Quentin Crisp sprang from the closet long before it was even called the closet and long before springing from it had become a solemn and tiresome fad. Crisp elected to make his homosexuality not compromisingly "normal"-looking, but outrageous and flamboyant, thus to be all the more irrefutable in his time and, in retrospect now, to seem all the more courageoulsy offensive.
Crisp's story, "The Naked Civil Servant," at 10 tonight on Channel 7, is not about homosexuality, really, but about the dignity of the social incorrigible and the integrity of the misanthrope.
The 90-minute film, imported for local showing from England's Thames Television and already televised in New York and other cities, recounts Crip's life with buoyant, bitter wit and unlikely poignance. It's pungent and sophisticated television.
Writer Philip Mackie and director Jack Gold are not out to make Crisp a noble martyr to heterosexual persecution - though we do see him clobbered by "roughs" and mistreated by police as he flounces about town. The film, less a tract on behalf of tolerance than it is a hip-hooray for the individual, is as amusing and self-effacing as that individual himself appears to be.
And Crisp does appear, holding a teacup, at the beginning of the film. He says he responded to the filmakers request to make a movie about him with thrilled approval. "Films are fantasies," he told them. "You can make my life a fantasy as I have tried but failed to make it."
Then the real Crisp is replaced by actor John Hurt, once Caligula in the BBC's "I, Claudius" and now on gossamer wings as he floats through the life of a man who decided very early never to apologize for what he was. Discovered preening in front of a mirror by his father, the boy Quentin is asked angrily, "Do you intend to spend your entire life admiring yourself?" He replies, "If I possibly can."
Volunteering to fight in the British Army when World War II breaks out, Crisp is confronted by incredulous officers. One of them scolds him with a quotation from the Bible: "Male and female created He them." Crisp, all henna-soaked curls and painted nails, thinks about that and declares, "Male and female created He me." The whole script is brisk, bright and epigrammatic.
Crisp's attractiveness as a character stems from the paradox he represents - a shameless exhibitionist "("I am a self-evident, self-professed, effeminate homosexual for all the world to see") and yet an incurable fantasizing recluse ("The outer world is a club I do not wish to join").
Finally, and despite whatever discomfort one may feel with this kind of hero, Crisp's biography becomes bracing and affirmative, expecially in the closing scenes when he recalls in stylized flashback "one night when I was totally happy," surrounded and teased by sailors in Portsmouth. He was the center of attention, but not of malice for his novelty.
The scene has an incongruous glow of innocence that really is invigorating. Infinite variety has seldom been so movingly championed.
Director Gold did everything right, but his use of period tunes and of original music by Carl Davis seems especially clever, and Hurt never peeks out from behind the make-up and mannerisms to pretend he doesn't mean it. Channel 7 plans to bracket the show with warnings of its "adult" nature. "The Naked' Civil Servant" is adult onlyin the best ways.