Joe Orton is one of the more fascinating figures in modern British theatre. His plays were as brilliant as his personal life was controversial, being an out homosexual in the mid-to-late-1960s. His plays, including "What the Butler Saw" and "Loot," still stand up as some of the best farce written in the 20th century.
The Stephen Frears-helmed 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears, based on John Lahr's biography of the same name, pays Orton loving tribute in a way that would make Orton himself proud – unflinchingly honestly.
Told using one of the most tired conventions of the bio-pic genre (the "story told in flashback through the eyes of the biographer/reporter/other investigator-type"), Prick Up Your Ears follows Orton (Gary Oldman, looking remarkably like a younger Dana Carvey) from university through his early struggles and his fame, along with his lover Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina).
Every biographical film has to pick an aspect of its subject life, lest it turn into a documentary. There is no way to sum up someone's accomplishments in two hours, but as Robert McKee writes in "Story," the goal is to find the meaning of the subject's life, and then cast him as the protagonist of his life's genre." Prick Up Your Ears is a love-gone-wrong story between Orton and Halliwell, which is a wise move cinematically even though it leaves out a great deal of interesting information about Orton's work.
Oldman is fantastic as the sexually-obsessed Orton. What made the real-life Orton so successful was not just his talent, but also his charm. He was a boyish figure, one that looked like the son every mother would want – until, that is, until he would duck into a public restroom or pick up someone on the elevator. Oldman is not only perfectly cast for that at this time in his life, but also walks the line between charm and sex fiend beautifully.
Molina does well with Halliwell as well, though his character's desperation is hard to follow due to the film's out-of-sequence presentation. Credit also goes to Vanessa Redgrave and Wallace Shawn (best known, of course, as Vizzini in The Princess Bride) for holding together the well-worn biographer shell story together.
The major detraction to the film is the score, which at times is simply ridiculously out of adjustment with what is going on in the film. Whether that is a nod to Orton's farcical instincts or not, it is distracting.
The film is available in anamorphic widescreen and pan and scan, one on either side of the disc. The widescreen version looks older than its age (17 years); colors are faded and it's very difficult to distinguish anything in some of the film's darkest scenes. The pan and scan version is, well, pan and scan.
The dialogue is easily understood on the disc's 2.0 track. The score is problematic at times, quickly starting and stopping, but that may have less to do with the transfer than with the score itself (see the above review).
There's a trailer and English, Spanish and French subtitles. Any DVD release focusing on a historical figure, especially not well known to mainstream (read: non-theater-going) America, that gives no supplementary information on said figure is woefully lacking.
Prick Up Your Ears is a quick-hit DVD release, the type studios give to films just to brag about their large catalog of titles on the market. That's a shame, as this is a mostly well-done film about not just a famous playwright, but also an interesting relationship at an interesting time. The film itself is worth seeing enough to push the disc into the recommended category.