Quentin Crisp was born in Surrey, England in 1908, only 13 years after Oscar Wilde’s trial and conviction for sodomy. Wilde’s trial served to simultaneously publicize the existence of the homosexual underground (comprised of “dandies” like Wilde and “toughs” like his paramours) and underscore Victorian society’s harsh punishments for stepping outside the norm. Crisp died in 1999, 30 years after the Stonewall Riots kicked off the contemporary era of “liberated” but commodified gay “culture.” As such, he stands between two worlds, two completely different structures that society has adopted to organize its understanding of men who have sex with one another. His memoir, and this TV movie adapting it, are products of the post-Stonewall gay culture machine starting to gear up in the early seventies. But his persona, and even his message, are decidedly pre-Stonewall, maybe even antithetical to the gay movement’s core. I remember as a young activist being horrified to read something he’d said, and I don’t remember it exactly, about how “homosexuals will never be happy the way that normals will be. It is the job of the normals to live life, the job of the homosexual to stand outside it and miserably watch that happiness play out.” As much as that galls, though, it is also, clearly, not the full story when it comes to Crisp, who, if his autobiography is to be believed, refused to take shit from anybody — normal or otherwise — and managed to carve out a victorious (if not, specifically, happy) identity for himself as an outrageous gay man before that position had any real meaning or context in the larger culture, despite his understandable (given the milieu in which he was raised) self-hatred.
Some things I particularly liked: the “toughs” he finds himself sexually engaged with aren’t particularly glamorous or sexy, bearing more resemblance to Ralph Kramden than to Stanley Kowalski. That strikes me as realistic, and a good antidote to the fetishization of sleazy pre-Stonewall sexuality that my contemporaries and I sometimes find ourselves falling victim to. Hurt plays Quentin Crisp as a brittle, artificial, cagey old queen. I would have complained that he overdid the artificiality, except that Crisp himself introduces the movie with a brief monologue, and his presence, diction, and posture (not to mention the things he says) all make it clear that, if anything, Hurt downplayed the inhuman preciousness of this awesome old queer.
The movie does seem to cover a lot of ground without any natural tension or energy driving the events forward. This happens and then this does, which probably matches the reality of Crisp’s life (or anybody’s) more than most autobiographical stories do. It’s easy to make fun of biopics for creating artificial arcs to people’s lives, but I can see now why they feel it’s necessary. Otherwise you get a little slackness that isn’t very exciting, which is what I felt about this movie.
Overall, though, because I have a specific and strong interest in pre-Stonewall gay culture, and even more particularly in the transition between that shadowy demimonde and our rainbow-bracelet-Logo-channel-here-queer-used-to-it present, I enjoyed this movie a lot. I’m not sure if everybody would, though.