Saturday, May 18, 2013

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

A complicated book about complicated people.

In Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed, author Robert Sellers gives us the lives of four of the UK's greatest actors and wildest partiers of the twentieth century. Not their complete biographies, of course (the book is far too brief to encompass four lives completely). After brief childhood histories, Sellers dives into the meat of his book: Stories of drinking, carousing, and general craziness, fueled nearly entirely by alcohol (and occasionally controlled substances). The tales do cover each man's entire career, so we can say that you get at least their mini-biographies along the way, though seen through alcohol-tinted lenses.

The stories are by turns hilarious, outrageous, and, ultimately, more than a bit sad. One by one, the tales can incite peals of laughter or exclamations of "How could anyone possibly do that?" Stories of drinking binges that last not just for nights but for days; lives lived without keys, leading to being stopped by the police for breaking into one's own home through the window; interviews with journalists that are, in point-of-fact, imbibing contests. Just flipping through the photograph section leads to amazement:
[Richard] Burton was crippled by ill health later in life. In fact, during one operation surgeons were astonished to discover that Burton's entire spinal column was coated with crystallised alcohol.
[beneath a photo of Oliver Reed balancing horizontally on a bar, supported only by his hands] Reed celebrates knocking back 126 pints of beer in just 24 hours--about 12 minutes per pint.
[Richard] Harris often had no recollection of his hellraising. One morning, he was bemused to find stitches in his face, totally unaware that he'd wrecked a restaurant the night before.
In Paris shooting What's New Pussycat?, [Peter] O'Toole saw two policemen attacking a prostitute and later took revenge by duffing up a totally innocent gendarme.
However, after 280 pages of this behavior--actually, well before then--the novelty and shock value wear off, and one begins to weary of wasted potential. Undoubtedly, each actor gave some momentous, never-to-be-equaled performances on stage and screen; but just as often, if not moreso their performances were marred by impairments, sometimes disgracefully so. And pity the women who married them (except, perhaps, Elizabeth Taylor, who seems to have been at least Burton's equal in temperament and impairment, if not his better) and their children, who so often lived learning more about their fathers from the news than from their daily influence.

The book contains hundreds of tales of outrageous behavior, both public and private. I only thought to track down one of them: Peter O'Toole's infamous appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, in which he comes on stage riding a camel. It's on Youtube for your viewing pleasure:


Sellers' version follows the same general shape of the actual event, but it also contains (as Huckleberry Finn would call them) some "stretchers," with certain elements elaborated on and others invented for more dramatic effect. I'm not sure if the changes are due to faulty memory on Sellers' part or a desire to make the event even more outrageous than it already was; but if this single fact-check can turn up errors, it leads me to wonder how much of the other material in the book has also been "enhanced." Don't get me wrong: Even if only 50% of the stories in the book happened as actually depicted, the book's title would be more than fully justified. It is just disappointing to realize that a "non-fiction" book exhibits a loose grasp of its own contents.

Ultimately, one takes away from Hellraisers a renewed appreciation for what these four actors managed to accomplish on and off the screen, as well as regret for what might also have been if only their behavior hadn't been quite so hellacious. Or did the greatness of their art necessarily depend on habitual insanity? And if so, was the chaos that behavior caused to their relationships worth it in order for the rest of us to experience their art? These questions, unfortunately, are not ones that Hellraisers is equipped to answer.

(PS: The author's prose suffers from perhaps the worst case of "British comma aversion" I have ever encountered. Note to authors and their editors: Commas are necessary for direct address and the appositive, but their misuse can lead to run-on sentences verging on parody.)


Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of
Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed
by Robert Sellers
Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin's Press, 2009
ISBN: 9780312553999
286 pp, $25.99