Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

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John Kingsley Orton was born on January 1, 1933 and died on August 9, 1967 – a little over a week after parliament had voted to partially decriminalise homosexuality.   However, that political event gets no mention within Prick Up Your Ears, a film that takes its title from the play that Orton was about to start work on at the time of his death.

The film tells the story of Orton (would was rechristened “Joe” instead of “John” once he achieved literary success) and Kenneth Halliwell, his lover, mentor, friend and partner-in-crime (even if that crime was defacing library books).   The two had met back at the beginning of the 1950s at RADA, with Orton intrigued by, and ultimately attracted to, the older, well-read Halliwell.  The last entries in Orton’s first period of diary-writing gives the reader a good idea of how their relationship was progressing:

15 May:  Started at RADA.  Oh bliss!

19 May:  Someone in the other class keeps looking at me

21 May:  Was Eyed.

25 May:  Met Ken at Charing Cross road.  I don’t quite understand Ken.

2 June:  Am beginning to understand Ken.

8 June:  Met Ken.  He has invited me to live with him.

11 June:  Must leave my digs

12 June:  Ken offers again.

13 June:  I say no.

14 June:  Ken offers again.

16 June:  Move into Ken’s flat.

17 June:  Well!

18 June: Well!!

19 June: Well!!!

20 June:  The rest is silence.

Writing later, Orton spoke of how he found RADA to be “complete rubbish,” and that, at the end of his two terms there “I had complete lost my confidence and my virginity.”

Orton and Halliwell wrote works together over the next decade, but it was only when they were separated that Orton’s creative genius came into its own and his radio play, eventually entitled The Ruffian On the Stair, was picked up by the BBC Third Programme.  It was based on an unpublished novel by Orton and Halliwell called The Boy Hairdresser and, as you will see in the film, marked the beginning of both jealousy and rage on the part of Halliwell that he was not got getting the recognition and acclaim that Orton was, something which only became magnified with the success of Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot, and Orton’s commission to write a film for The Beatles, a film which was never produced.

The film actually begins at the end, with the finding of the dead bodies of Orton and Halliwell, From there, it jumps forward more than a decade as author John Lahr writes Orton’s biography with the help of his wife and Orton’s literary agent, Peggy Ramsey.  At first, the film suggests that it is going to be a relatively straightforward account of the last six months in the lives of Orton and Halliwell, told in flashback.  However, about a third of the way into the film, the flashbacks take us to the early 1950s, telling us how the two men met and, ultimately answering the inevitable question that most will have after watching the 1967 segment:  why were these two men living together?

The relatively complicated flashback structure is unsurprisingly handled with ease by the masterful Alan Bennett, whose script switches from moments that are unflinchingly dark to others that are uproariously funny.  He also manages to filter in parallels between the past and the present.  When Orton becomes famous after the production of his play Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Halliwell keeps reminding him of the contributions that he has made to Orton’s script and success.  In the present-day sequences, we see the same thing with Lindsay Duncan as Anthea Lahr, wife of Orton’s biographer, trying to remind Orton’s agent that the book wasn’t a sole effort and that she was working on it as well.

Bennett’s screenplay does take some liberties with both the timeline and the truth at various points.  For example, Orton and Halliwell made three trips to North Africa and not just the one that we see within the film (although one of those only lasted a day).  One of those trips was made with Kenneth Williams, who may not be portrayed in Prick Up Your Ears since he was still alive at the time the film was made.  Their trip together was, however, dramatized as part of the BBC film Fantabulosa, a dramatization of Kenneth Williams’ life starring Martin Sheen.   Williams and Orton had become friends back in 1964, during the time when Orton reworked his next play, Loot, as a vehicle for Williams.  However, it was a flop during its try-out in Cambridge, and Williams didn’t continue his association with the play which, after many re-writes, would become a success and win Orton the prestigious Evening Standard Award.  Bennett’s screenplay pays very little attention to the troubles that Loot had from its inception through to its eventual success.  Meanwhile, it is understood that the telephone call between Brian Epstein and Orton regarding the film script for the Beatles never happened, with the script being turned down with no reasons given.  In Prick Up Your Ears, Joe Orton proudly talks about having sold the film rights for Loot.  The film was made in 1970, as was an adaptation of Entertaining Mr. Sloane, but, rather interestingly, the general opinion was that they had not translated to the screen well.

