February 2, 2011

Queer Review: The Naked Civil Servant

The Naked Civil Servant (1975)
Writer: Philip Mackie (Based upon the book by Quentin Crisp)
Cast: John Hurt, Stanley Lebor, Liz Gebhardt, Patricia Hodge, John Rhys-Davies

The Naked Civil Servant tells the story of Quentin Crisp, an early British homosexual who refused to live the closeted life of his contemporaries. Crisp, it should be noted, gave a whole new meaning to the term "flaming queen" and for this, he was frequently beaten, intimidated, and even arrested. In 1968 he published a memoir of his life The Naked Civil Servant, which became the basis of this movie, which was produced for British television.

Crisp (John Hurt) came from a conservative family and he made his early living as a male prostitute. Eventually, he became a nude model for an art school, which is where the title comes from, as Crisp once said that being a nude model is a lot like being a civil servant, except one is naked. Personality wise, Crisp was extremely narcissistic and effeminate. The movie presents even his friends as merely existing in his shadow, as many of them are not even given names, merely labels such as "art student". Crisp reminded me a lot of Oscar Wilde, another early gay British icon, in that both were quite quotable and pithy.

The Naked Civil Servant presents Crisp as something of a gay activist, although this was not entirely the case. The real Crisp opposed gay rights, feeling that homosexuality was a perversion, a point of view that had probably been drilled into him from a very young age. However, he also showed a great deal of courage in refusing to be forced into any sort of closet and that is what makes him notable. Even other gay men refused to associate with Crisp, for fear that doing so would reveal publicly their sexual orientation in a time and place where homosexuality was illegal.

This all made Crisp a complete outsider. He states repeatedly that he does not believe in love, although he is frequently shown to be more compassionate then the average person. He lived by a set of rules that forced him to ignore most people in public (unless they demanded an answer from him), which resulted in further isolating him from the rest of society.

John Hurt is given the hard role of portraying a lead character who is not altogether likable and he manages to give a fascinating performance nonetheless. The rest of the cast is solid, but ultimately exists in Hurt's shadow. The script also does a good job of showcasing many of Crisp's witty statements and presenting his droll (some might say cynical) perspective on humanity.

Ultimately, this is an entirely intriguing and worthwhile movie. I highly recommend it for anyone with an interest in historical gay individuals or anyone, period.

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