Prick Up Your Ears

Cinema Verita

Screenplay by Alan Bennett

Based on the biography by John Lahr

Directed by Stephen Frears

At the Harvard Square Cinema

JOE ORTON was an outrageous homosexual playwright from lowerclass Leicester who lived for 15 years in a one-room flat with his one-time mentor, sometime lover and eventual murderer, Kenneth Halliwell. Precocious as a youth growing up in the 1950s, by the mid-1960s Orton was a rising star in British theater. His daring and almost obscene plays challenged stodgy British society and caught the imagination of forward thinking Englishmen--he even was commissioned to write a screenplay for the Beatles. Revelling in his homosexuality, Orton pursued an endless number of anonymous sexual encounters in public bathrooms, abandoned houses, subway terminals, anywhere, in fact, he could.

At the same time, Halliwell, seven years Orton's elder and a would-be writer or artist himself, saw his companion's fortune grow while he languished in obscurity. Even sexually Halliwell was made to feel inferior; Orton's behavior loudly proclaimed his preference for toiletstall encounters over Halliwell's charms. So on August 9, 1967 Halliwell, aged 41, beat Orton, aged 34, to death with a hammer. He then swallowed 22 Nembutals and died.

The bizarre circumstances of Orton's life hardly make for an empathetic telling, but in Prick Up Your Ears, screenwriter Alan Bennett and director Stephen Frears have fashioned a compelling, naturalistic and extremely entertaining picture. What could have easily been a sexo-literary freak show instead ripples with wit and energy.

The film obliquely raises questions of art and society, but at its heart, Prick Up Your Ears is the story of two intriguing men and their problematic relations. The brilliant performances by Gary Oldman as the randy playwright and Alfred Molina as the whining Halliwell necessarily make the film, because Bennett and Frears have all but ignored the charged times in which the Orton story unfolded. Although painstaking detail masterfully recreates the setting of the story, the filmmakers have largely eschewed an attempt to depict the explosive social scene of 1960s London.

Fashioning himself a latter-day Oscar Wilde, Orton's artistic goal is nattily summed up in the picture's title. Taken from an uncompleted Orton script, it states exactly what Orton wanted to give his audience in plays such as Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Loot and What the Butler Saw. Through shock, Orton sought to shake up British society. We are given a hint of the stuffy British upbringing Orton received, but too little a taste of Orton's literary product. A snatch of dialogue here or there doesn't convey the playwright's reputed genius. We have to take his word for it.

This decision makes Orton the man, not Orton the event, the focus of the film. We get an idea of the outrageous sexual farce Orton concocted for the Beatles in his never-made Up Against It, but Prick Up Your Ears is far more concerned with the irreverent way Orton dealt with McCartney and Co. than with what he wanted to say.

Prick Up Your Ears is as much the story of Halliwell's failure as it is Orton's success. An older, better educated man who picks up the boisterous Orton at a class in London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he infuses the youth with his literary pretentions and dreams of being a novelist. That it is Orton who actually lives out those dreams drives Halliwell mad; Molina gives a surprisingly sympathetic rendering of the murderer, portraying Halliwell's vascillation between pride in his young charge's accomplishments and jealousy of his fame.

While the violence and sex scenes are handled tastefully and form an essential part of the picture, a clunky narrative device serves as Prick Up Your Ears' only major flaw. Based on a 1978 biography of the same title by John Lahr, the tale is told in vignettes as Lahr composes his book.

Ironically, the most unflattering portrayal in the picture is not of murderer Halliwell or the perverse Orton, but of Lahr himself. Played annoyingly by Wallace Shawn, Lahr comes across as a block-headed buffoon with hardly a grasp of the events he is retelling. His interviews with Peggy Ramsay (Vanessa Redgrave), Orton's literary agent, point out the distance between artist and audience; it's as if Ramsay, representing Orton, is leading Lahr around on a string.

For all its twisted activity and its horrible and inevitable conclusion, Prick Up Your Ears is a surprisingly life-affirming film. The terrible deaths Orton and Halliwell meet do not hang over the story, and unlike other arty pictures with similar endings--Betty Blue comes to mind--life is not treated as an unnatural interregnum until death. Prick Up Your Ears joyously proclaims Orton's unbridled exuberance, not his untimely and truly tragic demise.