24 October 2009 | gatsbyfaith
The Harlequin Has the Last Laugh
It is not necessary to have seen John Hurt's previous portrayal of Quentin Crisp in "The Naked Civil Servant" to appreciate this new film, but it is interesting to consider the subtle but different tones of each. The first was a cotton-candy confection that delighted on its own terms in spite of being based upon Quentin's much more somber autobiography. The current film is also sweet, but it incorporates some of the more serious issues of Quentin's later life, namely his seemingly indifferent, cavalier response to AIDS and how he dealt with growing old. Quentin was misunderstood in life because people, gay and straight, viewed him as a harlequin; but, anyone who has had the pleasure of reading his books, which this film curiously barely mentions, knows that he was a sober, ferocious intellect who, while flamboyant in approach and appearance, was a product of his time and came to us as a famous person, late in life, inevitably possessing, in the 1970's, '80's, and '90's, at least some of the Edwardian notions that informed his youth in the 1920's and '30's.
This film achieves the formidable task of presenting Quentin both as he appeared publicly and as he thought privately. One can only imagine how difficult it must have been to construct the script. It was inspired to have utilized the framework of Quentin's relationships with various people upon which to construct the biography. By showcasing Quentin's friendships with a literary figure (his friend from "Christopher Street" magazine), an AIDS figure (the young, anguished painter), and a performing artist, the film reflects important facets of his personality and helps to illuminate the sometimes perplexing concept of the world according to Crisp or what he in life famously termed "Crisperanto." Quentin's dialog in the film may sound epigrammatic to some; but, that is how the gentleman actually spoke, and he had a great deal to say.
These considerations are perilously academic, however. What is important is that the film is, in and of itself, magnificent. One is tempted to observe that John Hurt does Quentin better than did Quentin himself. It is difficult to take one's eyes off of this intricately prepared, compelling actor. How astonishing are those scenes that show Hurt as Quentin: playing Queen Elizabeth I in a film, waxing ruefully upon the ravages of aging; as he really was, in his tiny apartment, hair down, balding, elderly, alone; tilting his head back, upon theater stages, in cafés, or while simply walking down the street, to achieve that rollicking laugh that so soothed and beguiled. Because portraying Quentin is by definition flashy, Hurt at first may appear mannered and theatrical; but, if one watches closely, he will realize that the actor knows precisely when less is more. His performance is, in fact, careful. It is vigorous but not exaggerated, and the effect is remarkable.
Those who approach "An Englishman in New York" armed with old political animosities from the Act Up era are missing out, really, because, as troubling as Quentin seemed in his attitude towards AIDS, he did try to atone for it, in his own way (even people with huge and gracious hearts can sometimes find it impossible to say "I'm sorry"), and because he blazed so uniquely and with such genius in innumerable other areas. As a social commentator, essayist, novelist, film critic, philosopher, public speaker, and most unlikely of fashion plates, Quentin Crisp had no peer. For better or worse, he remains a gay -- and literary -- icon. This film does justice to this totally unique man both as a legend and as he was at heart, a caring, emotional creature whose ultimate love and humility will likely outlive the hats, scarves, and tinted hair that memorably punctuated his public persona.