Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed is not a great book. Author Robert Sellers appears to have just assembled various anecdotes, the seamier the better, in a loose chronology. And that’s it. No insight into the characters of the four actors, or the British stage or screen, or Hollywood. The only thing slightly analytical comes from some quotes by the actors:
“Burton, Harris, O’Toole [and] Reed …shared the common experience of being war babies, of being bombed, of being evacuated, of facing compulsory service … there was rationing: no meat, no food and no booze. …’Bollocks,’ railed O’Toole. ‘We … wanted the roaring twenties, please. The … drinking was a liberation from the fear and restrictions of the war years. The frivolity and the fun had gone. Booze was a way of recapturing it. We certainly had a bloody good time.’”
The joyful inebriation that O’Toole described was probably intended by the author, but reading about drunks is not the next best thing to being there. One drunken story after another does get to wear a bit thin. How many times do we need to read about Reed throwing a table through a pub window or Harris trying to get into a barroom brawl? Their constant state of inebriation gets as tedious for the reader as it must have done for the (sober) people in the actors’ lives. After twenty years of carousing, each man’s health started to fail, and the drinking got a bit much for them (excluding Oliver Reed who was out looking for a party until the end.) From Richard Harris, talking about Richard Burton, ” … the stories he tells [about their prior meetings] are hilarious and totally unprintable. So what’s the point of doing things that only other people get a kick out of? … After all, your life is your memories. So what life have I had?”
In chapters like “The Plastered Fifties,” “The Soused Sixties,” “The Sozzled Seventies,” a decade’s worth of drinking stories jump from actor to actor, but Sellers never attempts any thematic relation, even when the actors’ paths cross. Burton and O’Toole were great pals, but we only know that because Sellers repeats one of them saying so and mentions a few episodes of their carrying-on. Harris also palled around with Burton. Reed seems to have traveled in completely different circles, hanging out with rock star Keith Moon and director Ken Russell, and making completely different kinds of films from the other three. Does he really even belong as part of this quartet or in this book?
Both Burton and Harris worked with American actor and raging alcoholic Lee Marvin, and Sellers introduces him in each of their anecdotes as if for the first time. Didn’t he remember when he was writing about Marvin’s and Reed’s antics while filming The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday that he had already told similar stories about Burton and Marvin when they were working on The Klansman?
From director Peter Medak (who worked with O’Toole in The Rulng Class), “… all the great actors were like that; they had no pretense about themselves … not like stars today who are so isolated from the real world, from the public … Burton would go back to Wales into the local pubs …” Whether the actors had demons or not, drinking was clearly a social activity for them. But they didn’t just drink to make friends, they drank to excess, to make headlines, to get into fights.
The other thing that bothered me about the book was all the Brit-speak. Sellers tries way too hard to sound conversational, as if he is pals with each actor. But all of the “boots” and “wanks” and “kerbside” shenanigans get old fast. I’m not against writing that uses regional slang or language. Russell Brand’s My Booky Wook was rife with Cockney-isms, and it was a delight to read. It just feels inconsistent here, as there is so much borrowed material the book never has a voice.
A good trashy biography can still be a fun read, but Hellraisers,unfortunately, isn’t even that. Sellers doesn’t confine himself to outrageous stories about the four principals. He repeats almost verbatim some terrible behavior at a party at the Burtons by the drunk-as-a-skunk actress Rachel Roberts and includes her even more terrible fate — but the same recounting of her death can be read on Wikipedia and imdb. Sloppy.
Hellraisers is an opportunity wasted, as the quartet were involved in some of the best and most famous films of the ’60s and ’70s (Becket, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? [Burton]; A Man Called Horse, Camelot [Harris]; Lawrence of Arabia, What’s New Pussycat [O'Toole]; Women in Love, Tommy [Reed]). Some critical analysis of these works would have easily elevated the book beyond its merely trashy aspirations.
From top: Richard Burton, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole