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Prick Up Your Ears is a 1987 film, directed by Stephen Frears, 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 tells the story of Orton and Halliwell in flashback, framed by sequences of 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, however, 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 unwillingness, in 1960s Englandmarker, to acknowledge having a male lover). 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, a despondent Halliwell kills Orton and commits suicide.



"Prick Up Your Ears" was to be the title of an unreleased play by Orton; Ironically, Halliwell, who had provided many of Orton's titles throughout his successful years, suggested the title. 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 gay sex.


Prick Up Your Ears received a generally positive critical reaction. All 14 reviews collected from notable publications by review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes were complimentary of the film. Oldman's portrayal of Orton was particularly well received, and earned him a BAFTA Award nomination for Best Actor.

The film won the award for Best Artistic Contribution at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival.


While the film has enjoyed positive popular critique, there have been descenting voices among scholars and the gay community. This has to do with the focus given to the death of Orton. In his book Because We're Queers (1989) Simon Shepherd refers to how biographer John Lahr was besoted with the death, and that is reproduced in the film - the film beginning with that event. Furthermore, the film's inclusion of Lahr as a character would seem not so much to raise the question of the 'construction' of the Orton myth but to reinforce Lahr's role in constructng such a myth. Ironically, Lahr's research into the difficulties of Orton and Halliwell's "marriage" are supposed to be offset against the film's image of his own long-suffering and effectively silenced typist-wife. Shepherd argues that the film is clearly part of the "Orton industry" because it cannot free itself of the Lahr-viewpoint. Furthermore, the casting of Redgrave in the role of Ramsey offers the impression of an open-minded and independent woman - endorsed by Redgrave being well known for her radical leftist political views - yet in Orton's own diaries she is portrayed as being "bitchy" about Halliwell and not always favourably regarded by Orton.


  1. Prick Up Your Ears Movie Reviews, Pictures - Rotten Tomatoes
  2. Gary Oldman - Awards
  3. Simon Shepherd, Because We're Queers. The Life and Crimes of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton. GMP, London, 1989, pp.159-160.

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