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‘Prick Up Your Ears’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 15, 1987

"Someone's been playing silly buggers," says the British policeman who discovers the corpses of playwright Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell in "Prick Up Your Ears." And he doesn't just mean "playing the fool." Stephen Frear's film, based on John Lahr's Orton biography, is about the 16-year love relationship between Orton and Halliwell that ended in tragedy on Aug. 9, 1967. Halliwell beat Orton to death and subsequently killed himself with an overdose of pills.

But far from being another bludgeony "Star 80," Frears' film is an insightful uplifter. You know about the murder up-front -- Greek tragedy style -- and from then on the film is an exhilarating collage. Frears, who made "My Beautiful Laundrette," concentrates on the development of their affair. Using a "Citizen Kane"-like story-framing device, Frears and screenwriter Alan Bennett make Lahr's actual researching of the Orton story the structural drive of the movie. Lahr's interviews with Orton's associates, particularly his agent Margaret Ramsay (Vanessa Redgrave), are intercut with scenes between Orton (Gary Oldman) and Halliwell (Alfred Molina). The movie is essentially a collection of flashbacks.

We enter a past long gone -- England at the end of the '50s. Somewhere, Graham Greene's Pinky is striding along the beachwalk in "Brighton Rock," and Colin McInnes' greasers are Brylcreeming their locks in "Absolute Beginners." Being gay, or rather being a Nancy Boy, means discreet meetings behind the closed doors of the rich. Or, for the lower classes, three-minute encounters in public toilet stalls. And Queen Elizabeth II is about to be crowned.

As Orton, Gary Oldman (the Sid Vicious of "Sid and Nancy") is a plucky, bright kid who breaks from his oppressive working-class background in Leicester to study with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. He spells badly and doesn't understand Shakespeare, but he's smart as a city rat. Halliwell, a slightly older Academy student, is everything Orton yearns to be -- literate, prolific and cocksure. And Halliwell likes Orton's spunky good looks. They move in together, each for his own reason.

They teach each other what they know. Orton picks up tips and Halliwell learns to pick up tricks. They get busted for defacing library books with obscenities and, when they emerge from jail six months later, have already grown apart. Orton starts selling plays and ascends astronomically to London's theatrical darling. Halliwell finds himself a forgotten (and balding) lover. Eliza Doolittle has overtaken Henry Higgins and is picking up other men to boot.

Almost every way you look at it, Frear's film is a marvel: a delicate shot here, an amusing scene there, a line from Bennett's sassy script, and the absorbing performances, particularly by Oldman and Redgrave. Frears' treatment of a quickie in a London urinal -- which Orton ducks into minutes after accepting an award for one of his plays -- is surreal and oddly beautiful. Bennett's screenplay is a case study in irony. He shows the beauty in "dirtiness," the humor in human anguish and the art of sarcasm in British culture.

After an inexperienced Orton expresses shock that sailors and their women are having sex openly on the Thames embankment, Halliwell dryly replies, "What do you expect, many of them are from Australia." And when a stuffy publishing agent rejects Orton and Halliwell's homosexually frank play, "Boy Hairdresser," he tells them, "You see, normal sex is still a novelty for most people."

Like "Casablanca," "Diva," "Clockwork Orange" and countless other quality-cult films, "Prick Up Your Ears" has an indefinable idiosyncrasy that makes you want to come back for more.

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