Prick Up Your Ears (1987) Directed by Stephen Frears

I remember going to see Prick Up Your Ears in Islington very soon after its initial release. Islington was Joe Orton's neighborhood for many years up until his death. As me and a friend took our seats we noticed that it was a predominately male audience. Once the movie started we realized it was also a predominately gay audience as much whooping and hollering at the sex scenes in the film ensued (this was mixed with much heavy petting one could imagine!)

Even in 1987, Prick Up Your Ears, the bio-pic of Joe Orton, the famed English 60's playwright, caused a stir for it's frank depiction of a gay relationship in trouble. Joe Orton was one of the golden boys of the swinging 60's, who's star shone ever so briefly. He was important in moving British Theater forward and being open with his gay context.

Orton's fondness for picking up Rough Trade in mens urinals is well represented in the film. Being gay could land you in prison in the England of the late 50's, but Frears' film often shows us the thrill of the chase. In Prick Up Your Ears, gay sex is celebrated, not something you hide from everyone or never even talk about to your lover, as in Brokeback Mountain.

Reasons you should watch this excellent film:
Gary Oldman, an uncanny resemblance to the real Orton, heightens the mystery surrounding the playwright. We never really get to know him, yet he dominates the film. He'd already played Sid Vicious, his bio-pic oeuvre would resume with Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK, not long after this. This was a time when Oldman was acting gold.

The great Alan Bennett's script injects a lot of wit into what is in essence a very sad love story. There are many laugh out loud moments.

Vanessa Redgrave
as the agent who discovers Orton adds a classy glamorous sheen to proceedings and likes playing with her very good looking legs.

Alfred Molina
steels the acting honors here. This was his breakthrough picture. We know how good Molina would become, but his portrayal of Kenneth Halliwell, Orton's depressed lover, is perfect. We see the jealousy and depression that drives Halliwell to tragedy, in a thankless role as Orton's moaning long term companion, Molina shines.

Prick Up Your Ears
has one of the greatest movie titles ever, think about it if you don't get it's innuendo. Stephen Frears directs with economy and pace, letting the script and performances do the work.

If you are interested in Orton after seeing this film, John Lahr's biography and Orton's often lewd diaries make great companions.

Today was my turn to have my review straight after the movie poster, but I know Nick has told his story of seeing Prick Up Your Ears in Islington when it first came out and it deserves to go first. So here is my ramble on mixing-up a love relationship and a passion for creative work:

If you stay in a relationship long enough, every internal position and power will have shifted multiple times. Joe Orton was the green, unsophisticated acting student who dated girls, when he first met Kenneth.

Kenneth was an elegant witty creative writer and unafraid of his sexuality as a gay man. He took Joe under his wing and together they loved and wrote for years. Both benefited from these early positions.

In time Joe became an artist of his own right, a successful playwright. He had separated himself from the creative union with Kenneth, who was unable to write alone. Joe had also developed a hunger for sex with other partners, his life turned more and more outward while Kenneth stayed home and worried.

Enter resentment. Obviously Kenneth had helped and formed Joe, supported him and taught him. Clearly, Joe had taken all the help but was then able to write better alone. A new dynamic set in: Kenneth suffering and resenting, Joe guilty and yet excited and adamant to enjoy life.

This comes to a very sad ending. Especially, when I remember that the film is based on real people's lives and diaries. Why is it that gay movies so often have to end with death and misery, asked The Guardian in a blog this week. I am asking why it is that a love between two creative people is also a competition where there will be winners and losers?


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