Alan Bennett as scriptwriter headed a production whose cast reads like a who’s who of British acting talent.  Gary Oldman was cast as Orton on the back of his acclaimed performance as Sid Vicious in 1986’s Sid and NancyPrick Up Your Ears was Alfred Molina’s breakthrough role, although he had also appeared in films ranging from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Letter to Brezhnev.   The supporting cast of the movie is likely to have many audience members of a certain age thinking “oh look, it’s him,” at various points as Lindsay Duncan, Frances Barber, Eric Richards, Sean Pertwee (if you look close enough), Richard Wilson, and Julie Walters flash up on the screen.  It’s interesting how thirty years can make a difference to an actor or actress’s life – Walters, playing Orton’s mum, is on screen for all of five minutes, and yet her name is proudly emblazoned on the front cover of the most recent DVD release of the film as if she is one of the main performers.  Stephen Frears directs the film, just two years after he was at the helm of another gay-themed movie, My Beautiful Launderette.

It is interesting to note that the film received largely good reviews in the UK, but not so in the US, although one perhaps has to disagree with some of the comments by Philip French, written in the Observer.  He says that the “film’s sympathies ultimately lie with Halliwell, a sad, pathetic, vulnerable figure.  He is made to think himself in grave need of psychiatric help because his fidelity, loyalty and tolerant kindness have turned him into a jealous monster. As opposed to the cruel, opportunistic, amoral Orton, who radiates psychic health while exhibiting the air of false innocence and psychopathic absence of guilt associated with his bisexual hero, Mr Sloane.”  One can only wonder if the critic’s sympathies for Halliwell rather than Orton had to do with the time in which the film came out and the review was written: 1987, when the AIDs crisis was at its peak, and conservative Britain (with both a small and capital C), only a year away from imposing section 28, was not allowing itself to sympathise with a promiscuous gay man who enjoyed meeting strangers for sex in public toilets – whether he was violently murdered or not.

Nearly a decade after Prick Up Your Ears was made, British queer film would take an altogether lighter form with a cycle of gay romantic-comedies spurred on by the success of movies such as Beautiful Thing and Get Real, among others.  There is little sign of that levity within Prick Up Your Ears, though, despite the fact that is very funny in places.  Instead, the movie is part of a tradition dating back to the late 1950s, where the dour Serious Charge and the sobering The Trials of Oscar Wilde paved way for 1961’s Victim, which was then followed by A Taste of Honey, The Leather Boys, The Killing of Sister George, Nighthawks, and Sunday Bloody Sunday.  This dark, gritty tradition of queer-filmmaking that the Orton biography is a part of would continue through The Fruit Machine in 1988, Young Soul Rebels in 1991, Priest in 1994, Like It Is in 1998, and even on through the acclaimed Weekend in 2011.

Like so many of those films that I have just mentioned, Prick Up Your Ears makes no excuse for the flawed nature of its protagonists, or even how there are moments within the film when they come across as thoroughly unlikeable.  At times within the film, both Orton and Halliwell appear to hit the self-destruct button, although it is unlikely that either of the two men could have envisaged how their story would end.  Perhaps Orton realised, however, that his success would eventually bring unhappiness, writing in his diary just two months before his death that “to be young, good-looking, healthy, famous, comparatively rich and happy is surely going against nature.”

 

 

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Dangerous Years (1947)

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The various DVD-R archive series from the major studios over the last decade have certainly helped to get many forgotten films back into the public domain, and also replaced poor quality bootleg copies with pristine ones.  Some of the films involved have been revered classics, others are not so – and yet sometimes just as interesting in their own way.

