Saturday, January 14, 2012

One A Week Reviews #2: An Englishman in New York

After 34 years, John Hurt returns to playing Quentin Crisp in An Englishman in New York. It's a sequel, the follow-up to The Naked Civil Servant, where Crisp shared his story of becoming "one of the stately queens of England" through strife and the Twentieth Century. Here, we rejoin Crisp as he emigrates to America and we rejoin Hurt as he revisits one of the most marvelous characterizations of his career.

This film opens with a TV interview from the night in 1975 after The Naked Civil Servant aired, making Crisp a national sensation. He rises to the occasion and, when invited to the US on a publicity tour, he falls in love with New York and decides to stay.

Quentin Crisp excelled at the brilliance of honestly being one's true self. He gets an agent, played by Swoozie Kurtz in a why-is-she-here performance, who helps him become the toast of the town. At this point he's in his Seventies, but Hurt makes him seem like he's at the prime of his life. He gets a one-man show and a film review column, but his topic is his view of the world. His life of holding court at every invitation and singing for his supper must've gotten tiring after a while, but he pretty much lived on cocktails and crudites. He drifts into  becoming the toast of the art scene.

Quentin Crisp seems to have gone through life holding people at arms length verbally, emotionally, and physically. He even wound up celebrated for making that life into art... but it's not a life I'd want to live. The scenes between John Hurt and Jonathan Tucker, as the young and alienated painter Patrick Angus, spark and resonate. Just mining that relationship opens the film up beyond quipping artifice, and Tucker holds his own as Hurt dazzles. Seeing Crisp actually let people in, warms your heart in spite of his prickliness. Hurt's performance is as rich, round, and full here as it was playing Crisp in 1975, and the years of experience season it marvelously. Also, the fact that the man has always looked damn old makes his turn as a septuagenarian-to-nonagenarian easy to believe. Seriously, John Hurt is genius.

Cynthia Nixon's turn as the performance artist Penny Arcade is a marvel to those who only know her from Sex and the City and Tucker (and a televised stage production of "The Women"). She's looser and more full of life than she's seemed in ages, even if she turns a real person into an exposition device to illustrate the conflict between the past, represented by Crisp, and 1990s Gay New York.

He was a product of his times, and wears the callouses of a long, hard life. His opinions on some things haven't aged well, and this is probably for the best. He really did not get the AIDS crisis or gay liberation... but he's an icon in his own right (and he was out of time and from outer space anyhow). If we were all our selves, and our own work of art, this world would be one hell of a more interesting and crowded place.

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