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MOVIE REVIEW : THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A GAY COUPLE

Times Film Critic

In his diary for July 14, 1967, British playwright Joe Orton wrote peevishly that when he went for a walk, there had been nobody around to pick up, “only a lot of disgusting old men. I shall be a disgusting old man myself one day, I thought, mournfully. Only I have high hopes of dying in my prime.” At 34, he was closer to that hope than he could have imagined. On Aug. 9, the devilishly brilliant Orton was hammered to death by Kenneth Halliwell, his neurotic and despairing lover-companion of 15 years, who then killed himself with his “suicide stash” of Nembutals.

Their double death is the moment at which screenwriter Alan Bennett begins--and ends--"Prick Up Your Ears” (Westside Pavilion), a bracingly outrageous portrait of the playwright, his free-ranging life and remarkably constricted times.

It is directed by Stephen Frears (“The Hit,” “My Beautiful Laundrette”) and stunningly well played by Gary Oldman, that slight chameleon who was Sid in “Sid and Nancy”; by Vanessa Redgrave, as Orton’s agent and confidante, Peggy Ramsey, and by Alfred Molina as the lugubrious zombie Halliwell.

(Oldman and Redgrave are marvelously cast, Molina--whose performance could not be faulted--is not, but more about that shortly.)

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There are many who consider Orton’s death to have come even before his prime. Two of his full-length plays, “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” and “Loot,” had been produced in London in 1964 and 1965 to acclaim and controversy. (“Sloane” was fastidiously detested in its New York debut. “Loot” prompted the critic of the London Observer to call Orton “the Oscar Wilde of Welfare State gentility.”) “What the Butler Saw” would be produced posthumously; four shorter plays had been performed earlier--a tragically small collection, really.

Screenwriter Bennett brings on John Lahr (played moistly by Wallace Shawn), author of the 1978 biography of Orton, as a bridge to the past. Through Lahr’s rather plodding interviews with Peggy Ramsay and with Orton’s sister, the playwright’s life unfolds.

In one respect, Bennett is most successful: “Prick Up Your Ears” has the rhythm and even the insolence of an Orton play, without its dialogue. It’s the same way that “Waiting for the Moon” has the cadences of Gertrude Stein without her own words. But while knowing Stein’s work isn’t critical to that film’s twin portraits of a writer and her companion, knowing Orton’s highly stylized farces is crucial to understanding the parallel biographies in “Prick Up Your Ears.” And that’s where this otherwise scrupulous and frequently funny film falters.

We need to be shown something of his plays to appreciate the brashness and singularity of Orton’s talent. The film keeps trumpeting his originality, but all we see is a randy, supremely self-confident charmer whose sex life may have been becalmed at home, but was effortlessly successful everywhere else. (The film’s R rating is for its sexual theme and frank language.)

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As the film takes us back, Orton and Halliwell meet at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Orton is a 17-year-old working-class kid from Leicester with a grating accent, which he would later use to his advantage. The 25-year-old Halliwell is large, haughty and knowledgeable. The two move into a bed-sitter in Islington, where Halliwell writes arch and unpublishable prose and Orton kibitzes from the sidelines.

Halliwell also begins to cover the apartment’s ceiling and walls with rampaging collages--illustrations cut from stolen library books. When this practice, as well as other more inventive forms of defacement, attract the attention of the library authorities, the two men are sentenced to six months in prison, and there, Orton finds his own voice as a writer.

By the time they are released, their roles have reversed permanently. Although their doomed relationship still had years to run--downhill--Orton would now be seen as the writer, Halliwell as a sort of factotum.

As Orton, Oldman is a wonder; although he has a neat, Stuart Little face, sexual success is simply a given with him--one flick of those amused eyes and he has attracted everything interesting within the radius of a city block. But Molina, previously seen as the Russian sailor in “Letter to Brezhnev,” is another matter. Halliwell was actually a handsome man, even when, in his mid-20s, he had lost every hair on his head. Molina has pendulous lips and, with his head shaved, a tombstone-size face and he’s been directed to shriek and whine almost from the start. It leaves us to ponder his great attraction, even for the preternaturally culture-parched Orton.

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It was there in real life. In addition to subsidizing Orton initially, Halliwell was his teacher, his protector and his sometimes lover, although Orton never cut back his cruising, not for a single day. His diary--left out ostentatiously for Halliwell to read--was proof enough of that. Even the title of the film bears a debt to Halliwell: It’s not only from Lahr’s understanding and evocative biography, but from an (unused) play title which Halliwell gave Orton and the playwright accepted with humble and public gratitude.

Briefly, the film makers try out the theme of the neglected literary wife, tarring Halliwell with the same brush as the maligned Mrs. Eliot or the maligned Mrs. Hardy. They use the film’s portrait of Lahr and his pregnant, collaborator-wife, sullen and put-upon, as a supposed parallel to Orton and Halliwell. “Peggy” Ramsay is even made to explain that “at moments of triumph, men can do without their wives; they cramp their style. But sharing is what wives want.”

Unfortunately, that tack is given the lie by Lahr’s own dedication of the Orton biography, “To Anthea and Christopher, Gravity’s angels” and his words that “Without Anthea, this book and my writing career would not exist.” And even the film makers seem to realize the folly of this notion and abandon it, unexplored.

Where Frear’s direction most nearly matches Orton’s tone is in the horror and banality of the Leicester scenes, in one silent bathroom orgy-ballet, or with Vanessa Redgrave’s steely irony as Peggy Ramsay. In her reading, the film’s final line--as Joe Orton’s sister tries over-conscientiously to mingle her brother’s and his lover’s ashes--glimmers like real Orton, which is saying a great deal. ‘PRICK UP YOUR EARS’

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A Samuel Goldwyn Co. presentation of a Civilhand Zenith film. Producer Andrew Brown. Director Stephen Frears. Screenplay Alan Bennett based on the biography by John Lahr. Camera Oliver Stapleton. Music Stanley Myers. Editor Mick Audsley. Production designer Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski(c.q.). Art director Philip Elton. Sound Tony Jackson. Costumes Bob Ringwood. With Gary Oldman, Alfred Molina, Vanessa Redgrave, Wallace Shawn, Lindsay Duncan, Julie Walters, James Grant, Janet Dale.

Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (persons under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian).


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