Prick Up Your Ears (1987): Frears and Bennett’s Witty Satire of Relationship between Joe Orton and Lover Kenneth Halliwell

Stephen Frears directed Prick Up Your Ears, a feature about the gay British playwright Joe Orton and his troubled relationship with his lover Kenneth Halliwell.

Alan Bennett’s sharply observed and witty script is based on the biography by John Lahr (then chief critic of the New Yorker).

The film stars Gary Oldman as Orton, Alfred Molina as Halliwell, Wallace Shawn as Lahr, and Vanessa Redgrave as Peggy Ramsay.  Oldman and Molina would become major actors of their generation.

The tale begins on August 9, 1967, when literary agent Peggy Ramsay knocks on the door of playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell, but nobody opens. She calls the police, who find two corpses.

A decade later theater critic John Lahr visits Ramsey for his biography about Orton. They find Orton’s diaries, and Peggy tells about his life.

Orton and Halliwell’s relationship began at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where the uneducated Orton is attracted to Halliwell’s older faux-sophisticate. As the relationship progressed, however, Orton grew increasingly confident in his talent while Halliwell’s writing stagnated.

They fell into a parody of a traditional married couple, with Orton as the “husband” and Halliwell as the long-suffering, ignored “wife” (homosexuality was illegal).

Orton was commissioned to write a screenplay for The Beatles, and Halliwell prepares for a meeting with the “Fab Four,” though he is not welcome.

Finally, in August 1967, a despondent Halliwell kills Orton brutally with a hammer, before committing suicide.

Discerning critics singled out a gay orgy scene in a public toilet for being almost balletic, and for reflecting Orton’s notoriously offbeat sense of humor and delight in misbehaving.  However, some critics, like Pauline Kael, showed complete misunderstanding of the complex nature of the central gay relationship, imposing on it their own notions.

The film won the award for Best Artistic Contribution at the 1987 Cannes Film Fest.

Greeted with mixed reviews, the film failed to find an audience in the U.S.  It might have been ahead of its time.

Cast
Gary Oldman as Joe Orton
Alfred Molina as Kenneth Halliwell
Vanessa Redgrave as Peggy Ramsay
Frances Barber as Leonie Orton
Janet Dale as Mrs. Sugden
Julie Walters as Elsie Orton
Bert Parnaby as The Magistrate
Margaret Tyzack as Madame Lambert
Lindsay Duncan as Anthea Lahr
Wallace Shawn as John Lahr
Joan Sanderson as Anthea’s Mother