‘Stately Homos of Old England’ entry: The Naked Civil Servant

“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”.”

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.

Loneliness only hurts if you know what you're missing out on.

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?

'Never call the police liars.' - QC

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.’

Yeahhhh..... No. Just. No.

In a Nutshell Entry: Bubbles from ‘The Wire’

Sometimes in media, one component stands out from the whole and is deserving of its own little examination, for many reasons. It might act as a microcosm for what the whole is about, or it might stand in stark contrast to the rest of the whole–‘In a Nutshell’ entries explore some fascinating component of particular interest without losing focus, or in the case of something that’s really good overall, doing a disservice to the rest of the whole. It’s also a way to introduce a possibly unfamiliar audience to some small piece of an otherwise unwieldy and daunting subject; it’s a ‘way in,’ if you will.

In a Nutshell: ‘Bubbles’ from The Wire

In acclaimed HBO series ‘The Wire,’ which I’m viewing for the first time on DVD, there is a small galaxy of amazing characters. The show has a metric shitload of other great reasons to watch, but for me one very special reason is mumbling heroin addict/police informant Bubbles, so called for the spit bubbles he blows when he slams junk.

Take a moment to verbally express your disbelief and possible disgust; I’ll wait. Bubbles is worth it.

The Unlikeliest of Heroes

As a homeless addict, Bubbles exists at the lowest caste of the Baltimore Street world. Gangbangers and slangers largely ignore him, and so he is able to move freely through their world, collecting bits of information and storing them in an almost photographic memory. His assistance on various operations–everything from helping identify members of the gangs and their hierarchy, to actually wearing a wire, to making phony buys–is pivotal; without him the detectives would be utterly and totally shit out of luck.

According to David Simon, show creator and a former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Bubbles was based on real life informant ‘Possum,’ who had a gift for names and faces and was a police informant for over 20 years–think on that a moment. People are proud these days if their careers last over 15, and that’s usually not in a field where you can be shot for looking the wrong way at someone’s shoes. Simon wanted to do a feature story on Possum, but when he went to the man’s apartment for a last interview, Possum had died from complications with HIV. And now, the legacy of an HIV-infected junkie has informed a character within one of the most memorable television shows of our time. Funny old world, that.

Although there are roughly eight billion great moments and characters in The Wire, Andre Royo’s portrayal of a charming  junkie steals nearly every scene he’s in. I would personally like to recommend to filmmakers that he act in more stuff.

In a scene in the second season, McNulty (Dominic West, one of the main characters), who has been busted down to Marine Patrol, reveals how little he gives a shit about his new position by his utter refusal to learn how to tie a simple knot. Each time he docks his patrol boat, he wraps the rope clumsily around the pylons before abandoning the whole thing, probably hoping the boat will just drift out to sea and he can finally be fired and drink himself to death as he secretly wishes. The camera pulls back to reveal a visiting Bubbles, who has tied a perfect maritime-regulation knot, and calls McNulty out on his half-assed attempt. Bubbles the heroin addict chides McNulty the self-destructive drunk police officer on his knot-tying. That’s the perfect summation of the character–drugs don’t waste people, they waste lives, time, potential, jobs, relationships, but the user is still alive. With his charm, intelligence, and ability to ‘talk a cat off a fishcart,’ Bubbles is a walking reminder of how easy it is to just give up, and certainly how hard it is to get it all back–but also that there’s always hope. Which is possibly the cruelest truth of all, sometimes.

There are countless moments like that with Bubbles throughout the series. He’s at heart a good person and definitely cares for others, but at the bottom of everything is his addiction, driving him along like a dog being used by a  bad master. Occasionally he climbs out from under it, and does well for a stretch, but being homeless isn’t exactly ideal for kicking an addiction and cleaning one’s life up. He’s paid about 30 dollars a day to be an informant, but cheerfully and unself-consciously asks Detective Kima Greggs to keep his money for him; the reason is obvious: if he didn’t, he’d just spend the whole nut, overdose, and kill himself.

Watch this moment from the first season, where Bubbles goes ‘fishing,’ and see if you aren’t a little charmed by his audacity and caginess.

We only just finished the 3rd season, so at the time of this entry I’m still not sure what the future holds for Bubbles.  I’d sure like to see him get out of the game and clean himself up, since the show has a high bodycount when it comes to dead dreams.