Dangerous Years (1947) is one of those not-very-good and yet interesting films.  It is chiefly remembered today for being the first film appearance of a young Marilyn Monroe (centre. below), playing a waitress in a couple of scenes and, it should be said, with a very different voice to that which we are used to!  Monroe’s appearance alone would make the film an interesting curio, but the presence of Billy Halop (here called William) and Scotty Beckett add to the film’s worth for fans of 1940s cinema.

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The film, which runs only just over an hour, is a heavy-handed tale of young men going astray during the “dangerous years” of adolescence.  Billy Halop plays Danny Jones an older boy (“of voting age”) who heads/controls a gang of sixteen and seventeen year olds who carry out robberies and, of course, one night it all goes wrong and somebody gets killed.  The rest of the film is dedicated to the court trial of Danny, together with flashbacks to the night of the crime.

The younger members of the cast manage to make the most of their clumsily-written, clichéd roles of naïve troubled kids with hearts in a story with far too many twists and turns, but it is the adults who drag the exercise down, barely speaking a line that doesn’t come across as contrived.  Clearly intended as something of a morality tale, the film comes across as remarkably preachy and one only can wonder what youngsters at the time thought of what they were seeing.

And yet the cast still makes it intriguing.  Billy Halop plays the central role of Danny in his first (and only) major role after four years away from the screen, after fighting in World War II.   While Halop performs well, much had changed during those four years.  His youthful looks had disappeared, and here he looks considerably older than his twenty-seven years (see above, left).   He is, in fact, almost unrecognisable.  It would be his last major role in a film, only intermittently on screen afterwards, and then only in small or uncredited roles.  In the 1970s, he would have a recurring role in All in the Family, but looked two decades older than the fifty-something man that he was (see below, right).  He died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-six.

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Also of interest is the appearance of Scotty Beckett, who played the young Al Jolson in The Jolson Story just the year before (below, right).  This was his last film before being signed to MGM for what must have seemed at the time like the opportunity to forge a career as a leading man (he had been a prolific child actor).  Here he steals the show as the troubled son of an abusive father, somehow adding an element of realism to the clunky dialogue and turning his role into a foreshadowing of the type that Sal Mineo would play during the mid-1950s.  However, his career at MGM would be short-lived as his behaviour became erratic and he was arrested for drunk driving.   After earning a part in Rocky Jones, Space Ranger on TV in the 1950s, he was arrested again, and subsequently fired.  As he left showbusiness, more arrests followed, and he passed away at the age of thirty-eight.

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Dangerous Years might well have been a prophetic title for the times that were to come for three of its stars, all of whom would die young:  Marilyn Monroe, Billy Halop, and Scotty Beckett.   However, while the film is hardly a masterpiece, 20th Century Fox have to be applauded for rescuing it from complete obscurity with their good quality archive release (a far cry from the barely watchable version that could be seen on YouTube prior to the DVD issue).  Despite its heavy-handed approach, it is certainly interesting to see how the talent of the young stars make it still watchable – two of which were already approaching the end of their cinematic careers, while the third was only just embarking on hers.

Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

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For some unknown reason, it’s at this time of year that I often turn my attention to films from the early 30s and B-movies of the 40s. The brisker running times of 60-70 minutes are often useful in the busy run up to Christmas!

Not very Christmassy, though, is Wild Boys of the Road, directed by William Wellman in 1933, and included in a set of his films entitled Forbidden Hollywood, volume 3. Wellman, rather like Michael Curtiz, was a remarkably fine filmmaker that probably is little known today outside of film fans simply because he moved from genre to genre. He directed the brillant war aviation drama Wings in 1927, and then turned his hand to westerns, war films, murder mysteries and even a film about God giving speeches on the radio!

