Picks and Pans Review: Prick Up Your Ears

updated 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

If you want to be up on the movie they'll be talking about for next year's awards, seek out this altogether astonishing British import. Director Stephen (My Beautiful Laundrette) Frears has teamed up with screenwriter Alan (A Private Function) Bennett to make this film of John Lahr's 1978 biography of playwright Joe Orton. Back in the 1960s, Orton shocked and stimulated theater audiences with his plays Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Loot and What the Butler Saw. For using humor to expose hypocrisy, Orton was widely touted as a successor to Oscar Wilde. But on Aug. 9, 1967, Orton, then 34, was bludgeoned to death by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, who then killed himself by swallowing 22 Nembutals. A trite, tawdry film could have been made from this on the order of, say, Bob Fosse's grim Star 80. Instead, Frears, Bennett and Lahr have filmed Orion's story as Orton might have done it, brimming with spirit, wit and outrage. And in Gary (Sid and Nancy) Oldman, who plays Orton, they have discovered an actor of ferocious talent. Oldman finds the carnal and verbal audacity in Orton and, more surprisingly, the insecurity. When he meets Halliwell at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (they are both acting students), it is the better-educated Halliwell who teaches Joe about literature and art. Orton instructs the terrified Halliwell, hauntingly played by Alfred (Letter to Brezhnev) Molina, about the joys of cruising public urinals. They move into a claustrophobic one-room flat in North London, quit acting to find even less success as writers. Separated in 1962, when both do six months in prison for defacing library books, Orton begins writing on his own. On the outside, a leading theatrical agent, Peggy Ramsay, offers encouragement. As Ramsay, Vanessa Redgrave, sexier and looser than she's been in years, is deliciously comic. While she conducts Orton into a world of celebrity (he's signed to write a movie for the Beatles), homebody Halliwell is ignored. His neurosis festers. Oldman and Molina find the hilarity and the horror in this familiar situation. Indeed, Frears handles all his large cast with startling expertise. Julie Walters, the tarty treasure of Educating Rita, is unforgettable as Orton's mother, and Wallace Shawn and Lindsay Duncan mine every telling detail from brief roles as biographer Lahr and his wife, Anthea. But it's Oldman who holds you in thrall and inspires you back to Orton's plays for another jolt from a voice too quickly silenced. Prick Up Your Ears makes going to the movies once more something to get excited about. (R)

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