Quentin Crisp has always been the special guest star of his own life, so it must have pained him slightly to turn the role over to a professional actor for the television film "The Naked City Servant," based on his autobiography and shown to great acclaim first on British TV and later on American.
"A woman called Patience Collyer longed to play the part," Crisp says. "I thought that would have been marvelous - the Shakespearian idea in reverse, a woman masquerading as a man masquerading as a woman." For most of his 70 years, Crisp has not only realized he was homosexual but "paraded" the fact with as much visual emphasis as possible.
"I became no merely a self-confessed homosexual but a self-evident one," he wrote in his autobiography. "That is to say, I put my case not only before the people who knew me, but also before strangers." The book soon to be reissued in paperback, was first published in 1968 and got a fair response, but it was the television film that made Crisp a celebrity. "I have come," he says now, "from being notorious-unacceptable to being fashionably notorious in the course of three years."
This attention anything but dismays him. "The great advantage of being old is that, as it's toward the end of the run, you can over-act appalingly," he says. So he is going on the road with a one-man show that is called "The Naked Civil Servant" but has nothing to do, he insists, with the book or the film. His show opens a two-week run at Ford's Theater Nov. 28, and the film of his life will be repeated by WJLA some time in January.
Crisp does not feel he is competing with John Hurt, the actor who plays him in the film, for the role of himself, and indeed there can be no competition. Crisp in person as himself is a magnificient wisp of humanity, his face haughtily noble and powdered into porcelain, his knowledgeable eyes reminiscent of a kindly grandmother's and his physical grace suggesting a flamboyant epicene saint.
"Essentially I am exactly what you see," he announces. During the interval in my stage appearance, people ask questions of me, and one of the questions asked me in Australia was, 'You could look outrageous in absolutely anyway you choose; why the hell do you choose to look like an elderly queen?' And of course the whole point is that I look like an elderly queen because I am an elderly queen AND THAT'S WHAT I'm TELLING EVERYONE TO DO - to look like themselves."
His manner, his dress and his dead-giveaway gestures are the badges he wears with self-mocking shamelessness - "a leper's bell, and if you don't like leprosy, stay way."
Such things used to get him regularly beaten up on the streets of London. The television film did not try to make him a martyr - it was a comedy about a life of suffering - but it established him as a triumphantly unlikely hero. Now, of course, we are living in an age of alleged sexual liberation and "gay pride" and all that. Some homosexuals scorn Crisp because, he says "they don't want to be identified with a 'pansy.'" They are wearing flannel shirts and hiking boots and they look like they just stepped out of a Sunday afternoon beer commercial.
Sitting in a "posh" hotel restaurant, Crisp says, "I assure you, 50 years ago the management would have found some way of getting me out of here." He still attracts double-takes and stares. It has long since ceased to faze him, partly because, "If you live long enough, absolutely nothing matters."
Crisp is extremely bemused by the fame that television has brought him and the fact that he now occasionally finds himself living "in splendor" in a hotel where one night costs as much as a whole year's rent back home. In London, he still lives "in a single room that has not been cleaned in 35 years."
Society once punished him for being what he is; now it rewards him. "This is not a sign that I'm more wonderful than I ever was or worse than I ever was," he says. "It's just a humorous situation."
Nor is it vindication or retribution. "I seek no revenge on the world. I never did. You do pile up a kind of bitterness, and it's no good saying you brought it on yourself, because people don't have the emotions to which they are entitled. They just have their emotions.
"But as soon as you are well-received by people, this bitterness evaporates. I was asked if I found it 'ridiculous' - or, one woman said, 'naughty' - that the people who once rejected me now welcome me. Well, that is a misstatement of the question. It's the children of the people who rejected me who now welcome me, and they may do it as a form of revenge. Their parents say, 'Oh here comes that wretched man on television again', and they can say, 'I like him.'"
The film did not come about on Crisp's initiative since, he says, "I never make a decision of any kind," but when the filmmakers approached him he decided that "I wanted the film to be made for the sake of the money," not for the thrill of the spotlight (he appeared at the beginning of the film himself, brandishing a teacup) or to affect people's attitudes toward him in particular or homosexuals in general.
He never worried about the film as an invasion of his privacy. "I'd lived a totally exposed life, so I didn't think, 'Oh my God, suppose my mother sees it. Besides, my parents are dead. But all those considerations never crossed my mind. I never judged it as to whether it represented me or not.
"After it was shown, people either wrote me and said they'd seen it, or rang me up and said they'd seen it, or rang me up and said they'd kill me. The critics received it extremely well, and I was amazed that this was so. A woman who writes for a paper called The Guardian said, "It justifies the existence of television,' and I was stunned."
Crisp has his standards about life generally. He never celebrates Christmas, which happens to fall on his birthday; "I think that people who are naturally happy do not have any need of festivities." He likes routines and ruts and things that do not change, though he says, "I am never casual about relationships involving money."
He also says, "The one thing that we can be sure will never die is people's interest in the sex lives of others." And no matter how permissive an age we live in or how many androgynous sprites are elevated to the pantheon of rock star renown, Crisp believes that at least one aspect of homosexuality as a taboo will linger.
"The sin element will remain to the end of time," he says. "When the law regarding homosexuality in England was changed, the first thing the press did was run up to all the clergymen and ask, 'Do you think homosexuality should be a crime? And they all said, 'No.' And the press were just about to jump up in the air when the bishops said, 'Of course, it remains a sin.' And it will always remain a sin because according to what game you are playing are the rules laid down. I mean, when you think that St. Paul said, 'Be ye made eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake,' you realize how annoyed You-Know-Who is by happiness - let alone by sex."