Thirty years ago, the lives of gay luminaries were rarely the subject of feature films. Among the first of the LGBT biopics, Stephen Frears’s astute Prick Up Your Ears (1987), which traces the fast, furious life of Joe Orton (1933–67), begins, if obliquely, with the British playwright’s murder at the hands of his longtime boyfriend. Though the gruesome details of the killing are starkly depicted in the closing minutes, the film never sensationalizes — and just as radically, never sentimentalizes — its central figure.
Frears had already shown his agility with queer themes in Prick’s immediate predecessor, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), a love story of two Londoners, Pakistani Omar (Gordon Warnecke) and Anglo Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis, here in a crucial early role). Likewise, Gary Oldman, who plays Orton with serpentine charm, was also working a variation on a theme: The year before Prick, he had starred as the Sex Pistols’ doomed bassist in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy.
After Prick’s jolting opening scene — an extreme close-up of the gore-flecked face of Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), who calls out for the man he’s just bludgeoned with a hammer — the film settles into a more conventional arc. The movie is told largely in flashback, the remembrance of things past prompted by the answers that Peggy Ramsay (Vanessa Redgrave, silky and slightly mischievous), Orton’s agent, gives to John Lahr (Wallace Shawn), whose 1978 biography of the playwright provided the title for Frears’s film (which Alan Bennett scripted).
About that title: Lahr lifted it from Orton, who anagrammed arse into ears. The playwright’s priapic pursuits — he liked cottaging — are presented not as deviant but as merely one aspect of Orton’s immense appetites. One of his initial, unslakable hungers was to educate himself, to remove all traces of his Leicester upbringing. That mission leads him to elocution lessons to transform his East Midlands accent into plummiest Londonese and to fall in love with Halliwell, Orton’s drama school classmate and mentor.
“I’m a cultivated person. You’ll find that it rubs off,” Halliwell, seven years Orton’s senior, tells him, shortly before they move in to the Islington flat where they would both die. (Halliwell overdosed on Nembutal after killing Joe.) As a portrait of a relationship and a creative partnership, Prick is ever alert to the shifts in power, to the narcissistic wounds that can never be salved when a teacher is surpassed by his pupil. By the time Orton’s obsidian-black comedy Loot, his third major production, premiered in 1965, Halliwell, who busied himself making collages, was identifying himself as his lover’s “personal assistant.” The tenderness, the betrayals, and the derangements in the Orton-Halliwell union are all honored in Prick Up Your Ears, a film soaked in blood and sperm.
Prick Up Your Ears
Directed by Stephen Frears
Metrograph, September 1–7