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June 19, 2012

Prick Up Your Ears

by Franz Patrick


Prick Up Your Ears (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★

John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) wished to write a book about British playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman) so he set up an appointment with Orton’s friend and agent Peggy Ramsay (Vanessa Redgrave). Initially, Peggy hid Orton’s diary, which consisted of important details about his life as a homosexual and relationship with a lover, Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), but the theater critic eventually won her over. As John and Peggy discussed Orton’s life and accomplishments, we were allowed to observe the elements that led up to his brutal murder. Based on a the book by John Lahr and written for the screen by Alan Bennett, “Prick Up Your Ears” captured the painful reality of the past in having to hide one’s nature from society that deemed homosexuality was not only immoral and a sin but a disease that had to be purged. I noticed that a lot of the characters hid their fears and failure/unwillingness to understand homosexuality by not wanting to talk about it or, if the issue came up, rerouting the conversation into a more “acceptable” topic. The adults certainly didn’t want children to hear what being gay meant just in case the word itself could “turn” kids into degenerates. It was interesting that the physical act of gay bashing wasn’t there but the words and intonations in the characters’ voices when sharing how they felt about homosexuality didn’t make the experience any less maddening. For me, although the film was a biography, the tone inspired me to focus on feelings such as anger and rebellion with occasional humor right around the corner. These feelings were personified in scenes when Joe and Kenneth shared their first sexual moment while watching the Queen being officially given power to lead her country on television. To rebel was to be free and Orton knew this well. Despite being in a committed relationship, he felt the need to seek excitement in men’s restrooms. Orton, so focused on his needs as a man and who relished in being constantly under the spotlight, ignored the fact that his lover was deeply unhappy. Orton’s lack of perceptiveness provided a rich human drama without relying on too much sentimentality. As the picture went on, it became obvious that their issues could be applied to all couples. Molina was very convincing as a troubled man who didn’t feel appreciated. His neediness got on my nerves and I think that was the point. Kenneth knew that Joe thought he was, essentially, a joke. For example, when Kenneth decided to buy a wig due to an early onset of baldness, Joe mocked him. They were cruel to one another and, for most of the time, it seemed like they only needed each other for sex. So it begged the question why they were in a relationship in the first place. The answer was embedded when they would laugh together, when they both were on the same level of happiness in a specific moment in time. I was convinced that they shared a history, that when they met they were a good fit for each other, and despite their rotting relationship, they still loved each other in the most rudimentary way. Directed by Stephen Frears, “Prick Up Your Ears” offered multilayered performances from Molina and Oldman. In a way, it showcased potential problems that could arise in all relationships. In the end, I couldn’t help but wonder why some couples who used to look into each other’s eyes with nothing but love and adoration could turn into a couple with nothing but disdain for one another.

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