The title of Stephen Frears’s best film, Prick Up Your Ears, can be read in two entirely different ways (one referring to ears, the other to another, specifically male body part), and one of these was considered sufficiently salacious in Ronald Reagan’s reactionary America that the film couldn’t be given mainstream advertisement in many parts of the U.S., including where I lived. The controversial title, though, came from the book that scenarist Alan Bennett adapted; its author is drama critic and son of Bert, John Lahr. No Cowardly Lion, he. Lahr, played by Wallace Shawn, appears as a character in the film.
The protagonist is tragicomic London playwright Joe Orton, whose success, finally, contributed to his violent end in 1967, at 34, at the hands, and hammer, of longtime companion Kenneth Halliwell, whose literary success lagged behind Orton’s, and likely would never have caught up, and who, seven years older than Orton, considered himself his partner’s mentor. Orton was impudent and prone to danger; Halliwell, insecure and overly dependent. After he murdered the love of his life, Halliwell committed suicide.
Following his brilliant Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox, 1986), Gary Oldman (best actor, London critics) made the most of another doomed soul drawn from life, giving the performance of a lifetime as Orton, whose restlessness and sparkle crossed his homosexual outlaw with the figure of an Everyman, especially toward the end of his life, much as Frears’s turbulent, fascinating film finds a spot where Orton and Halliwell’s personal history intersects with a bit of theatrical history. Memorable shot: Orton, naked, leaping into the frame and into his lover’s arms: a spontaneous moment that catches us.
Flashbacks; post-mortem. Vanessa Redgrave (best supporting actress, New York critics) marvelously plays Orton’s shrewd agent.
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