Gary Oldman did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for BAFTA, for portraying Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears.
Gary Oldman plays one of the two men an eventually very successful playwright Joe Orton. Oldman takes on the role in his usual chameleon style of performance in his recreation of Joe Orton. The film is told in flashbacks and although we first see the later Joe it is important to note the scenes which take place earlier chronologically as we meet Orton as he is first just trying to make it as an inspiring actor. Oldman voice and manner is appropriately off beat without overplaying the style of the man. He brings this style to the part in an entirely natural fashion as Oldman conveys the curious nature of the man just through his oddly meek manner even though Orton is not really meek in nature.
The crux of the film is Orton's relationship with a fellow actor and wannabe writer Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina). It is an interesting dynamic they create as when they both first meet Oldman's plays Orton as the submissive in the relationship at first as Kenneth urges Joe on to work as a writer and starts the homosexual relationship with him. There is a relatively quick turnaround in this relationship though when Orton pushes them to seek random sexual partners constantly and ends up starting to dominate Halliwell. Oldman is very effective in this turnaround showing his earlier submissive quality mainly coming from him just have a time of learning but once he knows he takes over in a rather sly fashion.
Oldman is terrific in this change as Orton becomes completely dominate over Halliwell but as well seemingly to stay the same time of man as he does everything exactly his own way. Oldman develops a certain style of pompousness in which is quite indulgent yet in a very internalized way. Oldman has almost a snake like way in which he charms not by forcing his will upon others but instead sneakily undercuts them into being subservient to his desires. The dominance is quite brutal in ways as he quietly ridicules Halliwell in his own way and Oldman has an extra brutality because of the manner he is actually doing it quite forcefully even though Orton's manner of ridiculing him in an indirect although purposeful way.
As Orton's control over Halliwell grows so does his pretensiousness grow as an artist. Oldman has the perfect portrait of the artist who belives far too much in his own importance and own greatness. Oldman whenever Orton is talking about his material has that aloofness of the off beat artist who almost doesn't seem like he wants to talk about his work as he is too above such things yet within this stance there is the pure indulgence of the artist as well. Oldman makes for the perfect self proclaimed genuis who medaites himself just right to be that off beat man while still always pumping his own brillaince up even though he again never makes it something that Orton will directly say.
There are two important scenes where Orton changes almost entirely though and is quite a perfect moment for Oldman. The first he shows Orton at his most mainstream. It is when Orton is accepting an award for his play and is even away from Halliwell who knows him best. Oldman portrays Orton toning down his off beat attitudes as Orton. He keeps them slightly to be a man who would write the play he wrote but does not have that more purposefully atagonistic quality that he displays at other times. In this scene Oldman shows us Joe Orton the lauded playwritght who knows exactly how to play the crowd and further his place in the theatrical society, and suggests an Orton who only could have gone further with his career.
The other scene takes place when Orton returns home to attend his mother's funeral and is around a few people who know. It is a relatively brief set of scenes but Oldman is rather interesting as he has Orton lose all of the pretentiousness he carries and purposeful sexual intensity. The meekness at the beginning of Orton's journey returns and Oldman suggests that Orton's behavior is very much whatever his situation may be. Oldman makes Orton a man of circumstance. It is not that he is putting on any behavior exactly but he is a man who adjusts himself for others in more general circumstances but when it comes to his life with Halliwell and his wishes for constant homosexual encounters he insists on doing things only his way.
This is a very strong performance by Gary Oldman as his creation of Joe Orton is remarkable. Every facet of his life is well drawn in Oldman's performance and gives insight into the man as well as how he managed to drive his best friend and lover to murder him. As Oldman's work though this is not my favorite. Compared to his work in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Immortal Beloved he does excel in bringing his character vividly to life in an entirely natural fashion, but unlike those late performance there is never quite the moment where his performance goes the extra mile to be a truly powerful and compelling performance. It nevertheless is excellent work from Gary Oldman and another example of his chameleon like ability as an actor.