Revisiting forgotten queer classic Prick Up Your Ears

This tragicomic Joe Orton biopic offers a fascinating glimpse into London’s hidden homosexual community.


Catherine Pearson

Stephen Frears’ biopic of gay playwright Joe Orton is a darkly comic treat with outstanding performances from Gary Oldman as Orton and Alfred Molina as his lover-turned-killer Kenneth Halliwell. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the film, which is based on Alan Bennett’s fantastic screenplay and delivers the kind of twisted humour that made Orton’s work so popular.

It’s also 50 years since Orton’s untimely death at the hands of Halliwell, just a few days after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalised private homosexual acts. It seems a particular tragedy that the couple, who are depicted in the film as referring to one another euphemistically as friends and housemates, were never able to celebrate the beginnings of a freedom that is being remembered today… but then, as Frears’ film shows, there was a lot going on behind the scenes of Orton’s popular plays.

The film begins where the story ends; in Orton and Halliwell’s heavily collaged and garish Islington flat where Halliwell struck the playwright on the head with a hammer nine times over before overdosing on sleeping tablets. From this point forward, the film takes a more or less chronological journey from young John Orton’s aspirations to be an actor, to meeting Halliwell at RADA, to his prolific but short-lived career as a playwright. The flashbacks are interjected by the accounts of Orton’s agent Peggy Ramsay (Vanessa Redgrave) and his biographer John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) as the pair attempt to assemble the colourful collage that was Joe Orton’s life.

Vanesssa Redgrave is fantastic as the shrewd and non-judgemental agent who sees great promise in John Orton’s work, revelling in the fact that he has served some time in prison (“excellent, the papers love all that”) and not holding back on her opinion of his given name. “It sounds too much like John Osborne. Are you attached to John as a name? No? Try to think of another one dear”. Julie Walters also makes the briefest of comic turns as Orton’s mother who gets herself into a considerable flap when a council official comes to the family home to commend Joe on his acting prowess. “This is my husband, ignore him”, she says by way of introducing the pair.

Molina is superb as Halliwell, managing to not only depict a man gradually unravelling from intelligent and dignified to frenzied and paranoid but to cast him in a sympathetic light. Knowing as we do from the film’s opening scene that Halliwell bludgeons Joe Orton to death, it is credit to Molina that he manages to depict both his worsening neurosis and jealousy alongside a sweet, loving and at times pitiable persona. It answers the question that many posed at the time of Orton’s death; why was this charismatic high-flyer with a man who was a complete bag of nerves? When you see the pair together, it just makes sense.

Equally superb is Oldman, who not only nails Orton’s voice and mannerisms but imbues the character with an anarchic spirit which those closest to Orton remember fondly. Oldman’s facial expressions do all the talking in an era where the gay community had to rely on discrete gestures and he occasionally flashes the utterly charming and slightly smug smirk of a man who knows that everyone is falling at his feet. That said, there is never any doubt that he continues to love boyfriend Kenneth Halliwell, handling his symptoms with a dose of tough love and genuine affection that makes the relationship completely believable from both sides.

Prick Up Your Ears is not only a hugely entertaining tragicomedy but an interesting look at the social climate in the 1960s, offering an introduction into the world of ‘cottaging’, anonymous sex in public toilets, and depicting a palpable fear amongst the gay community that the police are relentlessly watching. In many ways it is the story of Halliwell’s growing sense of dejection, in others it is a celebration of London’s hidden homosexual community and the life of one man who thrived in it.

Prick Up Your Ears is in cinemas from 4 August courtesy of Park Circus. Find out where the film is screening near you.

Published 4 Aug 2017

Tags: Alfred Molina Gary Oldman Queer Cinema Stephen Frears

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