(A version of this review – with more cursing and typos – was originally posted on my blog on 16/07/2013)
Robert Sellers is best known for writing two books: “Hellraisers”, which gives an entertaining overview of the lives of Reed, Richard Harris, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole and “Hollywood Hellraisers”, a similarly gleeful celebration of the misdeeds of Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. Those two books were a fabulous blur of drunken escapade after drunken escapade and Sellers jumps from anecdote to anecdote with such lithe joy you don’t, very often, stop to really digest the consequences.
This book is different. It’s an over-view of a man’s life and he had parents, children, partners and friends who were hurt, literally and figuratively, by Oliver Reeds behaviour. And Robert Sellers doesn’t excuse him for his worse behaviour…
…Not to say that Reed’s almost constant stream of self-inflicted humiliations and career suicides aren’t pretty funny at times. However, it’s also an interesting insight into what made Oliver Reed the man he was.
His father was a conscientious objector in World War 2. Reed’s mother left his father in disgust and she went on to spend much of the war throwing fabulous parties and sleeping her way through most of the combined British and US armed forces. Reed struggled at school due un-diagnosed dyslexia and only really excelled at sports. Unfortunately his father disapproved of his son’s sporting success and starved him of praise for the one thing he was good at. Add that to his mother’s general disinterest and it’s amazing that Oliver turned out as well as he did.
But he eventually fell into acting (his uncle was the director of ‘The Third Man’ Karol Reed and his father’s side of the family were the illegitimate off-spring of the Victorian actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree). Oliver Reed started in Hammer Horror films but quickly rose to be one of the most successful British film actors of his generation.
And he threw it all away. That’s the basic thread of the autobiography. His drinking and misbehaviour stunted his career. Which is tragic, because, if you watch Reed in his best roles (like Bill Sykes in Oliver, Athos in the Three Musketeers or Gerald Kingsland in Castaway), he is hypnotically good. Raw, intense, vulnerable and, when the part calls for it, painfully funny.
And most directors agree that, although he was capable of being a willful pain in the proverbial on set he usually showed up on-time, sober and word-perfect; at least until the good parts dried up and he had to take any good work going to pay the bills.
But he’s even quite good in the dross he was forced to appear in. He’s always the most watchable thing is the endless B-movies that made up his career in the late 70’s and 80’s. But his reputation for misbehaviour and excess, a reputation he encouraged, stopped him getting the good parts his talent deserved.
But then Ridley Scott’s Gladiator came along. He had to be persuaded to audition for it (Michael Winner ordered him to do it) and he revived his career… Died in the process, unfortunately, but there we go.
It’s a fabulous book. There’s hardly anyone who contributes who doesn’t have a good thing to say about his talent or his character (Reed, as is often said, was a charming, polite and well-manner soul when sober and was usually horrified by his own behaviour the morning after). On the other hand you can’t help but feel that he blighted the lives of his children, his brothers and all the people who dared to love him.
So, yes, a cracking book. I demand you read it and, if you don’t, I will break into your house, in the dead of night, drunk and naked, and defile every piece of pottery you possess.
It’s what Ollie would’ve wanted.