Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed
(St. Martin's Press)
US: Dec 2009
“My vices protect me but they would assassinate you!”
That is from Mark Twain, a man who talked the talk, walked the walk, drank the drink and, for good measure, smoked the smoke. This was the famous quote that kept running through my mind like a mantra, or a rallying cry, as I read the trashy, sensationalistic, poorly written masterpiece by Robert Sellers entitled Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed.
To be frank, for anyone who knows even a little about any of these icons, the book could have focused on just one of them and had more than enough material to fill a volume. That it is crammed with (outrageous) stories involving all four of them is almost too much of a bad thing (bad meaning good but also meaning awful). What follows is not a review so much as a celebration.
I read this book in short, ecstatic snippets over the course of the past month. If you are the type of person who buys toilet books (does anyone else buy toilet books?), this one is an automatic addition to your potty arsenal. Me, I was reading it before bedtime and while the laugh-out-louds were frequent, I invariably got drunk enough from the contact buzz to pass out after a few pages.
I think this book can be properly appreciated as a document of (cliché alert!) a truly different era. These types of artists simply don’t exist anymore and, to be honest, they could not possibly exist anymore. I’m not necessarily implying that contemporary cinema will suffer for it, but these days (as Richard Harris points out) Tom Cruise shows up at a screening with a bottle of Evian while Harris and his compatriots would turn up, with neither irony nor a compulsion to impress, sporting a bottle of scotch. Is our society, or our silver screen, unduly affected by this passing of the gourd? Who knows. Who cares.
One thing that is certain: celebrities today are unhealthily obsessed with their status. Their capacity for sensation is a business decision, often engineered by PR hacks, or else enacted electronically: a tweet here and an interview there, all safely behind the glass. Could you imagine having a pint with just about any Hollywood A-lister? Of course you couldn’t.
The fact of the matter was, these four rapscallions were (cliché alert!) men of the people, and by word -—and more significantly, by deed -—they were both entirely at ease and happiest when they were surrounded by the so-called common folk. Even though each of them was extraordinary in his own way(s), all of them came from difficult or at least potentially unpromising origins: they knew how little separated them from the coalminers they grew up with, and how fortunate they were for getting paid to pretend as opposed to breaking their backs in mine, or a factory.
Furthermoe, (cliché alert!) talk about keeping it real: These chaps threw back pints and threw around their fists because they wanted to and, to a certain extent, they had to.
Here’s an instructive anecdote: On a visit to Rome, Harris persuaded one of the film executives to join him in order to witness first hand that it wasn’t always the actor who started all the brawling. On their first night they went to a bar and listened as a drunken American tourist spelled out, in a loud voice, how he was going to ‘do in’ Harris. The executive advised his client to take no notice. “Do you want me to wait until I get a bottle across the face,” reasoned Harris, “or go in and get it over with?” The executive could see only logic in this statement and Harris took the insulting Yank outside and flattened him.
Here’s the thing. That’s not old school; that is a one room and no electricity school. While I’m not endorsing or advocating a top tier artist (or any average citizen) employing violence to settle their disputes, there is something almost refreshing (not quite quaint, but close) in this mano a mano arithmetic. Consider that, and compare it to our contemporary film, rock, and especially rap superstars with their posses, guns and melodramatic beefs. Drive-bys and group beatings? How about this: Got a problem? Let’s squash it right here, right now, without weapons or a crew of thugs jumping in.
At the same time, I’m not suggesting that these paleolithic antics didn’t have deleterious effects on their lives, as well as their art. Did we get the best they had to give? The verdict on all four (particularly Burton) is quite clearly nay. Yet would we otherwise have gotten This Sporting Life? Could we ever conceive Lawrence of Arabia? (It’s commonly agreed that O’Toole’s work here is among the best in movie history, but it may not be as well known that the almost impossibly elegant actor was hardy enough to endure an excruciating desert shoot that would have crippled many other thespians.)
Did each of them forfeit the best years of their artistic (not to mention actual) lives to drinking and skylarking? Perhaps, although it depends upon one’s definition of what entails a life best lived, and that is fodder for another discussion altogether. Based on the anecdotes and testimonials contained within these pages, not a single one of these men regretted leading such unabashed existences (even if none of them could recall large chunks of those lives due to the state they were often in).
Let’s look at “The Tale of the Tape” (taken directly from the book).
One night Harris was thrown out of a pub at closing time, but still in need of a drink boarded a train just to make use of its open bar. With no idea where the train was headed he arrived in Leeds completely (inebriated) at one in the morning. With nowhere to go he walked down a nearby street and seeing a light on in a house chucked a stone at the window. The owner came storming out but upon recognizing Harris invited the star inside. Harris stayed there for four whole days and wasn’t sober once. Eventually the man’s wife phoned (Harris’ wife): “I’ve got your husband.” She was shocked when (Harris’ wife) replied, “Good, keep him.”
In his favorite New York bar the bartender would see Harris walking in and immediately line up six double vodkas.
At home in the Bahamas neighbors took to dropping by uninvited. To deter them Harris conceived an impish plot. One afternoon a family living close by turned up. Walking inside they found Harris with two mates sitting naked watching porno movies and masturbating. “Oh, hello there,” said Harris. “Come on in.” The incident went round the island like all good gossip does and afterwards Harris was left pretty much in peace; the way he wanted it.
“When they took him away to hospital (shortly before his death)”, recalls director Peter Medak, “the lobby just completely stopped, and Richard sat up on the stretcher and turned back to the whole foyer and shouted, ‘It was the food! Don’t touch the food!’ That was typical Richard.”
Personal note: just looking at the various interviews and clips on YouTube reveal without any doubt that Harris was a master storyteller and what we used to without irony call a bon vivant.He is a pub legend and if he did little else in his long life than bring amusement and joy to the thousands of people fortunate enough to have their eyes, ears and beers in his vicinity, it was a great deal more than most human beings are capable of imparting. Of course he did much more than that, and he will endure as one of the genuine characters of the 20th Century.
Exhibit B: Richard Burton
Personal note: this book will be a required purchase for anyone who has ever been fascinated by Burton’s relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. I must confess, I’ve never cared much about it, or her, but could not help but be amused, and startled, to discover that in her prime she could drink just about any other human being under the table. “I had a hollow leg (in those days)... my capacity was terrifying,” she recalls. So they had that little hobby in common, but it was definitely Liz’s looks that put the hook in Burton.
“Burton referred to Taylor’s tits as ‘Apocalyptic. They would topple empires before they withered.’” Let’s stop and savor that for a second: there are novelists whose collected works don’t contain a line that perfect. Inevitably, both Burton and Taylor withered, and it was from the inside out. Anyone who was born between 1970 and 1980 can recall seeing these two on TV (or in a movie) and thinking “What’s all the fuss about?” and having their parents quickly set them straight. In their primes they were arguably the brightest and most beautiful stars in the Hollywood galaxy.
Yet wither they did, and it was an expensive, languid, and hard-earned degeneration. With Burton, it wasn’t a matter of how much he consumed, but how he managed to find time to eat or sleep or breathe. On a given day he might plow through three full fifths of vodka. I’m not certain I’ve had that many martinis in my life. All of which is to say, of the four, Burton is generally considered the one who had the most to give and gave the most away as a result of his addictions -—which either prompted or exacerbated a lethargy and greediness that devoured entirely too much of his energy and ability.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article