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Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Art House & International and Comedy movie directed by Stephen Frears

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A Major Achievement in Film Biography and 'Period Piece'

  • Sep 8, 2004
  • by
Stephen Frears continues to deliver extraordinary films (Dirty Pretty Things, The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons, My Beautiful Launderette, Loving Walter, High Fidelity among others) and returning now to his 1987 PRICK UP YOUR EARS not only shows this excellent film aging well, but now it shows how keenly Frears is able to depict a period in time. Set in the 1960s, Frears bases his story on the biography of Joe Orton (British playwright whose plays included 'Entertaining Mr. Sloane' and 'Loot'). And while many other directors and screenwriters struggle with the format of "interviewing" people who knew the subject versus creating a novel/story based on bits and pieces of fact and fiction, Frears uses both these approaches with consummate skill. Joe (John) Orton (Gary Oldman in a definitive performance) was an openly gay playwright in a period of time in England when being gay was still punishable by imprisonment. His childhood in Leicester is explored (with Julie Walters amazingly fine as his weird mother) as he wishes to become an actor. He moves to London where he becomes involved with one Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina in a tour de force, over the top raging Queen role) and lives in an openly gay, albeit bizarre love/hate relationship. The two struggle to become established as actors and writers, but it is Orton who succeeds, only after a six month prison sentence for 'indecency' during which time he writes his first play. When Orton and Halliwell are released form prison, Orton's star ascends due in part to the wise counsel and friendship of Peggy Ramsey (Vanessa Redgrave in peak form). Halliwell ages (he is eight years Orton's senior), resents Orton's success not only with the theater and money, but with the near daily dalliances in toilets and lurid spaces where he seeks sex. The ending of the biography is well known and opens the film, so it is not inappropriate to say that Halliwell's mind is finally broken and he bludgeons Orton to death and then commits suicide. Only Orton's diaries are left to document his truly strange life. Given the content of the story, it may seem to some that this is a grisly tale and it might well have been in less capable hands. But with Frears' directorial gifts and absolutely first class performances by Oldman, Molina, Redgrave, Frances Barber, Julie Walters and the rest of the cast, this film finds humor, tenderness, meaningful insights into the artist's mind, and what life was like in England under the threat of a legal system that had changed little since Oscar Wilde's tragedy. The cinematography and music are excellent and the flavor of the 60s is captured completely. A splendid film, an excellent biography, and a most entertaining experience!

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More Prick Up Your Ears (1987) reviews
review by . December 30, 2006
posted in Movie Hype
"PRICK UP YOUR EARS"    What a Way to Go    Amos Lassen and Literary Pride      "Prick Up Your Ears" is a gem of a movie. It tells the true story of English playwright Joe Orton and his homosexual relationship with his talented but not so successful partner, Kenneth Halliwell. It is a solid drama and most amazing is that it is twenty years old.   Joe Orton was a daring and rebellious writer. Told through flashbacks, …
review by . September 25, 2006
. . . . well, maybe not lovers but more like two men who   shared a sexual history. When Ken hammered Joe to death,   it was hardly an act of love, but it was certainly an   act of history.    Unravelling the history of Ken and Joe is what Prick Up   Your Ears is about. Joe was playwright Joe Orton. Ken   was first his mentor, then his lover and finally-when   Joe's fame exceeded his-his depressed and angry drudge.   …
About the reviewer
Grady Harp ()
Ranked #96
Grady Harp is a champion of Representational Art in the roles of curator, lecturer, panelist, writer of art essays, poetry, critical reviews of literature, art and music, and as a gallerist. He has presented … more
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Joe Orton was briefly the embodiment of a certain kind of '60s rebel, and Stephen Frears's film adaptation of the British playwright's biography successfully conjures up that outrageous spirit. The hostile, fussy codependency between Orton (Gary Oldman) and his brooding lover Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina) forms the centerpiece of a story that features not only Orton's success and his brutal demise at Halliwell's hand, but also a vivid depiction of what gay sexuality meant in a repressive era. What really propels it are the performances--Oldman's naughty, overgrown boy could believably have written Orton's romps, and the powder-keg priss rendered by Molina helps establish motivations that the script lacks. It's always good to see Vanessa Redgrave (ideal as Orton's agent), and Julie Walters has a hysterically unrecognizable bit as Orton's exasperated mum. If the film is a bit aloof, it's also crisp and often acidly funny (Orton and Halliwell do jail time for writing luridly phony synopses in library books). Frears has done a memorable bit in bringing both a man and his time to life.--Steve Wiecking
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Director: Stephen Frears
Screen Writer: Alan Bennett, John Lahr
DVD Release Date: June 15, 2004
Runtime: 111 minutes
Studio: MGM Home Entertainment
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