Saturday, December 3, 2011

#92: Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole and Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers

New York: St. Martin's Press, 2008. 286 pages

Only one of these men is left alive, which is a pity. One may be able to tell a lot about how these men lived by how they died.

Richard Harris was living in the Savoy Hotel when he died of Hodgkins disease. As he was being wheeled out on a stretcher to an ambulance, he propped himself up on emaciated elbows and shouted "It's the food! Don't touch the food!" (270)

On May 2, 1999 while filming Gladiator in Malta, Oliver Reed was leaving a pub when he spotted a group of Royal Navy sailors. Reed "bellowed "let's have a drink" and downed 12 double measures of rum before he retreated to his more accustomed double whiskies. He also challenged the sailors to a number of arm wrestling contests and won several matches." He was 61 years old (264)

Richard Burton was plagued by a bad back in his later years; when undergoing surgery for the problem, it was found his spine was encased in crystallised alcohol. The night before he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, we wrote the following line from The Tempest on a napkin next to his bed: "Our revels are now ended." (230)

Much of what occupies this book is drink stories that one only sees in shitty movies. These guys did all of these things and more. This is by turns a funny and incredibly sad book. Ultimately what saves it is that these fuckers are so likable. The least likable is Oliver Reed, who was a violent chauvinist pig when drunk but a most generous man when sober. The most likable is, of course, Harris. Imagine what the kids would think if Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape and Gilderoy Lockhart engaged in a "pub invasion" and still being at it at 4 AM.  By the 1990s, people were in awe of O'Toole and Harris, less so of Reed because he was unemployed and damn near broke.

Of course, what draws people to stories like this are two items. One, most of us could never hope to consume 2-3 bottles of vodka a day for six months (Harris, Burton) or drink 126 pints of beer in a 24 hour period (Reed). Two, these men are an antidote for our plasticine, bull shit celebrities of today. Harris openly mocked Hugh Grant, and once told Bruce Willis politely to "fuck off, I am talking to my ex-wife". The only one of today's movie stars that holds a candle to them is Russell Crowe. Harris made this comment about Crowe: "He irritates the shit out of those Hollywood bigwigs, but he's much to good for them to ignore." (267)

Crowe gets in fights, acts like an ass sometimes, but seems a decent enough fellow. In other words, he acts stunningly like a guy you would meet in a pub. The "Hellraisers" are genuine people, not about to be handled by publicists and studio douchebags. Burton went that route with Liz Taylor, and she comes out of this book looking like a booze-soaked old hag. Hollywood does not like real people, they like fake ones. Never was that so much in plain view as it was in this text. At his height in the 1950s, Burton could consume a fifth of brandy and still play Hamlet with little or no ill effects. Burton became a movie star and made some great films and some incredibly awful stinkbombs, but he had presence, as did the rest. What makes them awesome is not the amount of liquor they can drink or the women they can bed, but that they can function not only like human beings but like talented actors. That's why Harris bagged on Hugh Grant; Hugh Grant has played the same damned nitwit character in every movie since 1989. Harris played himself to the hilt, and it was the only role he never varied.


  1. I love this review- not just for its many allusions to one of my favorite hobbies, but also for it's admiration of Harris (whom I had the pleasure of seeing perform live in "Camelot"), but also for making me take another critical look at Russell Crow, whom I always considered a jerk from the media news, but who now seems like, yes, a man I might enjoy if I were to meet him at my local.

    1. Not sure why it published as anonymous...but it's me...TJ