A rare, if not unique, example of a thesp revisiting a character more than 30 years later, “An Englishman in New York” brings John Hurt’s now-classic imagining of “Britain’s most famous homosexual,” wit Quentin Crisp, to a satisfying, mellow close. More fully inhabited than in the Jack Gold-directed 1975 telefilm, though unavoidably lacking something in immediacy now that Crisp is dead and buried, Hurt’s perf gives some dramatic continuity to a production that is more a succession of setpieces than a through-drama per se — at least until its affecting later stages.
Though “The Naked Civil Servant” also had a theatrical career at the time, “Englishman,” at an admirably snappy 74 minutes, will sashay only into pubcaster slots.
Film picks up Crisp’s story after he’s been pilloried by the British public following a frank TV interview. His career is saved by Manhattan agent Connie Clausen (Swoosie Kurtz), who says she wants to rep him Stateside. Already in his early 70s, Crisp quits the country of his birth and manages to get resident-alien status in the U.S., on the grounds that nobody else can do his “job.”
In 1981, Crisp becomes a cult darling with his one-man show, “How to Be Happy,” though again, his frankness — part arrogance, part honesty, in Hurt’s perf — is his Achilles’ heel. When he claims same-sex love is impossible, he’s attacked by gays for “playing to straights.”
Clausen manages to get him a gig instead as a film critic for the Village Voice, whose publisher, Phillip Steele (Denis O’Hare), is a fan, and a real friendship — movingly etched in small grace notes — slowly builds between the two. In an agreement that speaks to the richness of U.S. film culture of the time compared with today, Steele allows Crisp the luxury of critiquing just the movies he wants to. (Steele writes the reviews himself, based on post-screening conversations with the acerbic Brit.)
However, for a man who built a celebrity career from being an outsider, Crisp starts to become more and more of an anachronism in a decade when gay life has become part of the social fabric. His statement during one show that “AIDS is a fad, nothing more” and his refusal to recant or campaign for gay rights (“It is my policy never to lie, never to defend”) torpedo his career.
A brief friendship with young gay artist Patrick Angus (Jonathan Tucker, excellent) starts to give the film some emotional ballast. But it’s the last half-hour, which shows Steele still devotedly looking after the now-failing Crisp, and Crisp’s final bounce-back during the Clinton era in a two-person show with performance artist Penny Arcade (Cynthia Nixon, fine), that contains the most moving material.
Though it’s Hurt’s show — climaxing with a virtual Sermon on the Mount in a gay bar in Tampa, Fla. — the perf that really grows is O’Hare’s, especially in the final stages, when Crisp and Steele, with nothing to lose after so long, drop their guard and confess their gratitude to each other.
The obviously modest budget is well apportioned, with period Manhattan production design concisely evoked.