a high watermark in TV drama.
"The Naked Civil Servant" contrived to be witty, evocative, moving and informative and perhaps was the ultimate film biography of its period. It both entertained and changed perceptions, genuinely increasing public understanding of what it meant to be homosexual in England in the middle third of the twentieth century.
This sequel set out to explain what happened to Crisp when he moved to New York in 1981 at the age of 72 until his death in 1999.
We see Crisp's serene progress through Manhattan in the 1980's wowing audiences with his disarming, but carefully prepared, apercus at his one-man shows. He found New York offered constant opportunities to perform on and off the streets and we see him revelling in walking about the liberal capital of the world relaxed and completely at home in its cosmopolitan atmosphere.
The piece is also a poem to the Big Apple with loving shots of exteriors around Greenwich Village and the Bowery with Crisp only one of many louche figures on view. His New York is different from that of "Friends"; there is graffiti in every exterior shot, whilst none is ever seen on the way to Central Perk.
This New York is also hedonistic and very gay: the look of the day is clone and the odour du jour amyl nitrate.
Our Quentin is doing very nicely earning a good living from the stage, public appearances and reviewing. He subsists on a diet of champagne and peanuts from a constant round of fashionable parties. His one room apartment soon resembles his London flat with its patina of undisturbed dust.
He even secures a right to stay in the US as a resident alien, apparently upon the basic of the uniqueness of his personal contribution to American cultural life.
All goes swimmingly until he sees fit to remark publicly that AIDs which was already cutting a swathe through the gay community was "just a fad." Coming from an iconic figure seen to represent what it was to be an out and proud and who endured taunts and persecution for his overt homosexuality, this self-evidently crass comment seemed to many to be a callous betrayal.
In one scene a leather clad gay man tearfully berated Crisp for his ill-judged remark. Crisp could see the truth and sincerity of his accuser's remarks and promised not to repeat them to cause so much pain. Typically however he did not recant.
As a result of his comments on Aids, Crisp's popularity declined and, despite the urging of close friends, he never retracted them. For this and indeed for many other remarks regarded as homophobic, Crisp is still reviled by some in the gay community.
High profile campaigner Peter Tatchell has been reported to comment that although he was astonishingly brave and defiant as an out gay man in the 1930's and 1940s, he was later self-obsessed, homophobic and reactionary, dismissive of the gay rights movement and even homosexuality itself.
Crisp reportedly remarked that gay men were incapable of love and that they had feminine minds - leaving himself open to the accusation of the rarely seen combination of homophobia and misogyny. His views have led some to feel that his life confirmed rather than challenged prejudices.
This film did not shirk from presenting this almost inexplicably negative side of Crisp's make up. He persisted in the view that by their nature gay men were incapable of sustaining genuinely loving relationships. On this he refused to budge. Indeed one of the few things he had in common with John Wayne appeared to be a refusal to "complain or explain."
The vanity and superficiality of some of New York's meat rack gay clubs in the 1980s might give some support to his cynicism regarding what was in some ways a self-indulgent sexual ghetto.
Arguably much of Crisp's posturing might have stemmed from self assertion and resentment at no longer being a unique dissident figure. He was to some extent addicted to the isolation and exclusion that goes with martyrdom at whatever cost. Seeing him withdraw into himself stubbornly, it seemed he obtained a masochistic pleasure from the criticism brought upon him by his insensitive remarks on AIDs.
The film softens our alienation somewhat by showing his acts of kindness to the struggling painter Patrick Angus and his considerable discreet donations to AIDs charities. He also maintains the diffident and gentle air of bewilderment and other-wordliness that constitutes so much of his charm.
This impression is compounded by the bravery shown by Crisp in dealing with the tribulations and humiliations of growing old living alone and the dignity of his apparent decision to bring his life to an end with least fuss possible by undertaking an arduous air flight and tour of Britain which was virtually guaranteed to kill him. The return to the UK resulted in death without much fuss, as he had apparently planned.
Issues were so much clearer and more sharply focused in Crisp's heyday in London in the 1930's and 40's. He was an exhibitionist homosexual who suffered at the hands of a homophobic Establishment. He had the fortitude to endure the prejudice and survived to become an icon.
New York of the 1980's and 90's was so much more complex. Crisp appeared to consider gay attempts at love or loving relationships inferior to their straight equivalents and undervalued the contribution made to the advancement of the interests of gay men and women by the liberation movement and its radical offshoots. He cannot really be commended for clinging on so stubbornly to such misguided views.
Similarly his initial views on AIDs are plain wrong. Why he refused to retract or modify them is a mystery other than the obvious point that decades of outspokeness and defiance of convention appeared to have removed his capacity to back down from a position once asserted. His identity and very raison d'etre were founded upon unshakable adherence to a position or viewpoint once adopted. To back down was simply not possible if he were to remain the creature he had created.
He tried to make amends for unwise statements by private acts of kindness and generosity in charitable giving, but could not seem to find it in himself to retract .
"An Englishman in New York" lucidly showed how this all came about and the unfavourable consequences. It reflected Crisp's good and bad qualities and left the viewer to decide where the truth lay. As we have come to expect, it featured an impeccable performance from John Hurt with an excellent supporting cast and another co-star in Manhattan itself.
I do not think this amounted to an attempt to "sanitise" his later life. It does however, arguably sit on the fence and for me this did not work. I never think it is the job of filmmakers to abstain. Consequently, it ended up largely plain vanilla.
Of all the descriptions that could fairly be applied to Quentin Crisp, hardly any would have shocked him: proud individualist, free spirit, exhibitionist, stately homo, iconic, colourful, unique. The adjective he might have had difficulty in accepting and felt he least merited was "beige." Sadly this engaging film missed an opportunity to try to solve the riddle or enigma at the centre of Crisp's stance in his later years and, as a result, perhaps qualifies for that single word review.