Wild Boys of the Road, though, is a social conscience film which I remember first seeing on the BBC, probably about twenty years ago – although I’m guessing that version might have been edited given the fact that this pre-code era movie contains sexual assault, violence, murder, and a rather horrific accident.  Indeed, the latter caused Screenland magazine to ask whether something could be done to “spare us the anguish” of the scene in question.

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People unfamiliar with this era of film-making might be surprised at some of the content.  As with many pre-code movies, it still packs quite a punch today, and its story of kids travelling from one town to the next by illegally riding on trains (and risking their lives all too often) because their parents are out of work and can no longer afford to feed them certainly has uneasy parallels with the migrant crisis in Europe today. At one point, the kids even make their own camp in a junk yard with permission from the owner, but are forced by the authorities to disperse and move on, with water hoses used to enforce it. Sound familiar?

Frankie Darro, the young star of the movie, spent much of the 1930s playing tough kids with a good heart, and that’s exactly what he does here, but it’s the little-known Edwin Phillips, with only three screen credits to his name, that steals the show as his best friend. Darro would fall out of favour in the 1940s, and was reduced to bit parts and stunt work by the end of that decade – ending up as the actor INSIDE Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet in 1956! Wellman directs this episodic tale with typical efficiency and flair, and manages to keep sentimentality at bay until the last few minutes and the story’s rather unlikely (but welcome) end.

It’s often easy to forget just how adult (and yet classy) cinema was in the early 1930s before the Production Code was enforced, and this fine drama about the effects of the depression on young Americans is just about as hard-hitting as it gets.  Such a tale involving adults would be grim enough, but with this being about youngsters makes it one of the most devastating films of the period.

New Book: Queer Sexualities in Early Film

51NMx0RliGL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Queer Sexualities in Early Film: Cinema and Male-Male Intimacy.

I am proud to announce that the above title has now been published (in the UK) by I. B. Tauris, and is the culmination of six years of work on the homosexual and homosocial in films of America and Europe from 1912 through to 1934.

From the back cover:

Since the publication of Vito Russo’s seminal study The Celluloid Closet in 1981, much has been written about the representation of queer characters on screen. Until now, however, relatively little attention has been paid to how queer sexualities were portrayed in films from the silent and early sound period. By looking in detail at a succession of recently-found films and revisiting others, Shane Brown examines images of male-male intimacy, buddy relationships and romantic friendships in European and American films made prior to 1934, including Different from the Others and All Quiet on the Western Front. He places these films within their socio-political and scientific context and sheds new light on how they were intended to be viewed and how they were actually perceived. In doing so, Brown offers his readers a unique insight into a little known area of early cinema, queer studies and social history.

Shane Brown offers a critical and much needed addition to the fields of film history and queer studies. He brings to light a range of films and reads them through their historical moment. In the process he gives definition and depth of understanding to the way that homosexuality and the homosocial have been perceived historically both in the European and American cinemas of the early twentieth century. –Michael Hammond, Associate Professor of Film History, University of Southampton”

Shane Brown s Queer Sexualities in Early Film: Cinema and Male-Male Intimacy is a fine addition to an expanding canon of volumes which explore the covert history of queer cinema. Brown is effectively a detective opening up commentary on the roots of non-traditional masculinity in film well beyond queer cinema. –Lindsay Coleman, film and television academic at the University of Melbourne and Editor of Sex and Storytelling in Modern Cinema (I.B.Tauris, 2015).”

Films discussed in the book include Different from the Others, Vingarne, Sex in Chains, Michael, Wings (1927), the Collegian series of short films, Algie the Miner, Les Resultats des Feminisme, Brown of Harvard, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Mask of Fu Manchu, The Monster, The Most Dangerous Game, White Zombie, A Florida Enchantment, Parisian Love, Tom Brown of Culver, Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1916), Behind the Front, Shoulder Arms, Westfront 1918, and more.

