Only at the Berlinale will you find a sold-out cinema full of eager viewers waiting to see a 25-year-old documentary about a gay man in California. In this case the film was The Times of Harvey Milk by Robert Epstein. It wasn’t just any film, but an Oscar winner from 1984. Harvey Milk came from Long Island (and never lost his East-coast accent) to live in San Francisco in the 1970s. He supported the rights of gays and lesbians to lead a normal life without discrimination. He and his supporters successfully shot down Proposition 6, which would have prevented homosexuals from teaching in schools. He was elected political representative from District Five into the local government. A former fellow delegate, Dan White, broke into city hall and fatally shot Milk as well as Governor George Moscone on November 1978. White’s lawyer got him off with a light sentence of 4-6 years which caused residents of San Francisco’s Castro district to hit the streets on a rampage. This documentary, just as its title says, presents much about the life of Harvey Milk, his small shop, his speeches, his friends, as well as the people who inhabited his neighbourhood and the politicians with whom he worked such as Diane Feinstein and celebrities of his day such as Jimmy Carter and right-wing conservative singer Anita Bryant.
This film served as factual background material for the new feature film Milk by Gus van Sant which also showed at the Berlinale. Milk follows The Times of Harvey Milk almost word for word, with actors, foremost Sean Penn as Milk, playing the parts of real people. Milk supplements The Times of Harvey Milk, and not vice versa, for example, in Milk we learn more about Harvey’s personal love life and that Dan White served 5.5 years in prison, was released and, two years later, committed suicide. Now a quarter century later, the subject matter of Harvey Milk has earned another Oscar – this time for Sean Penn as best actor for his role in Milk.
British, gay Quentin Crisp moved from Great Britain to New York City in 1981 at age 73. By then he was an icon of the gay era – probably the first to openly declare himself homosexual. He wore make-up and fancy jackets and earned a living in talk shows where he gave flippant advice in answer to questions from the audience. He became famous after John Hurt portrayed him in the film The Naked Civil Servant by Jack Gold in 1975. In 1990 Jonathan Nossiter made a documentary with the real Quentin Crisp called Resident Alien. These two films showed at the Berlinale; the documentary being rather more boring than the fictitious version. Both were nothing compared to An Englishman in New York, a bio-pic continuation of the Crisp story which premiered at this 2009 Berlinale.
Once again John Hurt plays the flamboyant Quentin Crisp. He lives in the familiar small apartment at Christopher Street. It’s surprising that Crisp was a “messy” in his own four-walls considering his fastidiousness with his clothes and his gigantic collection of silk scarves. He meets Phillip Steele, editor of the Village Voice, befriends a young artist who later dies of AIDS as well as a transvestite named Penny Arcade, and receives permanent residency in the US. The singer Sting writes the successful song “An Englishman in New York” and dedicates it to him. In the press conference following this excellent film, John Hurt and his director Richard Laxton said that they agreed to forget the adage: let sleeping dogs lie, i.e., no repeat of Naked Civil Servant. They decided that it would be a shame not to make a new film about Crisp in his last years. One couldn’t possibly have the same input as in 1975. The sexual revolution changed all that. This film shows “Crisp as a man dealing in a heroic way with the life given him. There was a real brutal honesty in Quentin. Many of his opinions are absolutely right. It was like Oscar Wilde coming to America in the 19th century.” He was gregarious and did not suffer from loneliness.” His only concession to old age was using an umbrella (a typical Englishman’s prop) as a cane. Eighteen years later, he got an invitation to perform in England. Perhaps a sudden surge of homesickness caused him to accept. He flew over and died, age 91, the night before his performance in Manchester.
Typical Quentin Crisp-isms
The three Berlinale films on Quentin Crisp were full of his sound bites. For example:
• To succeed in heaven avoid the shadows.
• Never try to keep up with the Joneses. Drag them down to your level. It’s cheaper.
• One cheap thrill of the ballet is that one of the dancers might break his neck.
• About NYC: If you can make it here, you’ll fail everywhere else.
• House cleaning is a mistake. After four years, the dust can’t get any worse.
• In the future everyone will have 15 minutes to find someone in the room with money.
• The US only elect a Democrat so that their armies can have a break before returning to the fray.
• Even a marriage to oneself cannot last forever. My body and I divorced years ago, but we’re still forced to live together.
• It’s possible to put something aside if you are prepared to live on peanuts and champagne.
• It looks like the US will elect another Bush. You said things will be bad, but not this bad.
One other gay boy in the US was Pedro Zamora from Florida in the film called Pedro. He was infected with AIDS at a young age, still in high school. He lived in a house with Pam, Rachel, Mohammed, Cory, Buck, Libard, and Jud for MTV’s reality show The Real World. Everyone watched him fall in love with a man, marry him, and die of AIDS in 1994, just 22 years old. This US film by Nick Oceano might be interesting to certain groups of young people in the US, but basically it is kitschig and over the top.