There is a moment in 1975’s The Naked Civil Servant that beautifully summarizes the entire film.
John Hurt, playing English gay icon and protomartyr of pride Quentin Crisp, gazes into a mirror in his little flat, carefully prodding the bruised, beaten face that stares back at him. Caught unawares by himself in a rough part of London in the 1940’s, he was beaten mercilessly by a group of toughs when they spotted that he was a man dressed as a woman. He flags down a cab, but when the cabbie, too, realizes he’s a man, he throws Quentin out of the cab and leaves him to the roughs. As he looks over the bruises and cuts, the scene cuts to an earlier image of Quentin as a child dressed in his mummy’s fanciest clothes and waltzing alone before a mirror.
The scene of the boy dancing was the real Quentin’s own suggestion to open the film. What better way to illustrate the inherent idea of the film–that the interior self is the only way a person should be judged, that the happiness of the individual (and by extension their friends, who are just as accepting) should be one’s only concern in life? That loneliness only hurts if you can’t be happy alone? What happened to the happy little dancing boy? Hurt’s soulful eyes wonder. Who could possibly do this to him over such a stupid thing?
In 1975, John Hurt (best known to American audiences, including me, as the guy whose chest exploded in Alien) won a Bafta for his portrayal of Quentin Crisp, one of the ‘grandfathers’ of the modern gay pride movement.
The made-for-TV movie would largely be forgotten if not for Hurt’s captivating and charismatic performance; although it had more flair and style in its direction than other films of the time, it is Hurt’s moving, soulful portrayal of a man decades ahead of his time that makes the film stick. Crisp, who realized from a very young age that he didn’t care for women (WAY back in the 1920s) was delighted when he found a group of like-minded fellows one night, all dressed in women’s clothes. Unfortunately, the group were mostly composed of rent-boys, and were treated as the lowest form of life on the London streets, beaten and attacked when they weren’t being solicited for sex by closeted gay and bisexual men.
As he grew older, Crisp realized he didn’t want to pretend he was something he wasn’t–it was a time where gay men’s options were either do as you please as a rentboy (and probably die of a venereal disease or violence), or marry a beard and then sneak out a few times a week for rentboys or to go dancing with other men at secret gay clubs. Crisp, with his garish red hair and penchant for women’s clothing and makeup, on being seen entering such a secret club, would ‘ruin it for the rest’ of the closeted men, and his membership card to the club is torn up and he is asked to leave. He attempts to join the army, but is rejected on the grounds of ‘suffering from a sexual perversion.’
His decision to live out of the closet as an effeminate homosexual (as he identifies himself) costs him very dearly, in terms of friends, family, his job, and sometimes even his own safety and freedom as some officers accuse him of soliciting (he wasn’t, just saying hello to a friend).
It would be easy for the outre, witty, and fearless Crisp to overshadow the real man, with his fears, disappointments, and deep alienation from others. After all, with a sharp tongue and droll remark, he wafts through life as much as possible, even though he carries more than his share of the average life’s burdens.
And though Crisp was surrounded by friends his entire life, it’s entirely possible he never realized what loneliness felt like since he’d never been in a crowd of his own ‘kind.’ He had no kind, he was a singular individual ahead of his time, who never found his muse, his soul mate (or so the film would claim). Can one recognize true isolation if one has never known anything else?
This echoing division between himself and others is addressed–at the end of the film, he remarks that he was fabulously happy ‘just once.’ One night in his twenties, he was alone at the waterfront, and a group of sailors ran across him. Rather than brutalize him, they treated him fondly, flirting with him and making much of him, treating him as the lady he was while fully knowing he was a man, and this most heartbreaking of moments is beautifully played by Hurt, who is at the center of the group beaming with joy even as his eyes sparkle with tears–he’ll never be this happy again, he fears.
This is a quote from it that I’ve always loved–in the scene, some kids are harassing the now-middle aged Quentin, threatening to tell a policeman he’s been ‘fiddling’ with them if he doesn’t give them money–middle-school extortionists.
“I defy you to do your worst. It can hardly be my worst. Mine has already and often happened to me. You cannot touch me now. I am one of the “stately homos of England”.”
Though disappointment and tragedy follow Crisp wherever he goes, the film itself is lighthearted most of the time, almost a romp. Most of the ugliness occurs off-camera, which does sanitize the story much of the time, but also gives Crisp his dignity–not necessarily a bad thing, but also very progressive for the time it was being filmed.
After all, in the US our movies about gay culture were forward-thinking, open-minded projects like ‘Cruising.’