Noah’s Ark (1928)

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Director:  Michael Curtiz
Starring: George O’Brien, Dolores Costello
Duration: 133 minutes
Availability: Released as burn-on-demand disc by Warner Archives (Region 1)

Noah’s Ark isn’t quite the biblical epic you might expect it to be, not least because most of it is set during World War I!  For the first hour or so this is a relatively straightforward war film.  However, following an explosion, a number of characters find themselves trapped underground, which is the cue for a religious minister to read to his captive audience the story of Noah’s Ark, which takes up much of the second half of the film.

In the World War I section, George O’Brien and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams (we won’t ask how he got that nickname) play two friends, Travis and Al, who find themselves in a train wreck on the night that war is declared.  They rescue a young German girl and take shelter just over the French border.  When the news reaches them that war has been declared, they take a horse and cart and escape into the night before the authorities reach them.  The narrative takes a number of unlikely twists and turns, but suffice to say that Travis marries the girl, who persuades everyone that she is American as she happens to speak English perfectly (very convenient), but Travis is made to feel guilty by Al for not helping in the war effort when Al joins up.  The (relatively small) part of the film which tells the story of Noah’s Ark itself finds the same actors playing similar roles to those in the modern day story, thus helping the audience to draw parallels between the two narratives.

The film works much better in the modern day sequences.  The story here is more compelling because, unlike the biblical narrative, we don’t know how it is going to end.  It relies a great deal on coincidence, but we care enough about the characters that it really doesn’t matter, and we are happy to just sit back and go along for the ride.  That said, the biblical section contains some great set-pieces, most notably the terrifying flood itself, and the costumes are also noteworthy – or the lack of costume in the case of George O’Brien who, as usual, takes time to show off a body that most of us can ever dream of!

The sound sequences haven’t fared as well, but must have been a logical idea at the time, as Hollywood quickly moved from silent to sound film.   This was a prestigious production, and costly in more ways than one: it is said that three people lost their lives during the filming of the flood scenes, although this remains unverified and may well have just been a story concocted as publicity.  Eighty-eight years after it was made, it remains remarkably good entertainment, and a good example of a film that you quickly forget is silent.

Michael Curtiz, who directed the film, was the directing equivalent of a chameleon, and during his fifty-year career was willing and able to direct practically anything that was thrown at him.  He directed one of the great horror films of the 1930s, The Mystery of the Wax Museum, and also one of the great adventure movies of all time, The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Errol Flynn.  A few years later, he directed the classic romantic drama Casablanca, and in the 1950s turned his hand to musicals as different as White Christmas and King Creole, the latter starring Elvis Presley.

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Homevideo (2011)

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A few years ago, I wrote and published a young adult novel, Breaking Point, about homophobic bullying in schools.  The first section of the book deals with an incident in which the bully videos his victim as he is stripped and thrown into the showers in the changing rooms, and how that video makes its way around the school.  In Breaking Point, the incident is just one of many problems facing the victim, but in the film Homevideo (Germany, 2011), this kind of event is fully explored and is extended to make a ninety minute film.

The set-up in Homevideo is slightly different.  Here, Jakob (played by Deutschland 83‘s Jonas Nay) records himself masturbating, but then his mother inadvertently lends out the video camera (complete with the memory card) and the footage ends up in the wrong hands.  Before long, the footage is circulated online, and Jakob is both ridiculed and ostracised.   Interestingly, in the same year, another film, The Suicide Room, a Polish film, also dealt with cyber bullying, this time with video footage of a dare in which two male teens kiss at a party being circulated.  While both films deal well with their subject matter, Homevideo tells its story in a much more traditional manner and, while I like The Suicide Room, it is probably the better film because of it.

Unlike my own book and The Suicide RoomHomevideo is not about gay teenagers or homophobic bullying, although there is a short, undeveloped scene in which it is intimated that one of the two boys behind the video going online might be turned on by it.  However, Jakob is a shy, somewhat socially awkward teenager as is the case in the other two stories as well.  One wonders how the story might have been different if this was not the case – what if the boy at the centre of the story was one of the most popular kids in school?  Would the effects be the same?  And, if not, what would they be?   Jakob’s story is also complicated by the break-up of his parents’ marriage at the same time, with his mother moving out to live with her female lover.

