The Naked Civil Servant

Quentin Crisp may have been somewhat forgotten in today’s mainstream culture, even though a lot of mainstream culture owes its current shape to him. An unabashedly and flamboyantly gay man living in an era (starting with the 1920’s) and a place (England) where such an orientation was not only unaccepted, but expected to be kept hidden, Crisp took the opposite approach, hiding nothing in the face of constant persecution and ridicule.

Philip Mackie’s BBC dramatization of Crisp’s autobiography, despite being made in 1975, not only captures everything Crisp was and did beautifully, it remains an edgy and relevant piece of cinema half a century later- not bad for a fifty-year-old made-for-TV movie. It is a survivor’s tale, told by the survivor himself.

The secret sauce, of course, is John Hurt, who plays Crisp so perfectly, so compassionately, and with such deep understanding of the dignified pain he carried all his life, that Crisp himself praised Hurt for doing a better job playing him than he could have ever done. Quentin Crisp himself introduces the film, making this biopic somewhat more that just a movie- think of it as an artistic extension of Crisp’s own work and legacy.

The Naked Civil Servant was life imitating art imitating life, and it made Crisp a bonafide British star at a time when the seeds of his lifelong work were finally starting to sprout; with young, new icons like David Bowie splashed all over television and record stores, Crisp’s influence had clearly exploded: kids dressed like him, acted like him, spoke like him. The film mirrors this as well, taking his Oscar Wilde wit to heart peppering clever, deprecating quips and tongue-in-cheek silent movie cards between the bitter moments of social reality, the harsh displays of man’s inhumanity to its fellow man because of things one doesn’t understand. If, as Crisp himself says, “any film, even the worst, is at least better than real life,” it makes sense: there is more truth spoken in this fictional retelling than there ever could be in a documentary about Mr. Crisp.

And that’s the real brilliance of the film- without preaching, it encapsulates everything gay, trans, queer, and pretty much all marginalized people have had to suffer for centuries. You are placed in Quentin’s shoes, feeling every punch he receives, every dirty, mean look, every disgusted reaction people have at the sight of you. That Crisp maintains a detached, sardonic narrator of his own misfortunes throughout his entire life is both heartbreaking and inspiring- a true iconoclast and inspiration to the phrase be yourself, no matter what they say.

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