August 1, 2009

Prick Up Your Ears

*** out of ****

Stephen Frears’ 1987 gay hidden treasure, “Prick Up Your Ears,” is both an intriguing document of the life of playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman) and his lover, Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), and a fascinating insight into gay “swinging London.” In fact, this film, whose name and subject matter comes from Orton’s biography, seems more about his thriving sex life than his writing. Apparently he could write, and he even won an award (depicted in the film in the scene where he attends the ceremony with his agent, Peggy, played in a refined way by Vanessa Redgrave), but at the heart of the film are Orton’s unorthodox sexual proclivities (at least in ‘60s England, when homosexuality was still illegal).

Like Frears’ breakout film, 1985’s “My Beautiful Launderette,” the main characters are homosexuals, but in this film, Orton’s love affair with Kenneth Halliwell eventually becomes his downfall. Things between the two begin well, though: Orton and Halliwell are acting colleagues in England’s prestigious Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts and become “collaborators” in writing books that are constantly turned down as too unconventional. However, the pair’s lack of convention makes them fascinating people. After a short prison sentence due to their vandalism of library books, Orton comes out the more fascinating of the two, as his plays (written alone, mind you) go on to great acclaim, and Halliwell’s role as a collaborator turns into the dreary job of giving Orton’s acclaimed plays their titles. Eventually, Halliwell becomes fed-up with Orton’s success and bludgeons him to death with a hammer to the skull. Then, quite predictably, he commits suicide with an overdose of prescription drugs. (This “ending” actually happens at the beginning, as the film is told in flashback.) Although this ending seems typical—almost obligatory—of older films with gay characters, this film is different from many others that came before it, largely because of its surprising acceptance of a particularly promiscuous homosexual lifestyle (rare for even 1987).

Though the film falls into periods where the plot does not seem to advance, “Prick Up Your Ears” is saved by its leading actors’ performances—its greatest asset. Alfred Molina’s Kenneth is a paranoid, dejected basket case, for whom viewers can feel sorry, while Gary Oldman’s virile, promiscuous Joe conjures and replicates the smug self-confidence and sadistic sense of humor of Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange.” Although the two appear mismatched onscreen, their charisma is unquestionable and the tragic story of their characters becomes that much more effective. If the film’s abundance of implied sex does not surprise you, at least the acting pleasantly will.

*As seen in the August 2009 issue of "Out & About" newspaper. To access it, click here.*