Making the Business of Life Easier

   Finance globeinvestor   Careers globecareers.workopolis Subscribe to The Globe
The Globe and Mail/
Home | Business | National | Int'l | Sports | Columnists | The Arts | Tech | Travel | TV | Wheels

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

  This site      Tips


  The Web Google


  Where to Find It

Breaking News
  Home Page

  Report on Business



Read and Win Contest

Print Edition
  Front Page

  Report on Business




  Arts & Entertainment



  Headline Index

 Other Sections

  Births & Deaths






  Facts & Arguments




  Real Estate









  Food & Dining




  Online Personals

  TV Listings/News

 Specials & Series
  All Reports...

  Where to Find It
 A quick guide to what's available on the site



  Customer Service

  Help & Contact Us



 Web Site

  E-Mail Newsletters

  Free Headlines

  Help & Contact Us

  Make Us Home

  Mobile New

  Press Room

  Privacy Policy

  Terms & Conditions

Absurd fun with a tortured relationship


May 1, 1987

I shall be a disgusting old man myself one day, I thought, mournfully. Only I have high hopes of dying in my prime.

-Joe Orton's diary, July 14, 1967.

In the early hours of Aug. 9, 1967, Joe Orton, 34, who trailed the appellation "one of Britain's most promising young playwrights" behind him the way a queen trails a train - with a royal disregard of the splendiferousness of the situation - was murdered by Kenneth Halliwell, an untalented "middle-aged nonentity" who had been Orton's lover for 16 years. Halliwell used a hammer on Orton's head ("Brain tissue and blood were at the head of the bed, the side of the bedding and on the ceiling," Orton biographer John Lahr wrote) and then ended his own life by washing down 22 Nembutals with a glass of grapefruit juice. "Death," Lahr would conclude of the tortured relationship, "made them equal again, linking Halliwell finally and forever to Orton."

The newest instalment of "finally and forever" is the absurdly funny film version of Lahr's biography, Prick UpYour Ears, adapted by Alan Bennett (A Private Function) and directed by My Beautiful Laundrette's Stephen Frears. (The bio's title had been tentatively assigned by Orton to a play he would not live to write. Prick Upyour ears is a peculiarly British double entendre - "ears" being an anagram for "arse" - that superlatively summarizes the blackly farcical, anarchic quality of the playwright's work.)

Orton's charisma, intelligence and sex appeal are expertly incarnated by Gary Oldman, last seen as Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy; Alfred Molina, the Russian bear of Letter to Brezhnev, has triumphed in the unenviable task of reproducing Halliwell, a tragic case once dismissed as not "important enough to hate;" Orton's wily, witty, caustic agent, Peggy Ramsay, is Vanessa Redgrave; John Lahr is represented in the toady person of Wallace Shawn, and Lindsay Duncan is Lahr's long-suffering wife Anthea - her unfulfilling relationship with her celebrity husband is included as a heterosexual footnote to demonstrate that the celebrity-wife syndrome is no respecter of sexual persuasion.

The film's strategy is as simple as it is effective. "I don't write fantasy," Orton maintained. "People think I do, but I don't." Taking him at his word, Prick UpYour Ears treats his life as the raw material for one of his farces (Loot, What the Butler Saw, Entertaining Mr. Sloane); any criticism of the film for allegedly failing to indicate the texture of Orton's writing thus seems wrong-headed, in that the approach obviates the need for snippets of Orton's plays. Prick UpYour Ears is an Orton play.

Similar in structure but never in feeling to Bob Fosse's Star 80 and Paul Schrader's Mishima (Orton gives vent to a narcissistic desire that is pure Mishima: "When I die," he tells a portraitist, "I want people to say he was the most perfectly developed playwright of his day"), Prick UpYour Ears begins at the end, with the discovery of the bodies. "Dear, oh dear, oh dear," quips a cop, "somebody has been playing silly buggers in here." Summoned to the scene, Orton's agent makes a classic farce entrance by backing into the room and then swipes Orton's diaries and the note Halliwell had affixed to them for the police to find: "If you read this diary, all will be explained. K.H. P.S. Especially the latter part."

