Prick Up Your Ears

Prick Up Your Ears is a 1987 British film, directed by Stephen Frears, about the playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell. The screenplay was written by Alan Bennett, based on the biography by John Lahr. The film stars Gary Oldman as Orton, Alfred Molina as Halliwell, Wallace Shawn as Lahr, and Vanessa Redgrave as Peggy Ramsay.

Prick Up Your Ears
Prick up your ears.jpg
UK release poster
Directed byStephen Frears
Written byBook:
John Lahr
Alan Bennett
Produced byAndrew Brown
CinematographyOliver Stapleton
Music byStanley Myers
Distributed byCurzon Film Distributors
Release date
  • 17 April 1987 (1987-04-17)
Running time
111 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget£1.9 million[1]
Box office$1,654,743[2]


Islington, 9 August 1967. Literary agent Peggy Ramsay knocks on the door of playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell, but nobody opens. She calls the police. They find the corpses of the two men. A decade later theatre critic John Lahr visits Peggy Ramsey because he wants to write Orton's biography. They find Orton's diaries, and Peggy tells Lahr about Orton's life.

Orton and Halliwell's relationship began at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Orton started out as the uneducated youth to Halliwell's older faux-sophisticate. As the relationship progressed, however, Orton grew increasingly confident in his talent while Halliwell's writing stagnated. They fell into a parody of a traditional married couple, with Orton as the "husband" and Halliwell as the long-suffering and increasingly ignored "wife" (a situation exacerbated at a time when being a sexually active homosexual was illegal). Orton was commissioned to write a screenplay for The Beatles. Halliwell got carried away in preparing for a meeting with the "Fab Four", but Orton was taken away for a meeting on his own. Finally, in August 1967, a despondent Halliwell kills Orton and commits suicide.



Ian McKellen was originally envisioned as Halliwell.[3] McKellen explained: "I needed a holiday – I'd been working so hard – so I just kept saying 'no, no, no', but when I saw the film I really regretted not having done it."[4] Maggie Smith turned down the role of Ramsay, saying that she did not want to perturb her sons by starring in a film that featured homosexual promiscuity and murder.[5] Keith Allen was in talks to play Orton before Oldman was cast.[3]


Roger Ebert awarded Prick Up Your Ears four stars out of four, describing Redgrave's performance as "superb", and praising the work of Oldman and Molina: "The great performances in the movie are, of course, at its center. Gary Oldman plays Orton, and Alfred Molina plays Halliwell, and these are two of the best performances of the year... [Oldman] is the best young British actor around".[6] Variety noted: "The script is witty, the direction fluid, with one of the homosexual orgy scenes in a public toilet almost balletic, and the depiction of the lovers' life in their flat suitably claustrophobic."[7]

Vincent Canby was less enthused, writing: "The film covers the main events of the Orton life in a manner that is nothing less than distracted. One has little understanding of the fatal intensity – and need – that kept Orton and Halliwell together." He nevertheless had praise for the film's acting.[8] Similarly, Pauline Kael lauded Redgrave but said the male relationship was unconvincing and suffused with "modern-style psychosexual moralizing", and that "unlike Orton, it [the script] takes no real delight in misbehaving."[9]

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.[10] It has a 94% rating at review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, based on 34 reviews, with an average score of 7.7/10.[11]


  1. ^ "Back to the Future: The Fall and Rise of the British Film Industry in the 1980s - An Information Briefing" (PDF). British Film Institute. 2005. p. 27.
  2. ^ "Prick Up Your Ears (1987)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 10 January 2014.
  3. ^ a b Lang, Brent (24 August 2017). "'Prick Up Your Ears' at 30: Alfred Molina Reflects on Film". Retrieved 4 March 2018.
  4. ^ "Ian McKellen". Larry King Now. 2 December 2015. 19 minutes in. Ora TV. Retrieved 4 March 2018.
  5. ^ Coveney, Michael (2015). Maggie Smith: A Biography. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-1474600231. [Smith's] reaction to Alan Bennett's screenplay, which dealt in homosexual promiscuity and murder, was to retreat behind the excuse of not wanting to embarrass or upset her sons.
  6. ^ Prick Up Your Ears review. Chicago Sun-Times. 8 May 1987. Retrieved 16 March 2011.
  7. ^ "Prick Up Your Ears". Variety. 1 January 1987.
  8. ^ Canby, Vincent (17 April 1987). "Film: Joe Orton's Life, in 'Prick up Your Ears'" – via
  9. ^ Kael, Pauline (2011) [1991]. 5001 Nights at the Movies. New York: Henry Holt and Company. p. 595. ISBN 978-1-250-03357-4.
  10. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Prick Up Your Ears". Retrieved 19 July 2009.
  11. ^ "Prick Up Your Ears (1987)". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixter. Retrieved 4 March 2018.

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