The incomparable Quentin Crisp (1908-1999) shared a birthday with Jesus and was played by John Hurt in 1975’s The Naked Civil Servant, adapted from Crisp’s memoir of the same name.
Imperiously disparaging about everything from AIDS (”a fad”) to Princess Diana (”vulgar”), he wrote a classic series of film reviews for Christopher Street magazine, some of which are reprinted here. For more information, please visit the Quentin Crisp website, or purchase the anthology of Quentin Crisp film reviews, “How To Go To The Movies”, here.
PRICK UP YOUR EARS
Director: Stephen Frears
Stars: Gary Oldman, Alfred Molina, Vanessa Redgrave
It is the weak who destroy the strong.
This is the appallingly clear message contained in both the book and the movie of Mr. Orton’s life and in his diaries.
On the ninth of August in 1967, Mr. Halliwell (who was what my brother would have called a drip) hammered to a pulp the skull of the tough, bouncy Mr. Orton, with whom he had been living for seventeen years. It is impossible not to think that the victim deserved his fate. He was popular - even with his agent - but, deep down, he was not a likable man.
He was, however, a minigenius who wrote Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Loot, and What the Butler Saw. In a small way, he was a man of destiny. That is to say his particular talent was what his generation was waiting to receive. By the early sixties, the world had fallen into the hands of the young, who have always been impatient with the establishment. All Mr. Orton’s plays make fun of respectability - a viewpoint that was considered fashionable. He also despised discretion, which was less easy to condone.
Mr. Halliwell was somewhat older than Mr. Orton, was well educated, and had a little money of his own. When they first met, the latter had nothing. He came from the lower middle class and, worse, from Leicester. There are two ways of dealing with this handicap. You can either stay there and triumph by becoming even more respectable than your neighbours or you can leave and forever after enhance your enjoyment of life by imagining how shocked Leicester would be if it knew what you were doing. This was the course chosen by Mr. Orton. He went to London and entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. That was where he met Mr. Halliwell, who, at first, became his mentor and collaborated happily with him in writing a novel that no one would publish. Soon, however, Mr. Orton began to blossom on his own, wrote plays that were actually staged, and acquired theatrical friends who thought of his companion as a hanger-on and dreary with it.
That was the moment when the dramatist should have found a way to end the relationship as kindly as possible. Some perverse kind of loyalty that did not include being nice to his flat mate prevented him from doing this and disaster followed.
I doubt that the mere envy of his protégé’s success was the sole motive for the murder. I think that from the very beginning what Mr. Halliwell wanted was love. He was not a sensualist and, at one moment, even states that he has difficulty in becoming fully aroused. He lent himself to his friend’s sexual pranks, which included threesomes with total strangers, but he despised himself for doing so. Mr. Orton, by contrast, lived in a perpetual state of what the English call randiness. There is a sequence that shows him rejecting a proposition that would have obliged him to be the passive party. This gives the audience the erroneous idea that he drew the line somewhere. It is obvious from his diaries that he drew no lines. He did not subscribe to the old-fashioned notion that one sex act is more effeminate than another. In his judgement, all unbridled carnality was manly. It was the faintest hint of restraint, discretion, or tenderness that was womanish. Thinking in this way, it was obvious that merely indulging in a little light masturbation with someone he had known for years in the privacy of their shared apartment was a complete waste of time. The only occasion when we see him doing this is when he can add to the fun by watching with half an eye of the screen on which Elizabeth II is taking part in some public ceremony. I think it was this heartless, strident masculinity in Mr. Orton that really brought about his murder.
A film that endeavours to present this subtle bu turgid relationship deserves praise.
The acting is superb - especially that of Miss Redgrave as the agent who is so intrigued and amused to find that her newest client is an overt homosexual. She even lends him money; there can be no greater love.
Also the script is good. The dialogue is full of bizarre descriptions of sexual behaviour interspersed with remarks such as “Please pass the sugar.” At times, it is almost Pinteresque.
What the film lacks is unity and a gradual quickening of pace. Although we know from the stunning beginning what the climax will be, we do not feel that we are being drawn relentlessly toward it. Prick Up Your Ears is a biographical story set in the recent past. This makes success difficult. All the main facts are known and therefore must be presented more or less truthfully. The result of this constriction is that we are shown a series of events all interesting in themselves but not at all aimed at the heart of the drama - the film is patchy.
When, on leaving the screening room, I voiced this opinion to Mr. Steele and some of his merry men, they all replied that life is like that. I consider that as weak an excuse as attempting to justify some instance of obnoxious behaviour by saying “It’s only natural.”
Life is a disease for which the movies are a cure - or they ought to be.
The ultimate question is this: For whom was Prick Up Your Ears made? It is the story of a binding relationship, but it is certainly not a romance. It is full of laughs, but it is by no means a comedy. Much that is horrible takes place in it, but it is not a horror film. It is catalogue of sexual encounters, mostly in public lavatories, but it is never pornographic. Though the dialogue is outspoken (to say the very least), visually the film is discreet - sometimes to the verge of absurdity. Mr. Orton stands in a London street making loud remarks about the physical attractions of various men who pass by, but not a curve, not a bulge is anywhere to be seen. No one does anything within the sight of the camera except kiss, which in real life, is a pastime almost unknown on the “tearoom circuit.”
Since it shows homosexual life at its very nastiest, perhaps this film was intended for bored-again reformers.