Joe Orton, 1933-1967.
“I’m an acquired taste.”- Joe Orton, 1933-1967.
In the late 1980s, when I was a teenager, I first saw Stephen Frears’ wonderful biopic, “Prick Up Your Ears,” based on the life, and death, of Joe Orton, that marvelously macabre British playwright.
Gary Oldman–an actor who, in my opinion, just gets better–perfectly captured Joe’s truculent, naughty charm, his lusty swagger and arrogant intelligence. The lurid facts of Joe’s murder–beaten to death, in bed, by his live-in lover Kenneth Halliwell–hardly diminished his luster. What teenager can resist the notoriety of dying young? I was 14, and I staggered out of the movie theater, almost fainting with admiration and approval.
A handful of years ago, I re-watched the film, and, no longer a teenager, still found it a wonderful film. This time around, however, I was much more captivated, by Joe’s relentless courage and determination to remake himself, to reject the stigma of his poverty-ridden childhood, his underwhelming education, even his time in prison, instead making full use of his talent as a writer to flip his own script. Joe was gay at a time when homosexuality in the UK was illegal: he didn’t care. He was poor, he had an accent that marked him in class-obsessed England: he didn’t care. Joe was going to seize his life. Joe was going to be Joe. How thrilling to watch his meteoric rise!
How thrilling…and how heartbreaking, knowing that it all ends in tears and body-bags. Joe’s determination to succeed did not include Kenneth Halliwell (masterfully portrayed by Alfred Molina…wow.), and as he went, in his own words, “up, up, up,” Halliwell increasingly collapsed into the shambles of his broken personality. Such a waste, such a loss.
But: we do have Joe’s plays. And, his diaries. (All praise and respect to the magnificent John Lahr for the enormous amount of work he did, bringing those pages into the light.) In his suicide note, written after the murder, Kenneth Halliwell cited the diaries as some kind of explanation, for his actions. Murderers, after all, are not known for their ability to handle reality or responsibility. But you and I can read Joe’s full-bodied diaries for the vicarious, illuminating pleasure in watching a raw talent come to grips with its potential and ability on its own terms.
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