WHEN QUENTIN CRISP meets us at the door of his hotel suite, we don't quite know whether to bow, curtsy or kiss his ring. He emanates an aura of British royalty--and he is, though in a completely unrelated realm. An 87-year-old English-born author/actor/all-around celebrity, Crisp is a veteran of a world where "gay culture" wasn't even a twinkle in a queen's eye. Labelled more than once as this century's version of Oscar Wilde, he first gained real notoriety with his 1977 autobiography The Naked Civil Servant, which was made into a British film with John Hurt playing Crisp. Several books and cameo film appearances later ("films which never see the light of day or the dark of the cinema--only the video stores"), Crisp had a splashier, lengthier role in Sally Potter's 1993 film Orlando, as the bejewelled Queen Elizabeth I.
Today, decked out in a snappy black suit complete with ascot and brooch, Crisp is in town to film his part as Malcolm, a gay neighborhood guru in the locally produced Homo Heights, a sort of drag version of The Godfather. "This is a very good movie in that it doesn't try to sell you homosexuality. It doesn't say 'Really, of course we're all decent chaps and we believe in family values,'" Crisp declares in a crackly, aged voice, gently touching his lavender-dyed hair. "Everyone in this is as vicious, as empty, as vain as they could possibly be." A wicked smirk appears on his lips.
The glamorous world of film icons is one Crisp grew up in. He speaks of Marlene Dietrich adoringly ("Her face was screen-size") and reminisces: "When I was young, the words 'movie star' meant a woman. All the women were vamps. All they had to do was a series of calculated frustrations." He adds flourishes with his hands and coyly casts his made-up eyes downward for demonstration. "The English dragged them down. They said 'We want to see movies stars that look like people.' A great mistake! What we want is movie stars."
After decades in the U.K., Crisp currently lives on the Lower East Side of New York City. "Which they try to call the East Village," he sneers. "Over my dead body! It's full of the refuse of the world. The people who have failed. It's very sad and depressed, but has its own brand of courage, which is nice." When not on film shoots, he spends his time writing a monthly (formerly weekly) diary for the New York Native ("The kinkiest paper in all the world"). The entries from 1990-94 have been collected in a compilation titled Resident Alien, which is available in England but is still seeking U.S. distribution.
In parting, we ask Mr. Crisp how he gets involved with the sometimes deliriously strange films and videos in which he appears. His blushed cheeks rise with a sedate smile. "I'm a victim of fate," he states simply. "I merely stand where I can be seen. That's really the course of my life. I leaned forward so fate could see me." (Matt Keppel)