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The Mischievous World of Quentin Crisp : Movies: The gay icon has made the whole journey from the outer suburbs of ostracism and, at 83, shows the wisdom of a survivor.

July 19, 1993|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Quentin Crisp may have described himself as "England's stateliest homo," but over brunch in a West Hollywood hotel suite he proves mischievous as well as witty and wise.

"I try never to let the mention of money to besmirch my coral lips," he quipped, describing his first meeting with director Sally Potter, who cast him as Queen Elizabeth I in her surrealist film of Virginia Woolf's "Orlando."

"Miss Potter called to invite me to come over to an apartment on East 4th where she was staying, and I live on East 3rd--they call it the East Village but it's really the Lower Eastside. I told her that I wanted to do whatever she wanted, which is what I always say."

At 83, Crisp is a puckish, slight man who wears his longish hair somewhat in the piled-up style of Katharine Hepburn. For his interview he was simply but stylishly dressed in shades of blue--blue jacket, tie, trousers and shirt. On his left hand he wore a turquoise ring and around his neck a monocle.

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For pictures he put on a floppy but rakish Garbo-style black hat; the total effect was to make him seem an older, contemporary version of the New Yorker's signature image, the dandy Eustace Tilley, who graces the magazine's cover every February. He had indeed painted his lips coral and wore light makeup; Crisp, after all, is one of the most famous androgynous figures in the world.

A resident of New York City for 12 years, Crisp returned to England to film "Orlando." He had visited there only a year before.

"For 'Orlando' I did two weeks in Hatfield, about 25 miles outside London," Crisp continued, "I must say everybody was kind to me; I never had to take a step. The costumes, of course, were an agony." Mrs. Swinton--the mother of Tilda Swinton, who plays Orlando, a royal protege--remarked, "No wonder Queen Elizabeth was always chopping people's heads off; she was in a permanent rage at having to wear those clothes."

In the years since the 1976 TV film of his autobiography "The Naked Civil Servant," for which John Hurt won a British Academy Award for his portrayal of Crisp, he has become an international celebrity, appearing on talk shows, occasionally acting in plays and films and touring in his one-man show in which he expounds on the importance of learning how to become yourself. "English audiences are not so easy to please as American audiences," he said. "In America they just want you to give them help--to teach them how to be happy, rich or thin--almost anything will do."

Crisp was the subject of a delightful documentary "Resident Alien," which was in theatrical release last fall. He has been a film reviewer and currently is a free-lance book reviewer. Most recently, he has been approached to do voice-overs for British commercials for Boy George's newest album.

"I received this call asking me if I would do this," he said. "I said as always that I want to do what you want me to do but said I didn't want to have to go to England to do it. I haven't done it yet. My agent said, 'Did you get their name and phone number?' But I never remember to do such things."

In his own estimation, Crisp's voice is "flat as a pancake and not at all appetizing," yet it may well be his most distinctive feature. It has a somewhat gravelly, nasal quality with a decidedly masculine pitch, yet, when mimicking people, something Crisp does well and frequently--and with affection rather than cruelty--he can startle you with a ringing basso profundo as well as a falsetto. His British accent is very grand and his speech very precise, yet he seems always to be ever-so-gently mocking both.

Since completing "Orlando," Crisp has appeared in Jonathan Demme's "Philadelphia," in which Tom Hanks, playing an attorney diagnosed with Kaposi's sarcoma, hires a former adversary (Denzel Washington) to represent him in a suit against his law firm, which has fired him.

"I went to Philadelphia by train," said Crisp, who revels in any and all opportunities and amenities that come his way. "I was met by someone holding up a placard and taken to the Omni Hotel, where I lived in unaccustomed splendor. I appear in this costume-party scene. Lypsinka entertained, so did the Flirtations, who sang 'Oh, Mr. Sandperson, Send Me a Dream.' They assigned me to come as Oscar Wilde--no one ever looked less like Oscar Wilde than I! We were all to dance the Madison, which has not been done since Doris Day and Gordon MacRae did it in some Warners' musical. I never learned the steps, so I stayed in the background, shuffling backward and forward.

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