An Orton Compendium: A Genius Like Us (A Portrait of Joe Orton)

In memory of the playwright Joe Orton, whose career ended in violent death 50 years ago, the BFI is showing a season of films of and about his work. Top of my to-see list was this compendium, which comprises a 1982 BBC documentary alongside clips showcasing some of the work referenced in the documentary – What the Butler Saw, which is also being shown as part of the season, with a Q&A by Lahr, Leonie Orton and Ken Cranham – and an excellent clip of Malcolm McDowell and Beryl Reid playing a scene from Entertaining Mr Sloane which made me wish I’d made it to see the 2009 production starring Mat Horne.

The main documentary works on several levels. First and foremost, it is an exploration of Orton, his life and death, and the people who knew him. Most of the screen time goes to Orton’s sister Leonie, biographer John Lahr and agent Peggy Ramsey as well as close friend Kenneth Williams. As a result, there’s little in the film that can’t be learnt by reading John Lahr’s  biography Prick Up Your Ears. And yet, it’s the people who barely knew Orton that are most fascinating: the Islington librarian who can barely control his laughter as he describes Orton and Halliwell’s desecration of public property. The jolly publishers who betray every scrap of class prejudice they must have felt on meeting Orton for the first time in just a few minutes of chat. You get a sense of what it must have felt like to interact with Orton, and also what it must have felt like for him, attempting to enter circles presided over by the prejudiced. No wonder he had to cultivate unease and rebellion to get ahead.

The film is also a tantalising taste of documentaries past – the sort of thing I just about remember watching growing up. No slick editing or grinding repetition of recaps and soundbites, that blight today’s TV ‘documentaries’. Each subject is given space and time; they hesitate; they reflect; sometimes their words trail off and you learn as much about them as about their late lamented friend. It’s impossible, for example, not to like Orton and Halliwell’s neighbours, the Salvonis, and their simple acceptance of the two men as a couple – and one that would stick together no matter what. As Mr Salvoni repeats this sentiment about them sticking together, it’s as if he’s grasping for something else, perhaps something about love, that perhaps he can’t quite bring himself to say in this context. And yet, you know he gets it. Orton’s sister’s responses range in tone from cheeky wit when she is summing up her parents (“My father would have loved a greenhouse…but…he never aspired to that.”) to heartbreaking when she talks about the unhappiness of her childhood, or the gap her brother’s death left in her life – at that point, 15 years after it happened.

 

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Review: Hector and the Search for Happiness

It is very rare these days that I step out and take time out of my day to sit down and eviscerate someone else’s art, but in the case of this film I cannot help myself. I have yet to decide whether this movie is deeply offensive or just plain ghastly and perhaps writing this description of it will help. I must warn you that it contains spoilers, but there is really not much I can do to spoil this movie for you.

I am fairly certain that the working title for Hector and the Search for Happiness was A Manchild’s Futile Search for Maturity, the latter being a far more accurate description of what transpires in this movie than the former.

It starts off well with a good cast, a range of cameos and gentle humour. Hector, played by Simon Pegg, is a psychiatrist. In his private practice he listens to first world problems and in his clinical work he looks after people who think they are animals and inanimate objects. He has a beautiful, successful girlfriend who looks after his every need and they live in a large, tidy flat which, strictly speaking Hector would need to be a banker to afford in London but ho hum.

And yet despite this, Hector isn’t happy. Or at least he doesn’t think he is. So, completely out of the blue he tells his lovely girlfriend that he is going on an indefinite round-the-world quest in search of the meaning of happiness. His stated goal is to put himself in a position to really help his patients, but we the audience and his beautiful girlfriend Clara all suspect that he is really going in search of his old flame, Angie.

And so, more or less stamping in Clara’s tears as he goes, Hector sallies forth to find himself by going to foreign places and asking foreigners what makes them happy and then writing down twee little definitions of happiness in his leather-bound notebook along with whimsical drawings. His first stop is China, where he hangs out with bankers, prostitutes and lamas and discovers that once outside London he has entered this magical world where the fact that he looks like Simon Pegg is no impediment to being desired by beautiful women. Along the way, he has the odd Skype chat with Clara and convinces himself that it’s OK for him to dally with other women because she has bought a new dress while he’s been away and is going to parties and generally not sitting in her dressing gown eating crisps and crying in front of the computer because he is away. Also, she gave him permission to do his self-discovery totally and that means sexing other females. Apparently.

Next, Hector goes to Africa. Not any specific country, just ‘Africa’ because the great minds behind this story just wanted to represent the concept of poverty and corruption and apparently Africa fits that bill rather nicely in the same way that China represented flashy exoticism. Getting to Africa involves a journey on a rickety little plane where people are crammed into seats with shopping bags and babies and Hector gets himself a dinner invite from a local lady before making friends with a Colombian drug dealer played by Jean Reno, being kidnapped by a gang lord and operating on poor Africans with his gay friend Michael (who wasn’t out in the US but has chosen to be openly gay in a part of Africa where, presumably given the fact that it appears to be run by drug lords and gang lords homosexuality is something of a capital offence). He also discovers that looking like Simon Pegg is no impediment to beautiful African girls wanting to take their clothes off for him, and that if he rejects them they won’t be in the least offended but will smile and agree to dance with him instead because they are a combination of the Happy African Stereotype and the Sexy Girl Stereotype. Alrighty.

From Africa, Hector heads to Los Angeles. On his way he helps a dying lady with a headscarf because he is meant to be visiting All The Cultures and there haven’t been any Islamics or A-rabs in it yet and they are very newsworthy right now. Hector’s plan for LA is to see his long-lost love Angie, the memory of whom he has carried in his heart for over a decade and who may well be the key to his elusive happiness. And of course, he already knows she used to find him irresistible. Except, she doesn’t anymore. In fact, Angie is pregnant. And married to a great bloke. And has two lovely kids. She has a job she loves and has not spent the past 12 years pining for the emotionally stunted British chap who bolloxed off back to England after finishing his degree. She isn’t interested. While Hector was putting Fantasy Angie on a pedestal, real Angie was Living Her Life. Shocked by this encounter with a Real Woman, Hector decides he needs comfort from a female who exists only for his own wish fulfilment and calls Clara who yells at him jealously for visiting Angie so he tells her that his shortcomings are all her fault. There’s then a rather pointless segment where Hector visits a Wise Old Man and has a vision of Clara marrying her boss at which point Clara calls him in tears and says she wants to have his babies because all women want to have babies with flighty bastards who bugger off for months. To seal the deal, Hector jumps on the next plane and gets home very early in the morning so he can climb into bed with Clara and of course she decides that this is So Very Cute that she forgets all about the fact that he abandoned her to find out whether his ex-girlfriend was really his One True Love and they get married. Because Hector, having failed to find happiness anywhere else, needs his Clara.

This is meant to be a feelgood movie. Um…no. It is not. This movie should make you feel bad, very bad at the thought that you can still walk into a mainstream cinema and watch what must be a fairly decently-budgeted movie completely and entirely full of racist and sexist stereotypes.

I have seen reviews of this film that gave it 1/5 and I consider them generous.