As Lahr researches his biography and Peggy Ramsay reminisces, the facts fall haphazardly into place: the working-class, 18-year-old Orton meets the cultivated Halliwell, seven years his senior, at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1951 and moves in with him the same year. For the next 10 years, Orton would later recall, nothing happened. He and Halliwell worked together on various acting and writing projects, the younger man sponging an education from the older while retaining his iconoclastic world view. "Writing, John, is one-tenth inspiration, nine-tenths perspiration," Halliwell would lecture Orton; Orton, who changed his first name from John to Joe, would break into the lecture to substitute the word "masturbation" for "perspiration."

The interruption was prophetic of the last five years of Orton's life. Once he found his literary voice and experienced success, Orton became healthier and more self-confident, promiscuously creative and just plain promiscuous. Halliwell, a man tolerated by Orton's friends out of politeness to the playwright, meanwhile became malignant and mewling. "What would happen if we split up?" Orton inquires. "How would that help me?" an indignant Halliwell snorts. "We're talking about me." (What might have happened is obvious: both might still be alive.)

Bennett's screenplay sees Halliwell's incessant "meism" as an outgrowth of the inevitable "me-tooism" he was forced to bear as Orton's companion. "God is on his side and fights for him and all people like him," Halliwell's mouthpiece in The Boy Hairdresser, a jointly authored unpublished novel, declaimed of the Orton character. And Halliwell? "One always had to make such an effort," recalled television producer Peter Willes. "He was just unsympathetic. It took enormous tact not to leave him out altogether." As Orton's star continued to ascend and the relationship continued to deteriorate, Halliwell's jealous public rages fatally isolated him from the few people who might have been able to help him.

Prick UpYour Ears follows the facts with farcical fidelity until the penultimate scene, the murder itself, when invention is mandatory. Although the state of Orton's corpse suggested to the coroner that Halliwell had murdered him in "a frenzy," Bennett has chosen to shroud the homicide in a calmly hilarious curtain speech from Halliwell in which he says he cannot understand why - being orphaned, homosexual and sensitive - he never made it as an artist. He observes of Orton, "I loved him. I must have loved him. I chose him to kill me." It's doubtful that Halliwell was either calm or introspective under the circumstances, but this intentional stylization does clarify the relationship. The final sequence, a funeral of sorts, is pungent in its giddiness: vintage Orton.

It should be pointed out that certain unattractive aspects of Orton's personality, shamelessly revealed in the diaries, are missing from the movie. There is no hint of his snobbery ("Saw Peter Gill. Had a v. pleasant lunch. He's going to Canada. How awful for him. But it's only a month or two"); or of his misogyny (Orton reacts to a woman who criticizes Islamic attitudes toward women by writing, "She talked . . . (of) how she couldn't walk down the streets without 'bad things being said about me, you know.' And I thought, what a beautiful cow, and how right the Arabs were about women"); or of his blatant underestimation of Halliwell's suffering ("In the momentum of Orton's new celebrity, he could not properly register Halliwell's disintegration," Lahr conjectured in his introduction to the diaries).

Prick UpYour Ears cannot be accused of hagiography, a form Orton loathed ("It's extraordinary how, as people grow older and they have less to lose by telling the truth, they grow more discreet, not less"), but the airbrushing of blemishes has tipped the balance entirely in his favor: Orton the martyr, Halliwell the demon. John Lahr was right. Death did link Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton, finally and forever, and this exceptional film has carried the process even further. A literary legend has been transformed into a movie myth.

7-Day Site Search
     [an error occurred while processing this directive][an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive][an error occurred while processing this directive][an error occurred while processing this directive]

Breaking News

Today's Weather

Home | Business | National | Int'l | Sports | Columnists | The Arts | Tech | Travel | TV | Wheels

© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Help & Contact Us | Back to the top of this page
[an error occurred while processing this directive]