Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Alan Bennett, based on the book by John Lahr
Stars: Gary Oldman, Alfred Molina, Vandess Redgrave, Frances Barber, Julie Walters, Wallace Shawn
The Story: Biographer John Lahr reconstructs the story of swinging ‘60s London playwright Joe Orton and his long-suffering lover Kenneth Halliwell, who pursue fame, danger and each other over the course of an ill-fated fifteen-year relationship.
How it Came to be Underrated: Frears turned out so many great movies in such a short amount of time in the ‘80s, and they were so unapologetically British, that America didn’t notice what he was doing until he already had a nice body of work.
Why It’s Great:
- This story is set at a time when homosexuality was vigorously oppressed in England, but Frears has no interest in presenting his characters as sainted victims: This is a true story about two guys who happened to personify every negative gay stereotype: they were promiscuous, neurotic, snotty, violent, and on and on. But Frears knows that he doesn’t need to “humanize” anyone. With his usual self-assured swagger, he makes these two more and more sympathetic with each tragic flaw.
- In fact, the movie has my all time favorite “fall in love” scene. All too often, someone walks into a room and our hero falls suddenly head over heels and we think—really? Why her? Why now? What is their special connection? It’s not enough to just show her flipping her hair. All the harder then, to write a believable scene in which a heretofore straight young man suddenly falls in love with a fat, balding male classmate! Here’s how they do it: They’re students at RADA, doing improv. They’re told to pass around an imaginary cat. Everybody pretends to merely pet it, until Molina gets it. He acts uncomfortable holding it, then he develops an affection for it—then suddenly it scratches him with its imaginary claw. His eyes go dead and he pitilessly wrings its neck, then hands its limp body to the next classmate. Cut to Oldman: instantly smitten. And so are we.
- One of the ways that the movie builds sympathy is by using a non-linear structure that allows likable moments to be front-loaded. We get the story in the order his biographer reconstructs it, and, as always, the more sordid secrets come out last. That works well for the structure because we come to care early on before the more alienating details can come out.
- There are so many little masterful touches from Frears: We see time passing in form of a collage of magazine clippings slowly filling their walls. Little visual and aural cues let us know when the overlapping narratives being assembled connect up. Frears breezes through fifteen years deftly by letting the imagery tell the story.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Every time Oldman chews the scenery today, I try to remind myself how good he was in early efforts like this and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. He used to be so relaxed and natural and charming!
How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD.
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