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Prick Up Your Ears

A staid and straightforward biopic of wild and profane playwright Joe Orton, Prick Up Your Ears (1987), adapted from John Lahr's book of the same title by Alan Bennett and directed rather anonymously by Stephen Frears, makes up for what it lacks in conceptual and visual vivacity through two exciting lead performances from then burgeoning young actors Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina. Cast respectively as Orton and his mentor/lover/collaborator/rival/murderer Kenneth Halliwell, the two actors prove lively sparring partners, providing intriguing psychological insight into the unavoidably adversarial relationship that results when two practitioners of the same craft fall in love. The narrative is structured in flashback, with Wallace Shawn playing the politely investigative Lahr, who is attempting to flesh out the hidden truth of Orton and Halliwell's professional collaboration, which may have been more parasitic than symbiotic. Lahr's most valuable guide to the past is Orton's savvy, protective agent (a sensationally seductive Vanessa Redgrave), who eventually coughs up the writer's journal, which is, of course, only one biased part of this impossible-to-unravel mystery. What is known is that an uncultured Orton was rescued from consignment to a Leicester working-class hell by gaining entrance into the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts, where he met the older, worldlier Halliwell, in whom he explored his heretofore dormant homosexuality while receiving a crash course in literature and playwriting. Though Halliwell fancied himself an actor, he was largely a frustrated writer whose virulent cynicism was the product of a morbid childhood. It seems as if Halliwell viewed Orton as a potential muse, but this dynamic would gradually get upended by the younger man's rapidly developing facility as a writer of ribald farces, which quickly found a receptive, and quite large, audience. Suddenly, it was Orton who assumed the role of svengali to Halliwell's indignant capacity as his "personal assistant," the latter seething as he helplessly watches his one time student become the cause celebre of the London theater scene, his success eventually drawing the attention of The Beatles, for whom Orton pens an eventually aborted screenplay. Prick Up Your Ears was enthusiastically received in 1987 partially because of its unusually frank depiction of homosexuality, which, in the waning days of the Reagan era, lent the film an air of exoticness and transgression. Now that such alternative lifestyles have been (thankfully) robbed of their ability to shock by society's refined definition of what constitutes normal sexual behavior, the film emerges more clearly as a nasty portrait of creative jealousy and opportunism. Though Halliwell is inescapably sympathetic thanks to Molina's gift for creating indelibly pathetic creatures (most recently on uproarious display in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes), his affection for Orton is born of a selfish need for inspiration, which, the film seems to imply, is returned in kind when the caged bird soars to the success. Reduced to the role of a sounding board for new ideas, Halliwell becomes an enraged, physically abusive monster who believes Orton has cannibalized his best ideas. To what extent that this was true, the film, or Lahr, cannot say with any acceptable degree of accuracy. But as a speculative depiction of how this stormy partnership ended in murder, Frears and Bennett do wind up with a semi-interesting commentary on the cruelty of artistic creation (though an attempt at mirroring this through Lahr's relationship with his wife is oddly abandoned). Mostly, though, the film impresses as an actors' piece, with Molina's conflicted Halliwell earning a judge's decision over Oldman's brash Orton. MGM presents Prick Up Your Ears in a so-so widescreen transfer (1.85:1) with serviceable monaural Dolby Digital audio. Extras are limited to the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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