Prick Up Your Ears is a 1987 film about the playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell. The screenplay was written by Alan Bennett, based on the book by John Lahr. The film stars Gary Oldman as Orton, Alfred Molina as Halliwell, Wallace Shawn as Lahr and Vanessa Redgrave as Margaret "Peggy" Ramsay.
The film was directed by Stephen Frears.
The film tells the story of Orton and Halliwell in flashback, framed by sequences of John Lahr researching the book upon which the film is based with Orton's literary agent, Peggy Ramsay. Orton and Halliwell's relationship is traced from its beginnings at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts
. Orton starts out as the uneducated youth to Halliwell's older faux-sophisticate. As the relationship progresses, Orton grows increasingly confident in his talent while Halliwell's writing stagnates. They fall into a parody of a traditional married couple, with Orton as the "husband" and Halliwell as the long-suffering and increasingly ignored "wife" (a situation exacerbated by Orton's inability or unwillingness, in 1960s England, to acknowledge having a male life partner). Orton is commissioned to write a screenplay for The Beatles
and Halliwell gets carried away in preparing for a meeting with the 'Fab Four' but in the end Orton is taken away for a meeting on his own. Finally, Orton's national standing as a brilliant playwright coupled with Halliwell's increasing marginalization and mental instability led Halliwell to bludgeon Orton to death and then kill himself with an overdose.
Lahr's wife (Lindsay Duncan) appears periodically though the film as his research assistant. In a subtle touch, Ramsay consistently downplays her contributions to the project, drawing the parallel between their marriage of a successful writer and unknown wife and Orton and Halliwell's.
"Prick Up Your Ears" was to be the title of an unreleased play by Orton - the name, ironically, suggested by Halliwell who had provided much of Orton's titles throughout his successful years. In the title, the word "Ears" is an anagram of the word "Arse" making Prick Up Your Ears a rather blunt reference to the homosexual subject matter. It is also a phonetic play on the conjunction of "your" and "ears" to produce "rears", which also alludes to anal penetrative intercourse.
The film was well received by most critics. Oldman's portrayal of Orton was particularly well received, earning critical praise and a BAFTA Award
nomination for Best Actor.