Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.
Renowned character actor Gary Oldman recently said that his retirement is “on the horizon.” But before the 64-year-old actor leaves the big screen, fans should check out his little-known (and incredibly cruisey) role as real-life gay playwright Joe Orton in the 1987 biopic Prick Up Your Ears.
Orton emerged as a celebrated playwright in 1960s London for his black comedies. He is best known for Entertaining Mr. Sloane, in which a low-class male hustler seduces a brother-sister sibling pair, and Loot, in which a gay couple rob a bank and stash the cash in the casket of one of their recently deceased parents. The plays, produced in his early 30s, helped cement Orton’s fame and even got him considered as a screenwriter for The Beatles.
In Prick Up Your Ears, Oldman portrays Orton as a mischievous and randy young artist living with his boyfriend, Kenneth Halliwell (played by Alfred Molina). Orton regularly lounges about in his briefs, cruises men in London’s public bathrooms and neglects Halliwell as his boyfriend grows increasingly resentful.
The film was taken in part from Orton’s real-life diaries, which were published in 1986. If you’ve never heard of the movie, that’s probably because it was an independent film created super early into Oldman’s career. It was literally his third-ever film role, and he was in his late 20s when shooting it. But gay film fans may recognize its director, Stephen Frears, since Frears also directed the 1985 gay romantic drama My Beautiful Laundrette.
While Prick Up Your Ears isn’t perfect, it contains Oldman’s most positive and explicit gay role (and even several on-screen smooches, something Will Smith wasn’t brave enough to do).
Oldman’s only other quasi-queer roles were as Dracula, the legendary bloodsucker who was hot to feed on Jonathan Harker, and Mason Verger, an ultra-creepy sadist who mutilated his own face while flirting with cannibalistic doctor Hannibal Lecter.
And if you’re curious to see Orton’s plays, both Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot were adapted into films as well, though the former is better than the latter.
he really is talented and his roles are varied.
I think it’s a terrific movie. I happened upon it by chance in the early days of having cable, and I had no idea going in what it was about. It was liberating to see Orton/Oldman so comfortable, guilt-free, and horny about his sexuality. It started a process with me that later fluorished with Queer As Folk. And was something I needed, coming from a rural, universally Christian small town.
The movie fits in with the “dead gays” trope, but I don’t find it a negative in this case. Orton wasn’t killed because he was gay, but because Halliwell was jealous, of both his freewheeling sexuality and his career transcendence of Halliwell. In that respect the fact that they were gay was totally incidental.
Fun fact: the movie also has Vanessa Redgrave and Wallace Shawn, both of whom are great.
Personal fun fact: someone at work once told me I looked like Gary Oldman, though I never saw the resemblance.
**Favorite Gary Oldman moment**
– Bring me everyone.
– What’d you mean…
love that scene!
“Prick Up Your Ears” is little known? Really? The article also fails to mention that Vanessa Redgrave plays Orton’s literary agent, which Maggie Smith turned down, saying that she did not want to perturb her sons by starring in a film that featured homosexual promiscuity and murder. Oldman earned a BAFTA Award nomination for Best Actor; Redgrave received BAFTA- and Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Alan Bennett earned a BAFTA Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film won the award for Best Artistic Contribution at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival.
I wish you had mentioned a bit more about Joe Orton. His life, career and tragic death are compelling.
Oldman is a Trumpy kind of guy who had an antisemitic rant in a playboy interview a few years back. I don’t care to watch anything he’s in. (He later apologized in a statement obviously written by his publicist with no real sorrow coming from the words used.)
Love him more, I never saw this,,