Director Stephen Frears’ film “Prick Up Your Ears” — that last word an anagram for “arse” — is getting a 30th anniversary re-release in a restored edition. The weeklong run provides a rare opportunity to see this biopic of the late gay playwright Joe Orton on the big screen.
The film was scripted by another gay playwright, Alan Bennett, based on John Lahr’s biography, which drew on Orton’s diaries. It opens with neighbors and police discovering the bodies of Orton (Gary Oldman) and his lover Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), and ends, in 1967, with Halliwell murdering Orton before he commits suicide. The story in between toggles back and forth between Orton’s life and present-day scenes of Lahr (Wallace Shawn) interviewing Orton’s agent, Peggy Ramsay (Vanessa Redgrave), who has stolen Orton’s diaries from the crime scene.
As Peggy describes Orton upon first meeting him, she says he had “confidence and charm.” As Orton, Oldman delivers both qualities with notable élan. It is obvious why every man and woman in the film is attracted to him; he’s fetchingly sexy in his white T-shirt, leather jacket, jeans, and jaunty cap. That he sports a seductive, devilish grin when he is amused or is getting away with something naughty only adds to his appealing insouciance.
Joe, as the film explains, was born John and had a working-class upbringing, only to have his circumstances change dramatically as he takes elocution lessons and later attends RADA. It is in drama school that he meets Kenneth, who makes an impression when killing a cat in a pantomime acting exercise. During their school days, Joe exploits Kenneth for his car, which sets the pattern for how he will treat the man who becomes his lover, personal assistant, co-conspirator, and, lest anyone forget, murderer.
“Prick Up Your Ears” captures very well the symbiotic relationship that develops between the lovers. Frears plays up the tensions between Joe and Kenneth throughout the film, as their arguments become increasingly nasty. Joe is harsh toward the insecure but supportive Kenneth, at times denying him glory and sex, which provokes Kenneth to angry outbursts. But Kenneth largely suffers Joe’s abuse — likely because he is terrified of losing him. That homosexuality remained illegal and very much underground in 1960s Britain may have contributed to Kenneth’s willingness to stay with a cruel companion rather than have none at all.
Why Joe stays with Kenneth is more complicated and revealed over the course of the film. Audiences, like Lahr, can piece the reasons together. Orton’s character is nicely sketched out as “Prick Up Your Ears” unfolds. Joe and Kenneth get a six-month prison sentence for defacing library books, an episode that helps launch Orton’s literary career but causes Halliwell to abandon his.
Orton’s cheekiness is also underlined in a phone call between him and Brian Epstein (David Cardy), the Beatles manager for whom Joe is writing a screenplay, and in a scene where Joe gives a stagehand his late mother’s teeth as a prop for a production of one of his plays. Bennett’s screenplay includes plenty of Orton-esque dialogue, as well as a clever gag in which Orton records his sexual exploits in his diary in a quirky shorthand that Lahr’s wife and mother-in-law later decode.
We watch Joe and Kenneth cruising in the park and cottaging in public toilets, with Orton cocky and clever in his seductions, while Kenneth fumbles. When Kenneth wears a wig to help him seduce a man outside a public toilet, Joe discreetly pays the stranger, knowing that the tryst will boost Kenneth’s confidence. The scene also suggests, however, that if someone else gets Kenneth off Joe won’t have to do it himself.
The underlying sadness of Kenneth’s life is palpable throughout “Prick Up Your Ears,” one reason the story is so affecting. The film’s star may be Oldman, who shines in a bold, sassy performance, but Molina is spot-on as the dour and hysterical Kenneth.
In support, Regrave gives a sly, slinky turn as Peggy, a shrewd woman who sizes up every situation and acts in her own best interests. Buying a screen collage that Kenneth made for an art exhibition, Peggy seems most intent on keeping her cash-cow Joe’s partner happy.
“Prick Up Your Ears” may shock less than viewers might expect given the gruesome facts of the story, but the film’s extraordinary writing, directing, and acting still hold up 30 years later.
PRICK UP YOUR EARS| Directed by Stephen Frears| Park Circus| Sep. 1-7 | Metrograph, 7 Ludlow St., btwn. Hester & Canal Sts. | metrograph.com