In 1975 John Hurt played a role that was instrumental to his career: as the flamboyant Quentin Crisp, he put in a dazzling performance.
Crisp had been a extrovert homosexual in Britain at a time when it was dangerous and illegal to admit to it. He wore bohemian outfits, and even make-up, in public from the late 1930s through to his senior years. Defiantly effeminate, he became known for his opinions, politics and eccentricity. But Crisp never considered himself either an activist or a pioneer -he was just being himself.
Telemovie The Naked Civil Servant, based on his autobiography, catapulted both Hurt and Crisp into another sphere.
Now 35 years later, a senior Hurt returns to the role once more in what is effectively, and uniquely, a sequel.
Hurt is now old enough to play the senior Crisp and pick up his life where he left off. In concept alone it is a bold and rare move. Once again he shows why he was so perfect for this role (Sir Ian McKellan surely could have been the only other candidate?).
The story of An Englishman in New York is triggered by the real-life success of The Naked Civil Servant. The film had so elevated Crisp that he began one-man live shows in which he became a raconteur. Telling anecdotes from his life and answering questions from audience members in the ’70’s, Crisp’s personality moved from being ridiculed to celebrated.
It is America’s interest in Crisp that lures him to New York. Here he is in his element. Walking the street with prostitutes, drag queens, punks, actors, gang members, socialites, artists, immigrants, Crisp fits right in. It is a liberating move.
He continues his live shows in a small theatre where he is approached by theatrical agent Connie Clausen (Swoosie Kurtz) who furthers his opportunities. He also meets gay publisher Phillip Steele (Denis O’Hare) and the young painter Patrick Angus (Jonathan Tucker).
But it is the onslaught of the HIV-AIDS pandemic in the 1980s that threatens to derail his popularity. It underpins the conflict of this telemovie.
In an almost-unrecognisable role is Cynthia Nixon as risque performance artist Penny Arcade.
The chameleon-like Hurt is powerful as this most-curious human being. At times looking dangerously like Vanessa Redgrave, he keeps up the emotionless facade of the ageing Crisp. This isn’t really an ensemble flick, it’s all about Hurt.
Despite its political themes, this is more about Crisp the man than the cause, and Hurt was born to play the part.
An Englishman in New York airs 8:30pm Sunday on ABC1.