2017 marks fifty years since the Sexual Offences Act was introduced in the UK, which led to the partial decriminalization of male homosexuality.
It’s also, coincidentally, fifty years since the death of taboo-busting gay playwright Joe Orton.
The BFI is currently presenting two separate seasons inspired by these events, Gross Indecency and Orton: Obscenities in Suburbia. These include Prick Your Ears, a 1987 biopic about Orton, and Victims, a black-and-white suspense film from 1961. It is, on the face of it, hard to imagine two more different approaches in depicting the era.
The year before Prick…, Oldman had burst on the scene as punk rocker Sid Vicious in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy; another film that ends in murder. Stephen Frears’ film on Orton both opens with, and circles back round to, the playwright’s bloody death at the hands of his partner Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina).
Victim, meanwhile, stars Dirk Bogarde as a closeted barrister, Melville Farr, on the verge of becoming a QC, who risks his reputation to bring a blackmailer to justice and avenge a would-be lover. It was a bold career move for Bogarde, then a well-established matinée idol and reportedly gay himself; though the public attitude to homosexuality was then beginning to shift.
Orton himself spent time in prison; though ostensibly for defacing library books, as opposed to being gay. Then a fresh-faced twenty-nine, Oldman’s Orton is as “out” as one could be in the mid-1960s. The first time he meets his future agent Peggy Ramsay (Vanessa Redgrave), he asks if next time he can bring his “friend”.
Contrastingly, Victim seems to take place almost in a police state; a state where the police are largely sympathetic but nevertheless obliged to enforce the law. Gathered discreetly in saloon bars, as friends are wont to be, they exist in a permanent state of semi-dread. Having stolen money from his employer to pay off a blackmailer, young Barrett (Peter McEnery) – known as Boy Barrett – rather than risk betraying his relationship with Farr, hangs himself in his cell.
In Prick…, going to prison proves the making of Orton; giving him time and space away from Halliwell, who, once his cultural mentor as well as his lover, had become a drain. The film presents Halliwell in part as Salieri to Orton’s Mozart and in part as the long-suffering, borderline hysterical housewife; a tragic figure insofar as his parent’s deaths and his inability to take part in the culture of free love at the end of post-war scarcity. Orton tries to liberate him from his neuroticism, but Halliwell can’t escape his own unhappiness. In Victim, Farr’s guilt comes from his failure to help Barrett. Indeed, when Barrett persists in calling him, on the run and desperate to get out of London, Farr coolly threatens to contact the police.
Where Farr is defined by his self-denial, Orton is a sexual thriller-seeker. In an age where two men sharing a flat was viewed as suspicious, where bobbies performed raids on public toilets, sex was unavoidably dangerous for gay men. Even in documenting seedy hook-ups in council flats – ugly wallpaper and sallow light – Prick… is incendiary; though Victim is arguably more powerful.
The film’s poster shows Bogarde’s face contorted in the agony of grief, but rather it’s his poise and the subtle psychology that is at play beneath it that is the more remarkable: the way his hand tightens ever so slightly on a door frame when he pauses to tell his wounded but loyal wife, Laura (Sylvia Syms), that he doesn’t expect her to stick by him; the way his eyes widen when he learns of Barrett’s death, his expression shifting almost imperceptibly from passive to dreadful as the camera swoops in, score rising dramatically. It’s this that makes Farr’s eventual declaration – “I wanted him!” – all the more astonishing; even outside of the conservatism of the day. Bogarde himself reportedly insisted on the scene.
Prick… is, by comparison, broader; more theatrical. Written by Alan Bennett, based on a biography by John Lahr, the film includes a framing device in which Lahr (played by Shaun Wallace) interviews figures from Orton’s life, which seems mainly designed to give Redgrave more screen-time – she received both BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for her performance.
It does allow for some comedic distance, though; such as when Lahr’s wife, Anthea (Lindsay Duncan), inadvertently shares Orton’s accounts of his sexual exploits by asking her elderly mother to help decode his shorthand. Her unshaken response to his recollections is, while slightly unbelievable, suggestive of how attitudes have changed. John Lahr is amused, for instance, to learn that public toilets in Britain are colloquially known as “cottages” – apparently in The States they’re “tearooms”.
Prick…’s depiction of gay life in the 1960s is vivid and often life-affirming, largely due to the safety of retrospect; though the 1980s weren’t, of course, notoriously progressive. Victim is, by comparison, a social tragedy; showing the broader social impact of the law, the opinion of bystanders and those caught up in the blackmail plot.
The film’s original title was “Boy Barrett”, in that it’s his death that eventually leads to the unravelling of the web. His is just one of the individual tragedies within the story; like that of the older barber who decides to emigrate to Canada rather than pay off the blackmailer; to be “sensible” rather than risk any more “trouble”, even if it means facing loneliness. Victim doesn’t in turn condemn those who condemn homosexuality, but rather seeks to so the negative impact of the so-called “blackmailer’s charter”.
As the police chief points out to his younger assistant, being a Puritan used to be illegal, too. There is the sense that the tide is changing – the police are more interested in tracking down blackmailers than exposing homosexuals – though it would take another six years for the law to change. In this, Victim feels more relevant, with more sense of threat and danger about it than Prick…; which is a character study, the tragedy of one man (or perhaps two).
It’s arguable, in fact, that Bennett relates more to the reserved, anxious Halliwell than the out-of-his-shell Orton, who gets all of his best lines, as well as his titles, from his less successful partner. Orton barely features in his own murder, either time around, as the passive Halliwell suddenly snaps; taking violent, horrific action. The first show the immediate aftermath as Halliwell in close-up, bald-headed, blood-spattered, grotesque, tries to come to terms with what he’s done. The second even gives him a moment of irony where Halliwell muses on how much more appropriate it would have been to bash Orton’s brains in with his Evening Standard Award rather than the hammer he actually used.
Though both esteemed gay playwrights, Bennett’s work is grounded in self-deprecation and self-denial not profligacy. He writes, like Orton, as he seems to have lived. In Victim, desire is made furtive and self-loathing. Tragedy repeats because we are unable to change, victims of time and circumstance: Barrett is not the first of Farr’s romantic entanglements to have killed himself.
While Farr doesn’t seem to blame himself for the earlier death, Farr, as a man of integrity, is tormented by his failure to save, or even try to save, Barrett. There’s a touching scene where Farr’s valet, having been forewarned by Farr, tells him, “I have believed in your integrity for ten years, sir. I see no reason to question it now.” It takes a gesture of will and sacrifice to break free of that – Farr deciding to testify against the blackmailers in court; even though he knows it will destroy him.
Though fearful, Victim is, like Prick…, strangely hopeful. Perhaps it’s largely a matter of taste, but the fact it’s now able to be – a topic of depiction, of discussion; that we live in an age where an LGBT+ movie can win Best Picture – when most reasonable people recognise what LGBT+ means – shows some sort of progress: too slow and often painful, even fifty years on, but enough to make you hope that maybe, just maybe, however cheesy, however corny, love can and will conquer all.