The facts of Joe Orton’s life are short but hardly sweet: a rough English working-class background, years of sexual promiscuity, sudden fame as a playwright, and violent death in 1967 at the hands of his longtime lover, Kenneth Halliwell, at the age of 34.
This provocative life has spawned a film, Prick Up Your Ears, that is entirely entertaining, cutting, and irreverent. Orton’s death may be a tragic and awful fact; but the film’s explication of the steps leading to it has the kind of biting wit that the writer himself might have savored.
The film is based on John Lahr’s biography, and Lahr is also a character in the film (played by Wallace Shawn) who leads us into a recounting of Orton’s life. Screenwriter Alan Bennett, one of Britain’s best, has structured the movie as a series of building blocks that are piled in non-chronological order, so that we skip around throughout Orton’s life.
This produces a portrait along the lines of the clipped photo collages that the frustrated actor/writer/artist Halliwell pastes all over the walls of the flat the two men share. The film draws their touchy friendship carefully: At first Orton is student to the smart, worldly Halliwell, but at the end, Orton is the rich and famous one who won’t take Halliwell to an important awards ceremony (Loot was named best play of 1966).
The director, Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette), finds the universality in this. The movie is at least partly about what happens to a relationship when one partner abruptly pulls ahead of the other; thus Halliwell suddenly becomes the long-suffering, unfulfilled wife.
Frears directs with complete confidence; the movie jumps and glides from one sharply realized situation to another. He’s superb at fashioning individual scenes, such as the one in which a spat between the boys is interrupted by a phone call from Paul McCartney (Orton wrote a never-produced script that was to be a movie for The Beatles), which produces much dithering in preparation for an imminent visit from the mop-top.
And Frears knows how to let dialogue gather subtle meanings. Orton’s awards speech includes the rakish line, “I’ve got away with it so far,” which may produce shiver in the audience; we already know he’ll be dead within a few months.
Vanessa Redgrave plays Orton’s agent and Julie Walters contributes a zany cameo as Orton’s unlamented mother. But the film rests with the two excellent performances of Gary Oldman as Orton and Alfred Molina as Halliwell.
Molina, who previously appeared as the bearlike Russian in Letter to Brezhnev, is adept at suggesting the hurt beneath Halliwell’s sardonicism. In fact, it’s a much more sympathetic role than Orton, who remains a cool figure.
Oldman brilliantly captures the sense of Orton as an amoralist who always seems detached, even during his own experiences. It’s the opposite of Oldman’s performance as Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy where he was an entirely reactive animal with little self-awareness. Oldman – the kind of actor whose face you have trouble remembering after you’ve left the theater – has an interesting career in front of him. Even if he keeps playing real-life characters who get killed off in the last reel.
First published in The Herald, June 14, 1987
Good movie, another notch in Oldman’s belt as brilliant-young-next-Olivier. Would like to read that Beatles script sometime – surely it’s out there.