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Jonas Nay, looking even more young and innocent than in the recent hit series Deutschland 83, puts in a fine performance as Jakob, and ultimately holds the film together, appearing in most scenes.  He has the difficult job of making a withdrawn, sometimes exasperating, and certainly complex, character likeable.  However, the script here also deserves a special mention, dealing with its subject without lecturing its audience about the evils of the internet and making its characters fully-rounded and believable.  What perhaps is most important here is that the film (along with The Suicide Room) highlights the kind of bullying that can’t be easily stopped or even easily identified.  It is also bullying by humiliation, and therefore rarely talked about by victims until things reach breaking point.

The sad thing about the film is its lack of availability to a non-German speaking audience.  The only DVD available is in German (as you would expect), but without foreign language subtitles – although the tech-savvy can buy the DVD and pair it up with the non-professional English subtitles that are lurking around in the corners of the internet and, in this case, are more than competent.  But its lack of availability is a shame, for this is a fine film and, as with The Suicide Room, deserves to be widely seen.  Maybe with Jonas Nay now becoming known outside Germany, an English  release of Homevideo may follow.

Crime and Punishment, U.S.A. (1959)

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One of the greatest things about the Warner Archives series is that it encourages film fans to take another look at films that aren’t talked about a great deal and yet can still entertain and pack a punch just as well as their better-known counterparts.  Crime and Punishment, U.S.A. is a case in point.

Starring George Hamilton, the films takes Dostoevsky’s classic tale and transplants it in America in the late 1950s in what is a rather loose adaptation.  Hamilton, in his first film role, plays Robert Cole, a young law student who murders a woman and then finds it difficult to deal with the consequences – both the suspicion towards him from the police and his own conscience.

It’s all been done before, of course, and since, and yet this take on the story manages to be entertaining, and Hamilton’s performance is almost hypnotic.  Somehow, he manages to take what should be a highly unlikeable character and makes the audience care about him.  We know early on, from when he tries to help a man having a heart attack, that he has redeeming features, for example.  In some ways, he’s just yet another “mixed up kid” from the 1950s that could have been played by James Dean, Sal Mineo, James MacArthur or any number of other young actors of the decade.  And yet there is something more going on.  This is, more than anything, a character study – there really isn’t much story going on as such – and Hamilton manages to make his character believable.  Sure, there are times when he appears to overact, but for a first film role his performance is impressive, and Hamilton won a Golden Globe for most promising newcomer for his efforts.

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This was Denis Sanders’ first feature film as director, and he comes across as a talented thirty year old here.  There are some sequences that look a little cliched, but others have an urgency and vibrancy which don’t reflect his relative lack of experience.   However, he had already won an Academy Award five years earlier for the short film A Time Out of War, and so his talent was never really in question.  But, despite another Oscar for a later documentary, Sanders never seemed to fulfil his potential.  Crime and Punishment should have been the start of a fine career in film, and yet odd to a slightly bizarre resume, often with several years between projects and jumping from feature films to documentaries to TV episodes with little rhyme or reason.  Perhaps he is best known now for the cult film Shock Corridor and the documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is.  I confess I haven’t seen Shock Corridor in a number of years, but one watches That’s the Way It Is and wonders what happened to all the promise shown in his first feature film ten years earlier.  The Elvis documentary is well-regarded because of Elvis’s fine performances, but not for Sanders’ pedestrian direction or the the sometimes sloppy editing.

Oddly, though, if Sanders never fulfilled his potential, neither did Hamilton.  Despite his fine performance here, he never really hit A-list status in Hollywood and, looks and talent notwithstanding, by the mid-60s he had drifted into television work and, for the most part, continues to work in that medium today.