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'Prick Up Your Ears' (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 16, 1987

"Prick Up Your Ears," the new film biography of the incendiary British farceur Joe Orton, leaves a very sour taste in your mouth. Based on John Lahr's biography from a script by Alan Bennett, the movie follows his rise from the row houses of Islington to West End fame, his budding talent and his relationship with his mentor/albatross Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), who, in a fit of desperation or jealousy or madness, picked up a hammer one night in 1967 and smashed Orton's brain into pudding and then, gulping a handful of Nembutals, took his own life. Wallowing in the sordid minutiae, the movie focuses extensively on Orton's carousing lavatory escapades -- he was an indiscriminate pickup artist -- and it carries with it the stink of the urinals. The pungent squalor of Orton's life with Halliwell wafts through the movie, too, down to every last suffocating detail.

The creative people connected with the movie, have all done first-rate work in the past. (Stephen Frears, the director, has made, among other things, "The Hit" and "My Beautiful Laundrette"; Bennett wrote the script to "A Private Function.") And they're working on a pretty high level of skill here as well. But the movie is a joyless, inconclusive affair. By not making Orton either a homosexual hero or a working-class hero, avenues that were both open to them and that lesser minds might have traveled down, the filmmakers have shown great intellectual taste. But it's not the kind of taste that's illuminating. Ultimately, they seem not to have known exactly what to make of their subject. He remains the sum of what he's not.

The fragmented, puzzle box structure that the filmmakers have chosen doesn't help bring him any closer, either. The story is told in flashback, beginning and ending with the grisly aftermath of the murder-suicide, through the Lahr character (played by Wallace Shawn). Lahr, who is researching Orton's biography, contacts the playwright's agent, Peggy Ramsay (Vanessa Redgrave), who at the scene of the crime managed to purloin Orton's blood-flecked diaries. Bit by bit, through Lahr's questioning of Ramsey and Orton's sister Elsie (Julie Walters), the portrait emerges.

When we first see Orton (Gary Oldman) he's a fledgling playwright, a mere chick, but already he's a pretty cheeky bloke. There's not a shred of self-consciousness or doubt in his face. When he first meets Ramsay to show her his first play, "The Boy Hairdresser," she tells him it's derivative, and without a beat he nods confidently and says, "Next time I'll write you a better one."

In the early scenes, this assurance and aplomb are appealing. As Oldman plays him in his days at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he studied acting, his face is boyish and open. It's an undefined, country-boy's face, with wattles under the chin and slightly pebbly eyes. Later, though, as his fame grows, Orton's cocky swagger and Elvis Presley sneer become off-puttingly smug.

It was at RADA that Orton first met Halliwell, and though he claimed to have had his first homosexual experience at 14, his preferences weren't as set as they later would be. If the younger Joe, who was then called John, his given name -- he changed to its avoid sounding too much like John Osborn -- had a spot of insecurity, it was over his lack of education. ("I'll never catch up," he keeps saying.) And Halliwell sets about immediately to rub it out. Without much ado, Halliwell becomes Orton's lover, teacher, best friend, maid, cruise-mate and partner in petty crime. He formed Orton's tastes and judgments and helped shape his talent, and for about 10 years they lived together as a couple, as a kind of husband and wife, without much happening -- a pair of precocious mushrooms in a dim, cold-water flat in an unfashionable section of London.

The breakout came, surprisingly, in 1962, when both lads were thrown into jail for six months for monkeying around with library books. (They liked to write their own naughty dust jacket copy and design their own covers.) Jail agreed with Orton, and while locked in his room, away from Halliwell, he worked diligently at "The Boy Hairdresser."

Halliwell, on the other hand, is nothing without Joe. Balding and filled to brimming with rancor over his lot in life, Halliwell is a hulking, Uncle Fester-ish character. There's not much to discover in Halliwell; he's there in a glance. His mother died when she was stung on the tongue by a wasp, and at 18, he came downstairs to find Daddy with his head in the oven. These are the facts, and Molina's eyes-burning, theatrical performance doesn't go much beyond them. If Frears and Bennett haven't made up their minds about Orton, they certainly have about Halliwell -- he's a flat-out creep. They characterize him as "the first wife" -- the butt end of a bad marriage. But Molina's performance diminishes him; it makes us not care about the abuse he receives.

Oldman's work is in direct contrast to Molina's. It's detailed, and subtle, and made very much for the camera. I don't think I've ever seen an actor bear so close a resemblance to his subject as Oldman does here. His performance is an uncanny impersonation, a slipping into the skin. Oldman seems prodigiously talented -- he was stunning as Sid Vicious in "Sid and Nancy" -- but I have problems with what he does here. What Oldman does is a form of orneriness; as Orton, he seems almost willfully reluctant to turn the character over to us.

The Orton in the "The Orton Diaries," which were edited by Lahr and recently published by Harper & Row, comes across as a man who was trying to strip himself of all human feeling. He was a bloody cold bastard, and ruthlessly, proudly conscienceless. His plays have a savage, biting wit; they're salvos launched against conventional taste and morality. Though Orton liked to portray himself as unaligned -- a kind of one-man demolition crew -- he was much more of his upstart time than he cared to own up to. Orton, for all the unadulterated, hedonistic fun he supposedly notched on his belt, was a closet moralist and just as much fueled by righteous indignation and anger as his '60s contemporaries.

Oldman doesn't convey much of this -- he's a blank slate -- but in his defense he may not have had the opportunity. Following Lahr's lead, Frears and Bennett arrived at a grander conception of the man. They treat him as sui generis, a rare, unique, important talent. (It's the only really firm conclusion they come to about him.) This, and the cataclysm in the final act, may account for the film's rumbling, apocalyptic tone. As a result, what's missing is not only a sense of the man but a sense of the artist as well. Without an inkling, at least, of his spanking, scoundrelly work, it is hard to accept the filmmakers' high-handedness and reverence toward their subject. They seem to accept his genius status as a foregone conclusion, but why should we? Because he got mashed?

The filmmakers haven't gone to much fuss to evoke the mod atmosphere of London in the '60s, but they don't need to. In her swanky, drop-waist minis, Vanessa Redgrave carries the whole gyrating, "Blow-Up" era on screen with her. Redgrave has little more than a walk-on here, but she slips through the movie like silk. In one scene, she sits stroking her oh-so-long leg as she chats with Lahr and you feel like as if she's s let you read a few pages from her character's private journal.

We have Orton's "Diaries," too, and, as free as they can be from Lahr's vested interest, we get a much better sense of him (not to mention enjoyment) from those scribbled pages than we do here. Orton was a special brand of anarchistic, nose-in-the-air prig, and in the film, that smirk is really a kind of badge of superiority (just as Halliwell's wig is an emblem of shame); it's worn as a challenge, an unspoken slapping insult. The great failure of the movie is that we never know what sort of chap it's pinned on.

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