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Prick Up Your Ears|
cast: Gary Oldman, Alfred Molina, Vanessa Redgrave, Frances Barber, and Julie Walters
director: Stephen Fears
90 minutes (18) 1987
widescreen ratio 1.85:1 Prism
Leisure DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Andrew Darlington
A love story... The naughty overgrown bit-of-rough, and the prissy thespian. The brilliance
and the squalor... The beautiful, and the damned... The luminously spectacular life...
and the brutal death... Lives don't usually describe such strong narrative arcs. This
one does. All the classic elements are present. Joe Orton is a man on the edge of the
edge, in his cruising black leather jacket, Dylan-cap, and baseball boots. When he dies
he wants to be remembered as "the most perfectly developed playwright of his time."
And the bitching glowering Kenneth Halliwell, brittle and quarrelsome, diminished by his
partner's incandescent fame. He interrogates himself "how do you justify your existence?
As Joe Orton's friend?" Do gays have better sex lives than the more conventionally
gendered? On this evidence, yes, if you're the guilt-free promiscuously 'trolling' Orton...
No, if you're the jealously repressed up-tight Ken. Orton's truculent swagger is both
charming and abrasive, his comic invention as sharp as his tongue. Easy to see why Halliwell
is both entranced and insanely frustrated by him. By contrast, Halliwell is bald, bitter,
sexually incapable, a hulking mass of awkwardness. Yet theirs is an intense relationship,
"not corruption" says John Lahr, but "collaboration."
Built around Lahr's brilliant biography, the movie opens with him interviewing Orton's
literary agent Peggy - Vanessa Redgrave, she tells their tale, but claims she can't
find Orton's elusive diaries, the hidden key to his secret life. Their voiceover dialogue
continues, narrating what follows. And it's a plot scripted directly from one of Orton's
plays. "Someone here's been playing silly buggers," says the cop who discovers
their bodies on that 9th August 1967 morning. Orton's head caved in by nine brutal hammer-blows.
Beside him - Halliwell, OD'ed on the 22 nembutals that kill him within 30 seconds... The
corpses laid together beneath the blood- and brain-matter splashed collages they've
painstakingly assembled together inch-by-inch around the walls of the Islington flat
they'd shared. They meet at R.A.D.A. The failed writer, and the aspiring actor with
a "trickster's suspicion of normality." From surviving evidence both Gary
Oldman's Joe and Alfred Molina's Kenneth are so supernaturally close to the originals
it's scary. They've got it dead - and alive, to rights. The Festival of Britain time-fixes
their growing mutual attraction. "I always wanted to be an orphan," Orton
teases, "and I could have been if it wasn't for my parents." Then the televised
coronation that backgrounds their first erotic fumble... Ken is seven years older than
Joe, initially a man of 'independent means' who supports them both. And the movie location
actually uses the flat they shared, 25 Noel Road, where they start out by editing each
other's work. Their story is interrupted by a six-month's prison spell for defacing John
Betjamin and Sybil Thorndike library books. Followed by Orton's first radio play, The
Ruffian On The Stairs (broadcast in August 1964) - their last real collaboration.
And all the while Orton's walk-on-the-wild-side sex life continues, "urinals figure
largely, of course" discloses Peggy, and it's all documented in those diaries. To
Orton, the world is a "profoundly bad and irresistibly funny" place. Political
anarchy is in league with sexual anarchy. His sordid sexual adventures only go to confirm
that sense of joyous absurdity, ridiculous suffering, and arousing danger. Like his
creation 'Mr Sloane' he radiates physical attraction allied to manipulatively insolent
charm to get what he wanted. His life already a hilariously warped farce in which characters
seduce, destroy, deceive, and murder each other. "Have you been reading my diary?"
he taunts Kenneth "- why not? I would!" While Ken settles for a little post-coital
dusting... "You do everything better than me," he nags, "you even sleep
better than me." The credits include Peter Owen as 'wig consultant', and that's
another humiliation for Halliwell. There's even a play-fight that prefigures their
eventual gory ending.
The blurb explains that, "for 15 years they lived and often wrote together, they
wore each other's clothes, their wills named each other as sole beneficiary, they shared
everything - except success." And the riotous reception of Entertaining Mr Sloane
and Loot leaves Ken so far behind he can't possibly compete. Paul McCartney turns
up - unseen, in his white Rolls Royce. Joe banters a preposterous Beatles-script with
'Miss' Brian Epstein. There's a gay-romp holiday in Tangiers, omitting the fact that
Kenneth Williams was the third member of their sex-tourism. Finally, as Kenneth looks
down at the smashed body of his murdered lover he lifts the statuette drama-prize Orton
had been awarded by The Evening Standard, "I should have used that - more
theatrical. You'd have spotted that right away." Peggy eventually produces the missing
diaries. "Ken was the first wife," she explains to Lahr. But Peggy's gone one
better than that, she's become the widow, executor, their real beneficiary. Stephen
Frears, the maker of My Beautiful Laundrette, catches the claustrophobic mutuality
of their relationship in all its sleazy pathetic perfection. It was Kenneth who supposedly
coined the title Prick Up Your Ears for that Orton script written, but never produced,
for a Beatles film. Orton preferred his own title Up Against It because Ken's was
"much too good a title to waste on a film." So now it's a film. It's a love
story. "I must have loved him. I chose him to kill," comments Kenneth wryly.
Did Orton ever really care for him? If so, he never allows affection to get in the way
of a barbed quip or a cruelly witty put-down. In the same bleakest and blackest humour
that powers his brilliantly dark scripts.