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‘Prick Up Your Ears’ at 30: Alfred Molina Reflects on Film

Thirty years after Stephen Frears’ “Prick Up Your Ears” first landed in theaters, the drama about Joe Orton’s meteoric rise to the top of the London theater scene and violent death, still feels fresh, vibrant, and transgressively sexy.

Orton scandalized playgoers with “Loot” and “Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” darkly comic dissections of the English class system that helped usher in a new era of permissiveness in popular culture. But his reign was short-lived. In 1967, the 34-year old Orton was bludgeoned to death by his lover and mentor, Kenneth Halliwell. Halliwell then committed suicide after washing down 22 Nembutal tablets with grapefruit juice.

“Prick Up Your Ears” dramatizes the disintegration of their relationship. It also boasts star-making performances from Gary Oldman as Orton and Alfred Molina as Halliwell. In honor of the thirtieth anniversary, the film will screen at New York’s Metrograph Theatre from Sept. 1 through 7. Molina spoke to Variety about the movie’s legacy and Orton and Halliwell’s life and times.

When did you last see ‘Prick Up Your Ears’?

The last time I watched it was maybe about 10 years ago. I’ve seen clips, a movie done with Ira Sachs got a screening at a film festival in Texas. As part of the event, the festival did a little 10 minute clip of stuff that I’d done as a tribute. In there was a tiny piece from “Prick Up Your Ears.” As that clip went up, he bent over and said, “I love this movie.” I was delighted, but all I could think of was who’s that really young guy.

I suddenly remembered a story I’d heard about Katharine Hepburn. She was interviewed when she was quite elderly and she was asked “do you watch your movies?” And she said, “I stop watching my movies when I stop recognizing who that woman was.” Now, I know what she means. In a funny sort of way you’re looking at a different person.

Do you have vivid memories of making the film?

I remember making it like it was yesterday. This is the irony. The actual experience of making the film is very vivid in my memory, because it was my first proper leading role in a film. It was, at the time, a groundbreaking movie. Stephen Frears had made “My Beautiful Laundrette” I think the year before, which touched on a gay love story. It’s easy to forget that was really pushing the envelope back then, as was “Prick Up Your Ears.” I knew we were making something special, something very different.

How did you land the part?

I think Stephen was always going to be the director, but the very first manifestation of the film was going to have Ian McKellen playing Halliwell and a British actor called Keith Allen was in the frame to play Joe. The embodiment of the film lost its funding. By the time they had regrouped and had their money together, Ian had moved on to something else and so had Keith. Then Gary was being considered and I just got a call saying Stephen Frears wants to meet you to look at this role, and I was absolutely thrilled. I went to his home and Alan Bennett, the writer, was there, and it was the most relaxed interview I’d ever had for a job, because we barely talked about the job. We spent a good hour just talking about everything but the movie. We talked about other films, London in the ’60’s. It was just a very nice afternoon over a little chicken salad. I went home and two days later I was told if I wanted it, it was mine. It was a bit dreamlike.

How did you feel towards Halliwell?

I felt very sympathetic towards him in a way. Had he been alive now, he would have had access to a lot more help. The relationship had clearly become toxic. For whatever reason, Joe didn’t leave him. The pain that he must have been going through was phenomenal. He was very angry that he wasn’t sharing in the success and he claimed that he was responsible for 50% of it. There’s a scene in a movie where Ken storms out of a rehersal and says that’s my line. He’s angry that he’s not given full credit, and Joe says, “look I’ve dedicated it to you.” And he says, “can’t you put my full name?”

He’d been such a big part of Joe’s development. But when Joe took off as a writer, Ken was inevitably left behind. That’s a dynamic that happens constantly between teachers and students. The student overtakes the master.

Orton and Halliwell lived together in this tiny London flat. Did that claustrophobic space exacerbate their issues? 

Living in that small room, living in a sense completely isolated from the world, writing and defacing those books [Ed. note: Orton and Halliwell went to jail for defacing library books], and decorating their home, it was probably like a little cocoon where they felt safe. With Joe’s success, the world broke into that room and that shattered everything. Because Ken wasn’t a successful artist. Because he wasn’t taken very seriously by anyone, the left him adrift.

What did you think of Orton’s plays?

I thought they were brilliantly funny. He was this voice that hadn’t been heard before. This iconoclastic, cheeky, sort of poking fun at institutions and establishments that were almost kind of untouchable in British culture — the police and the church and the medical profession. He threw mud at all of them. The reason he was so successful was that so much of it did stick. He was hitting targets that were ripe for mockery.

People talk about the sixties in London as though there was this great revolution in art and culture and freedom, but actually 1967, when he died, was pretty much the same as 1957. The sixties didn’t really come into fruition until the very end of the decade. But 1966, ’67, when he was writing and becoming successful, Swinging London swung for maybe ten people.

Why do you think the film has endured?

I suppose the obvious reason is that gay politics has been on the agenda and at the top of the agenda for so long culminating in the change in the marriage laws. Because of that the story is very much a part of our world, particularly now in the States where LGBTQ issues are now once again assaulted. In certain parts of the country and all around the world it’s dangerous to be gay. All of that makes the story relevant and still very current. It’s not a period piece that’s talking about an issue that’s dead and buried.

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