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
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"
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.