screen gems

Before Gary Oldman retires, watch him cruise & kiss dudes in one of his earliest film roles

Gary Oldman, gay movie, LGBTQ film, queer cinema, Prick Up Your Ears, Joe Orton
Gary Oldman plays real-life gay playwright Joe Orton in “Prick Up Your Ears”

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.