The incomparable Quentin Crisp (1908-1999) shared a birthday with Jesus and was played by John Hurt in 1975’s The Naked Civil Servant, adapted from Crisp’s memoir of the same name.
The Queen of interwar Old Compton Street, he starred with Helen Mirren, among others, on the London stage before moving to the United States where his dinner parties became legendary. He played Queen Elizabeth I opposite Tilda Swinton in 1992’s Orlando and appeared as a party guest in a scene of the same year’s Philadelphia.
Imperiously disparaging about everything from AIDS (”a fad”) to Princess Diana (”vulgar”), he wrote a classic series of film reviews for Christopher Street magazine, some of which are reprinted here at Outrate. For more information, please visit the Quentin Crisp website, or purchase the anthology of Quentin Crisp film reviews, “How To Go To The Movies”, here.
June was a month of debauchery.
During it, I watched two films in one week, one wantonly with a movie maniac and the other in the line of duty with your Mr. Steele. The one that my movie-mad friend chose was called Man, Woman and Sin. Two days later, I saw Mr. Babenco’s masterpiece, Kiss of the Spider Woman. Though this was screened in an upper room on Broadway for the most highbrow critics in the land and is as sordid a tale as you will ever find (however hard you try), the woman sitting next to me laughed delightedly throughout the entire two hours of its showing time.
Kiss has glaring faults but none that, in my opinion, make it ludicrous.
Perhaps we should deal with these errors at once and quickly so that we may dwell at length on the film’s remarkable virtues.
The first mistake is the title. Many moviegoers are accustomed to a weekly encounter with a freak from forty fathoms or a comic from a comet and they will imagine that this picture is just another “screamie”. It is no such thing. It is the story of two men living in a Brazilian prison. One is a revolutionary and the other has been found guilty of perverting a minor. The latter insists on telling his cell mate the plot of a movie with which he has totally identified himself. Here we come to the movie’s second weakness. The sequences, of which there are many, showing us the film within the film should have been in pure black and white - always a more glamorous medium than color. Instead, they are in a sort of minimal color that makes everything - even the heroine - a yellowish green like used broccoli. As she is playing a kind of Hispanic Marlene Dietrich in Dishonored, this is an effect that cannot be overlooked. The third defect is that the homosexual is played by Mr. Hurt (Mr. William Hurt, not my Mr. John Hurt, who was my representative of earth in The Naked Civil Servant) and he is much too large - taller, if anything, than Mr. Julia, who is playing the man of this odd couple. We all know dizzy gentlemen, six foot high and with huge hands and feet, who, at the slightest provocation or none, prance around the room in hats with eye veils, but that’s life, which was never famous for its casting. In the movies, if you are going to camp and utter the words “‘I’ve fallen in love with you,” stay small. To increase the confusion, this character has been accused of pederasty. This makes it hard for us to feel that he could become romantically attached to a full-grown man. Either the film should have made it clear that Mr. Hurt had been falsely charged or that his physical interest in Mr. Julia is a last resort. Even a prison official uses the phrase “you’ve fallen in love with him.” This seems the last straw of romanticism.
Apart from these rather technical flaws, the film is superb.
At first, it seems to be going to be another dreary tale about human relationships; we spend a lot of time in the gloom and squalor of the prison cell. Then, suddenly, we are in the pure light of day. Mr. Hurt is being interrogated in the governor’s office and we become aware that he is being used to spy on Mr. Julia. We have hardly been able to digest this turn of events before it becomes obvious that Mr. Hurt is also manipulating the authorities. By giving them the impression that he can lead them to the headquarters of the underground movement, he secures his release, but by this time he has become too deeply involved with his cell mate and we know that he cannot betray him. From that moment onward, the plot races forward and our hearts race with it. The climax of the film is absolutely stunning; it has become the story of a young man whose very weakness drives him to heroic action, like a Graham Green novel but kinky instead of sacred.
The acting by the two main characters is faultless. Mr. Julia, whom I thought inadequate in a recent play about Mr. Fellini, is totally convincing - a man who has been in a rage since the day he was born. However, if the picture belongs to any one person, that person is Mr. Hurt. He completely overcomes his physical disadvantage. His need to hide from the real world in his movie fantasies, his secret perverse enjoyment of his incarnation, and his growing dependence on his companion are all portrayed with a pathos I have never seen equaled.
Because homosexual men are pathologically incapable of making love with their friends or making friends of their lovers, it is not possible to write a satisfactory play about their world. The dialogue can only be midday gossip or moonlit grunts. A dramatist tends to sink into the sentimentality of The Boys in the Band or lapse into mere pornography. In Kiss, for a change, the basic situation is entirely believable. Mr. Julia consents to a physical union with Mr. Hurt partly because no women are available, partly out of pity for anyone so ill-equipped to live, but mostly in the hope of compromising him into delivering a message to his subversive confederates in the outer world. Mr. Hurt, though mortally afraid, agrees to do this partly out of loyalty to Mr. Julia but also because such an action would give him a leading role in a real-life melodrama just as glorious as one of the movies in which he is so wholly involved.
In recommending this film so highly, I feel that I am teasing you, because I do not see how it can ever be shown in a real cinema. It is not too shocking, but it is too serious. Perhaps, if you can sit up late enough, it will one night be shown on cable television or, if you wait with sufficient patience, it will be released at an art house in a crooked side street in San Francisco. It is worth waiting a long time and going a great way to see.
KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN
United States, 1985
Director: Hector Babenco
Stars: William Hurt, Raul Julia, Sonia Braga
Available on DVD - order here
Quentin Crisp’s erudite movie reviews were originally published inChristopher Street magazine then presented in a now out-of-print anthology titled “How To Go To The Movies” that was published in 1988 by St. Martin’s Press (purchase a copy here).
His reviews of gay-themed films are reprinted here on Outrate in the hope that they may be shared with a new audience. Every effort has been made to contact the relevant publishers and copyright stakeholders.