Saturday, February 3, 2018


Gary Oldman had a peculiar kind of magic going on when he played Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears (1987)  He was 29, had been in only a few movies, but had an eerie way of inhabiting a character. He'd portrayed Sid Vicious a year earlier in Sid and Nancy, and followed up by playing Orton, the British playwright who was murdered by his gay lover. Ever since, when I think of either Sid or Orton - and for that matter, Lee Harvey Oswald, played by Oldman in Oliver Stone's JFK -it's Oldman that I see in my mind, rather the actual people. How did he do it?

Prick Up Your Ears isn't as impressive as Sid and Nancy, but it may be more realistic; the earlier film has been criticized in some quarters for playing with the facts of Sid's life, and for glorifying a couple of junkies. As Sid, Oldman was somewhat likeable, a naive bumbler who wasn't bright enough to navigate the world of drugs and punk rock. As Orton, he's diabolically smart and self-possessed. To think of another actor who played such diametrically different characters so early in his career, one might reach back to Dustin Hoffman, going from The Graduate to Midnight Cowboy. There aren't many others.

Orton was one of England's leading young playwrights of the 1960s. His plays (Entertaining Mr. Sloan, Loot, What the Butler Saw) were broad farces laced with menace and occasional violence. Orton's murder - he was beaten to death by Kenneth Halliwell, himself a failed writer who resented Orton's success - was the sort of scandalous climax that might've appeared in one of his own stage works. The story of Orton's life and death is intercut with the story of New Yorker writer John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) doing research for a book on Orton.  Lahr spent years trying to tell this story, and was largely responsible for the 1980s resurgence of interest in Orton, which culminated with Prick Up Your Ears.

Director Stephen Frears shot much of the movie in the actual Islington flat shared by Orton and Halliwell, an impossibly small place where two men of outsized personalities were bound to get in each other's way. Halliwell (Alfred Molina), bald as an egg, slumps around like Peter Lorre in Mad Love, his bulging eyes practically wobbling in his head. He had been Orton's mentor in their college days - he was older, smarter, crueler - before they became lovers. Halliwell introduced Orton to literature, gave him the boldness to try writing. Orton, meanwhile, taught Halliwell how to pick up men in public toilets. As Orton's fame grew, Halliwell went from being his mentor to his assistant. Orton, cheeky monkey that he was, relished the changes in status. In public, Halliwell endured one humiliation after another, following Orton about like a faithful servant. He occasionally made reference to helping Orton with his scripts, but was never credited by Orton. Why Orton didn't simply leave Halliwell says a lot, as if some unbreakable bond from their younger days still existed. He should've left; it would've been better than having his skull bashed in by a hammer. 

Molina, one of the most underappreciated actors of this era, might be best known for playing Diego Rivera in Frida (2002), or the crazed drug dealer in Boogie Nights (1997). As Halliwell, he's all sneers and self loathing. In a mime class at RADA, he mimes strangling a pussycat, which is what catches Orton's eye and leads to their friendship. Frears allows Molina plenty of room as Halliwell, to where he goes from sinister to vulnerable and back. We believe that he thinks of himself as a superior being, and we also believe he'd be too shy to take part in one of Orton's furtive orgies. He has a stunning bit near the end where he says to Orton, "I don't understand my life. I was an only child. I lost both my parents. By the time I was 20 I was going bald. I'm a homosexual. In the way of circumstances and background I had everything an artist could possibly want. It was practically a blueprint. I was programmed to be a novelist or a playwright. But I'm not and you are!" It's a speech worthy of Saliery in Amadeus. Yet, Hollywood couldn't think of anything to do with this actor but cast him as Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2 (2004).

I don't know how the attitudes about homosexuality in Prick Up Your Ears would play today. The movie is set in the 1960s and was made in the '80s. Though Orton and Halliwell are living together as a couple, it's all toilet sex and secret hookups under bridges and occasional domestic violence. You can't picture these two in a parade, or exchanging catty remarks with Graham Norton. I remember thinking the movie was quite graphic when I first saw it, with Orton seeming a bit nasty with his Moroccan rent boys and his dim British studs. A recent viewing, however, revealed the movie to be rather matter-of-fact. Homosexuality was a crime in England, and Orton treated it as a crime. Look at the way he unscrews the light bulbs in a railroad lavatory to prepare for a quick romp. He has the stealth and ease of a robber casing a bank.

It's difficult to imagine any other actor besides Oldman playing Orton. Not only is there a physical and facial resemblance, but few actors could manage to be as mercurial as the role would demand. To be Orton, one has to be charismatic, then cocky enough to turn you off, then charming enough to win you back. You believe Oldman as a writer on top of the world, being asked to write a script for no less than The Beatles, slinking away in a limo with Paul McCartney. Then, in a flashback scene, we see a teenage Orton, stammering at an elocution class.  How he went from his shy beginning to screwing any bit of rough trade he found in a tunnel took quite a leap; we don't see it, but we believe it. Oldman depicts Orton as a man who simply delighted in his own kinks.

The murder of a minor literary figure may not resonate with an audience, but what makes Prick Up Your Ears fascinating is that it's the story of a doomed romance. It's a bit like Bob Fosse's Star 80, which chronicled the murder of Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratton by her sicko boyfriend. Both films move back and forth in time, both tell the story of a young, talented person who paid a fatal price for outgrowing an older, less talented mentor/lover. 

There's also a bit of Sid and Nancy here, where the wrong people get entwined in a contract that can only end in death. There's almost a sense of relief when Halliwell finally kills Orton, so claustrophobic is the narrative. We don't know the exact circumstances, but Frears and screenwriter Alan Bennett concoct a reasonable scenario where Halliwell is angry at being snubbed for what seems the millionth time. He's the ultimate neglected housewife.

Frears, one of our great filmmakers, was already a veteran director in 1987. He sprinkles bits of Hitchcock all over this one, from the bug-eyed neighbor who first discovers Orton's dead body, to the bemused mother-in-law of Lahr who, given the job of deciphering Orton's diary, seems intrigued by the naughty bits. Wallace Shawn is too Wallace Shawny, but the rest of the cast is excellent, especially Vanessa Redgrave as Orton's agent. No other actress has shoulders as wide as a barn door, yet still projects elegance.

Oldman and Molina, the pillars that hold the movie upright, have worked consistently since Prick Up Your Ears. Oldman received an Oscar nomination for his recent turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, but has spent most of the recent decade in various Batman and Harry Potter movies. Molina has been doing a lot of voice work for cartoons and video games. I always think there should've been more from these two men. More movies, more awards, more reverence. Maybe I'm wrong. "There's a lot of rubbish talked about acting," Oldman once said, "and it's often propagated by practitioners of it. You just want to say, 'Oh, shut up.'"

So I will.

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