The empress of the title The Empress of Ireland is Brian Desmond Hurst, the long-forgotten director of some 25 films (including The Playboy of the Western World and 1951's Alastair Sim-topped A Christmas Carol) who worked with Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, and a couple of Redgraves. In the '70s, the octogenarian, openly gay filmmaker enlisted the heterosexual author, then a callow journalist and screenwriting novice, to write an epic about the birth of Christ. Shadows of Gods and Monsters hover, but Christopher Robbins' effervescent prose hums to its own tune, with anecdotes amusing (a Tangier dinner party attended by pink-satin-attired dwarves), hilarious (a luncheon thrown off course by particularly potent hash), and horrific (Hurst's recollections of the battle at Gallipoli). The movie never gets made, but no matter. It sparked this affectionate portrait of a fiercely intelligent imp whom Robbins correctly dubs ''an original and fabulous creation.''