It takes a significant leap of the imagination, and yet a necessary one, to understand what courage it took to be openly homosexual or lesbian in a period where, apart from legal sanctions, the surrounding culture told them that they were unmentionable, worthless and deranged. Christopher Isherwood and Quentin Crisp had remarkably little in common - not class, not achievement, not philosophy of life - but they had in common both as young men and as very old men that capacity to bear witness which is often as brave as more overt acts; both of them were left by the prevailing ideology under which they came to maturity riddled with self-sabotaging self-hatred, and yet capable of turning that self-hatred into humility and grace. Watching these two films is a constant temptation to yell at both men, a temptation that derives from the fact that both of them remain constant voices in our heads even though they are years dead.
Crisp, of course, had the singular good fortune to live long enough to be incarnate in a classic television play in the form of John Hurt, who was almost more Crisp than the real thing had been; the ageing eccentric suddenly became a minor national treasure and, like many other national treasures, was in due course exported to the United States. The story of what happened to him there is one which John Hurt has lived long enough to enact; An Englishman in New York is extraordinary on the physical indignities of age simply because the actor has aged enough to gives us them. Like Peter O'Toole in the excellent Venus, Hurt makes great play with the wreck of his own erstwhile beauty, or rather of the change of the ethereal beauty he had as a young man into something still strangely gorgeous even though gnarled and knotted. This is a performance in which Hurt finds in his own losses a way into the losses that Crisp endured in the course of becoming a great survivor.
The film makes much of the way that Crisp found in stage performance a chance to be a prophet of his own misanthropic cynical existentialism; merely the thing he was would make him live, would become, as he put it, his 'style'. Like all dandies there was a steel underneath the frippery and flippancy; he was a man who would rather be ostracised than aplogize or explain, and the film makes much of the episode when an ill-judged, and much misunderstood, comment about the early days of the HIV epidemic turned him from a hero of the gay community to someone seen as a 'bitter old queen' 'playing to the straights'. Yet he had not changed - it was just that people had earlier not wished to understant the essentially tragic nature of his view of life and hated being slammed up against it. A deadly disease was for him just another thing which people had to endure, and make light of; it is not defending him to say that he was being consistent.
An Englishman in New York is centred on Hurt's revisiting of his earlier performance, but has a number of other fine players; the ageing Crisp was a far less solitary being than his younger self. Swoosie Kurtz is attractively go-getting and chilly as his agent, Jonathan Tucker convincing and touching as the dying artist Patrick Angus whom Crisp befriended. Sometimes an actor's impersonation of an actual person is spookily accurate and sometimes it is fine even when we do not see the resemblance; Cynthia Nixon makes the performance artist Penny Arcade a far less ebullient and warm figure than those who have seen her shows would recognize, but nonetheless makes a convincing fist of that ideological engagement with post-modernism which intertwined with her friendship for Crisp. The film gives us a real sense of a New York which was, for Crisp, a place where he went to be old, find fame and found friendship; predictably, and necessarily, it ends with the Sting song that gives the film its title.
Chris and Don is a documentary record of an earlier migration - that of Christopher Isherwood to a California where he found employment in Hollywood, spiritual enlightenment with various gurus and in due course love, with the much younger artist Don Bachardy. Bachardy is of course still alive, and the film spends much time with his chatterbox, slightly self-promoting presence with Isherwood being represented in voice-overs by Michael York (who of course played him in the Bob Fosse film of Cabaret to Isherwood's less than entire pleasure.)
Admirably, the film refuses to skirt one of the most crucial issues - many of their friends disapproved of the relationship because of the age gap of thirty years between writer and painter, especially in its early stages when Bachardy was still in his late teens. Easy moralizing, though, fails at the realization that this was a love that lasted until Isherwood's death; one of the reasons why we see so much of Bachardy's work in this film is that Isherwood was the subject of so many of his lover's best portrait drawings - there was little exploitation in a relationship in which they were each other's muse.
At worst, this sort of biographical documentary or fictionalized life is Auden's 'shilling life that tells you all the facts'; at its best, it is a way of telling us how it felt to be this man in that time, and then apply that knowledge to ourselves. Both these films move on from the simply historical and personal to show us a sort of wisdom - the wisdom that comes from passionate love and the wisdom that comes from a self-regard so passionate that it becomes a searingly honest self- assessment; shown at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, both have a worth that speaks to the more broadly human condition as well as to a community honouring its dead elders.
Clearly, I am brooding on something, because this piece and the reviews of the Brando biography, the Sontag journals and the Rechy memoir form a suite of meditations on what it was to live under even greater repression than we do now. Or maybe it is just that my own looming Big Number birthday is making me think about these things.