Friday, January 6, 2012

Film Pairing — The Naughty Joe Orton And A British Education

While the American establishment was attempting to quash the literary influences of such iconoclastic writers as Jack Kerouac, Great Britain’s legendary theatre scene was dealing with its own challenge to the status quo. Out of nowhere a naughty, disrespectful playwright emerged, bringing dark humor, violence, and obscenity to the London stage. His name was Joe Orton and like many rebels, his early death may have sealed his fame. Kerouac died at 47 in 1969 of alcohol abuse. Orton out did him. He died at 34 in 1967 of repeated hammer blows to the head.

In his short life Orton wrote several well-received plays — What the Butler Saw, The Ruffian on the Stair and Loot to name a few. As far as I know only Loot and Entertaining Mr. Sloane made it to film, and also as far as I know, only Sloane (1970) is available for viewing. It stars a very funny and horny Beryl Reid and a hilariously prim and proper Harry Andrews. It also stars Peter McEnery who spends most of the film in his jockey briefs attempting to titillate or offend those with whom he co-inhabits a big, gloomy house. There is sex, murder, and an unquantifiable amount of rude behavior. The play was outrageous and caused the young Orton to be noticed and applauded. Orton seemed to enjoy the attention, positive and negative.

Murder and other forms of criminal behavior appear to be central to all of Orton’s work. They were, in fact, central to his life. If you are interested in this brief but significant period of British theatre and quick rise and fall of one of its legends, you may also want to watch Prick Up Your Ears. The biographical film is based on the book by John Lahr, senior film critic for The New Yorker and directed by award-winning film director Stephen Frears. Gary Oldman, who resembles Orton, plays Joe. Alfred Molina plays Orton’s frustrated lover. Vanessa Redgrave is Orton’s agent and Wallace Shawn plays Lahr. The film (1987) covers the creative years that began when Orton and his lover met and lasted until the last brutal seconds of each of their lives.

The pairing of one of Orton’s most famous plays (adapted to film for posterity) and his well-told, if discomforting, biography can only intensify the argument of whether life mirrors art or visa versa. They certainly won’t settle it. Even so, it is quite an evening.

Not sure what to recommend as accompanying drinks. Certainly beer would work. This isn’t Noel Coward. Because it is cold in most of the English speaking countries in January, maybe a hot toddy — whiskey, hot water and honey with cloves or cinnamon. Or lemon. A hot toddy might calm your nerves and help bring on slumber after an evening of uneasy, embarrassingly funny and tragic drama.

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