Prick up Your Ears archive review: Gary Oldman fascinates as Joe Orton

As Stephen Frears’ biopic of the controversial gay playwright returns to cinemas, we reprint the original Sight & Sound review from 1987, which finds the film perfectly captures its subject’s magnetism. 

Richard Mayne
Updated:

from our Spring 1987 issue

Alfred Molina as Kenneth Halliwell and Gary Oldman as Joe Orton in Stephen Frears’ Prick up Your Ears

Alfred Molina as Kenneth Halliwell and Gary Oldman as Joe Orton in Stephen Frears’ Prick up Your Ears

This film is hard to approach without misgivings. The story is grisly, unbearably sad and painfully familiar.

Joe Orton, successful playwright, author of Loot, Entertaining Mr Sloane and What the Butler Saw, lives with his homosexual lover Kenneth Halliwell in a tiny Islington flat. They deface library books and are sent to prison. Orton achieves fame; Halliwell feels himself a domestic drudge. They go to Tangier for drugs and boys, a brief respite. They come back to their decorated cage. On 9 August 1967, Halliwell kills Orton in his sleep, with repeated blows from a hammer; he then takes a fatal overdose of barbiturates.

John Lahr, son of Bert Lahr, the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, writes a biography based on Orton’s diaries. Last year, these were published. Now we have Stephen Frears’ film, based on Alan Bennett’s script. Is there no end to the Orton wake?

The film’s opening at least calms some elementary fears. No blood pods explode on a sleeping skull, no glistening gore is dwelt on. Anxious knocks at the door – discreet hints – a glimpse of the diaries: just enough emerges to cast shadows over the flashbacked past. It seems a pity that this restraint evaporates at the film’s ending. Then, butchery is made plain.

Further restraint marks the treatment of Orton’s promiscuity. Lurking darkly near public lavatories, he accosts various youths in leather jackets, and at least one bank-manager type. The men in blue appear or are suspected; the delinquents lie or scatter: these are the bad old days, when so much was illegal – though for Orton it seems to have been a game.

Prick up Your Ears (1987)

So far, so sordid: but, language apart, nothing very shocking comes our way. What remains is a sense of betrayal, which is how it must have seemed to Halliwell, for whom there were bigger betrayals in store.

Tangier is a further possible occasion for audience distaste. Debauching Moroccan boys, however willing, is not everyone’s idea of foreign holiday fun; and there’s a school dormitory flavour to some of the skirmishing in whitetowels and robes. Again, however, the camera is reticent. Far more graphic lubricity has become commonplace in heterosexual scenes.

Tact, then, is very largely the order of the day; so squeamish viewers need not feel unduly threatened. They, I suspect, will be seeking Alan Bennett in Prick up Your Ears rather than Joe Orton. Will they be disappointed? A little. As an Alan Bennett ‘character’ might well put it, ‘What’s a nice boy like him doing with a story like that?’

What he’s done, essentially, is to broaden it into his own territory by expanding on Orton’s family in Leicester (filmed here in Croydon, because most suburbs look alike). Cameo parts go to such practised players as Julie Walters, James Grant and Frances Barber, with Bennett-style lines like “’I never thought such things went on in Leicester.”

The result is funny and touching. It explains Orton’s apparent coolness at the death of his mother, if not quite the force of his frustration in the family semi.

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

What it fails to do – a huge missed opportunity – is to explore Halliwell’s family background in equal depth. The facts are stated: his mother died of a wasp sting when he was 11, and his father killed himself six years later. But there’s little sense of the tragedy, so vivid in two adjoining photographs in John Lahr’s book. One shows Halliwell at the age of ten, curly-haired and eager, sitting on the sands in front of his parents (sensitive father, plumply smiling mother). The second was taken at 16, the eyes hurt, the mouth disappointed but stubbornly brave.

Halliwell, in fact, is the disappointment of the film. As played, however brilliantly, by Alfred Molina, he simply looks wrong: a six-foot misfit with a Kojak scalp and mournful Kojak eyes. Halliwell, though he went bald, was peppily good-looking, a rather brooding macho figure, if surviving photographs tell the truth. Molina’s appearance may well portray his inner reality; but it’s hard to see what attracted Orton.

The pity of that is all the greater because Orton, in the film, is utterly convincing. Gary Oldman, fresh from playing Sid Vicious, not only shares Orton’s perky good looks: he has the same sparrow’s quickness, alert to his audience, gauging the effect of his charm. One can believe how much he impressed the agent Peggy Ramsay, played here with masterly firmness by Vanessa Redgrave. One can see why his sexual partners sought him. One can even sense why, despite everything, he remained the object of Halliwell’s love.

The UK poster for Prick up Your Ears (1987)

The UK poster for Prick up Your Ears (1987)

‘Everything’ included taking the credit for Halliwell’s ideas, failing to include him in invitations, and leaving him alone with his growing awareness of failure. A more compassionate person might have behaved differently. ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ On the evidence of the book, the diaries and the film, Orton might have smiled at the quotation, but missed its point.

Whether, in longer perspective, his work will rescue him from Halliwell’s revenge, which turned him into a faits-divers victim, remains a moot point. The film hardly shows the evidence. Some have compared Orton with Oscar Wilde; but although he figures in dictionaries of quotations, his epigrams seem weak. The strength of his plays is their high-spirited naughtiness, a Cheeky Chappie’s irreverence, Max Miller turned cruel and camp. Bennett and Frears, between them, have coaxed from Gary Oldman a performance which stunningly walks that tightrope between our fascination and our mistrust.

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