Jonathan Nossiter's "Resident Alien: Quentin Crisp in America" (at the Sunset 5) offers a perceptive, thoroughly engaging and multilayered portrait of an acerbic and courageous man who once described himself as "England's stateliest homo."
The international acclaim accorded "The Naked Civil Servant," the 1975 British TV movie based on Crisp's autobiography, allowed Crisp to fulfill his dream and come to live in America, where he has become something of a celebrity--"part of the world in a shaky kind of way." Now in his indomitable 80s, Crisp has published several more books, written film criticism and can be regarded as a gay icon, albeit a controversial one, and a highly original wit.
Crisp and Manhattan were made for each other, so much so that they define each other. Crisp calls Los Angeles, where he once lectured, "New York lying down." Yet his friend writer Fran Lebowitz may be closer to the mark when she says, "Quentin doesn't know that New York is not America, and I'm not going to be the one to tell him." For this film reminds us that the density and compactness of Manhattan, in contrast to L.A.'s vast sprawl, has always been much more hospitable and sustaining to people like Crisp, with overlapping creative worlds in which such individuals can be valued for who they are rather than for what they do. "New York really does believe in people, and that's its lure," he remarks.
Who is Crisp, exactly? First, he's a man who early on felt compelled to proclaim rather than hide his androgyny to the extent of wearing makeup in public. "My problem is not my sexuality but my personality--my sexual ambiguity," he says.
Even today, in old age, his effeminacy retains its power to threaten, as evidenced by an appearance on the Sally Jessy Raphael show, in which he reacts imperturbably to castigation by a couple of men from the audience. Ironically, some gay militants react to him similarly, since he refuses to be politically correct in both his words and in his appearance. What Crisp signifies, quite simply, is the importance of being one's self--"I'm becoming more and more myself," he says. In fact he has defined possessing style as "being yourself, but on purpose."
Not surprisingly, Crisp was a great admirer of Andy Warhol, whom he resembles in his love of celebrity and the social swirl combined with an essential and enigmatic solitariness----"All I have to offer is my infinite availability." He furthermore cites Warhol when he says that to him the artist is greater than his or her art, which is but a way of seeing through to its creator.
Throughout this highly imaginative film Nossiter frames Crisp with various commentators, among them Sting, who drew inspiration from Crisp for his song and video "I'm an Englishman in New York." Referring to Crisp's deliberate eccentricities, Sting observes that "The English become more English when they come to America."
Nossiter surrounds Crisp with such friends as John Hurt, who played him in "The Naked Civil Servant," writer Felicity Mason, female impersonator Holly Woodlawn, playwright Robert Patrick, publisher Tom Steele and performance artist Penny Arcade.
The strongest moment in "Resident Alien" (Times-rated Mature) occurs when we see Crisp alone in his cluttered, nondescript room off the Bowery, baking beans on a hot plate like countless other lonely old people. It's a scene that underlines the lifelong bravery and determination of Crisp's public persona. Peering into a mirror Crisp observes, "I'm not a star. Stars control other people's lives, but I am a mini-star, which means I can control my own life."
'Resident Alien: Quentin Crisp in America'
A Greycat Films release of a Crisp City production. Writer-producer-director-editor Jonathan Nossiter. Cinematographer John R. Foster. Art director/graphics Chris Wise. Sound Fontaine Stevens, Mark Weingarten, Carol Guidry. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
Times-rated Mature (for adult themes).