An Englishman in New York

By Adam Lippe

As a divisive figure in the then-burgeoning gay rights movement, writer-actor Quentin Crisp is worthy of being given a lengthy biopic, or at least one that gives equal time to arguing the ways he both helped and harmed the gay cause. An Englishman in New York, which covers Crisp’s life as a latter day theater and television provocateur from the mid-1970s to his death in1999, is not that movie.

At only 75 minutes (70 minutes pre-credits), director Richard Laxton’s An Englishman in New York only has time to skim the surface, with Crisp reduced to appearing to be a sexless, second-rate Oscar Wilde, dropping catty witticisms to his hungry and supportive theatrical audiences. We get set-ups for major ups and downs in Crisp’s life, from his stardom as an unfiltered TV guest on talk shows to his mouth getting him into trouble when he called AIDS nothing more than “a fad.” But An Englishman in New York, which, after its film festival run, had a number of airings on the LOGO channel, only offers pit stops, with major figures in his life showing up as special guest stars and quickly exiting (such as Swoosie Kurtz as his agent, Jonathan Tucker as a needy gay painter, and Cynthia Nixon as his theatrical partner Penny Arcade).

The way that the theater shows are set up, An Englishman in New York suggests that Crisp simply responded to audience queries with half-baked sexual retorts, like Mae West in a gray wig, while Penny Arcade performed burlesque as bookends. In essence, that’s what the movie is too; a vaudeville show with hero-worship.

However, as Quentin Crisp, John Hurt nearly saves the day. Reprising his role from Crisp’s groundbreaking 1975 TV movie The Naked Civil Servant, Hurt bypasses all of the rushed details (the early scenes, with their musical and clothing choices, seem to be shopping exclusively at the 1970s cliché store) and the notion that An Englishman in New York would never have been made had Sting not written a song about Crisp. Hurt is so comfortable as Crisp, that he exceeds even the real Quentin Crisp in charm and clueless vulnerability (such as Crisp’s willingness to respond to every homophobic insult thrown his way). Hurt adds irony to a scene about gay cloning, because in a sense, we prefer Hurt to the original. Hurt truly gives us a sense of Crisp’s purposeful isolationism and how he tried to turn it into a unique form of happiness. In moments such as when Crisp plans his own funeral, Hurt transforms Crisp from a cuddly little old man being all cute and nihilistic, to a harrowing portrayal of a man dealing with his own irrelevance.

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By Adam Lippe

Whenever there’s a genre parody or ode to a specific era of films, such as Black Dynamite’s mocking of Blaxploitation films or Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, the second half of Grindhouse, the danger is that the film might fall into the trap of either being condescending without any particular insight, or so faithful that it becomes the very flawed thing it is emulating.

Black Dynamite has nothing new to say about Blaxploitation films, it just does a decent job of copying what an inept [...]

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Featured Quote (written by me)

On Cold Fish:

Though the 16 year old me described the 1994 weepie Angie, starring Geena Davis as a Brooklyn mother raising her new baby alone, as “maudlin and melodramatic,” Roger Ebert, during his TV review, referring to the multitude of soap-operaish problems piling up on the titular character, suggested that it was only in Hollywood where Angie would get a happy ending. “If they made this movie in France, Angie would have shot herself.”

Well Cold Fish was made in Japan, where Angie would have shot herself and that would have been the happy ending.