What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex (In Fiction)

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WRITING ABOUT SEX is like engaging in sex: it’s hard.

Or, it should be.

It’s that time of year again, where we can count on three things: shopping-related stress during Thanksgiving, family-related stress during Christmas, and in between the two, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award conducted by London’s Literary Review. The 24th annual honor was awarded last week and Erri De Luca takes top prize for the suitably horrific scene in his novel The Day Before Happiness. More on him and the runners-up here.

This event is not a lark, or limited to third-tier writers. Some legit semi-heavyweights have taken this crown, including Tom Wolfe, David Guterson and (shocker) Norman Mailer. Amusingly—and appropriately—John Updike won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008; astonishingly, Philip Roth has never reaped what he’s blown, though it’s undeniably not for lack of trying. Take this passage (please) from The Dying Animal: “…with my knees planted to either side of her and my ass centered over her, I leaned into her face and rhythmically, without letup, I fucked her mouth.” (This and other of Roth’s overly penetrating portrayals were wonderfully cataloged by Christoper Hitchens in an epic, scathing 2007 piece for The Atlantic.)

Here’s the, um, climax of the worst passage from 2 years ago, according to the intrepid readers and judgers at Literary Review: “The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.” Okay, that’s pretty terrible. Or awe-inspiring in its awfulness. How about an incriminating précis of reigning champs from recent years? Here’s a portion of 2012’s winning bit, by Nancy Houston (from Infrared): “oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alteration, never will I tire of that silver fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water.” That’s impossible to outdo. No it isn’t. Check this, from 2010, courtesy of Rowan Somerville (from The Shape of Her): “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.” It can’t credibly get worse than that, right? Wrong. Rachel Johnson raised the lowest of bars in 2008 with this (from Shire Hell): “he holds both my arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as to not miss a single drop.”

A pattern emphatically emerges, even with this, er, small sample size. They are all aesthetically offensive, cliché-ridden, and suffer from self-consciousness—either too much or a total lack thereof. Regardless of taste or tact, few readers—or few folks with a modicum of experience either fornicating or writing fiction about it—would quibble with how excruciating these excerpts are.

Yet in 2010, Laura Miller at Salon took exception to the glee with which these dishonors are doled out, the entire affair a combination of prurience and the puritanical impulse that has ever afflicted our upper classes. She posits that we are a bunch of snobs when it comes to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup proposition of combining sex and literature. I think she (wisely? cynically?) uses the occasion of the Bad Sex Award to make a larger point about what we talk about when we talk about sex (in fiction): she’s all for it. She does, however, utilize a bit of a Straw Man to complain about the Literary Review’s annual endeavor, suggesting that more self-aware readers have—or should have—no qualms about moments of ardor (and the moments those moments lead to) artistically rendered.

I think the issue is not so much that these scenes exist, but that they’re invariably so uninspired or unintentionally ridiculous. Or, readers aren’t saying not to include sex in novels, but that writers should do everyone a favor and 86 the 69, or any scenes that make a mockery of the function so many people hold sacred—at least in theory. After all, the mostly unspoken calculus that occurs under cover of intimacy compels relationships and builds or destroys marriages, even families. In other words, it’s noteworthy. Indeed, for more members of our species than we may care to admit, the deed (the thought of it, the desire for it, and the lack of it) influences almost every waking moment. So, perhaps this award offers a welcome—and by the abundance of material to choose from each year, often unheeded—admonishment for those who would kiss and tell: proceed warily if you must.

7168-triptych-of-garden-of-earthly-delig-hieronymus-bosch

Is this too much to ask?

Let’s face it: convincing sex scenes happen seldom enough in real life. How—or why—do we expect them to occur in literature? Especially when most writers (the honest ones would admit) are not exactly Lotharios, unless you count the hackneyed rite of passage so frequently painted, involving the professorial seduction of the over-achieving undergrad. And these scenes, even though the authors don’t realize it, are less erotic than confessional—and more than a little embarrassing for all involved. I’ve unfailingly seen the most accomplished authors flummoxed while attempting a basic depiction of consensual love. Or lust.

So how do you do it?

Sex scenes, that is.

Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the act, much less the art, of seduction and surrender understands that successful sex is like almost any human enterprise: you don’t need to talk about it if you can do it—whatever it is. Or, the people who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

A personal favorite comes from the immortal Richard Burton writing about the immortal Liz Taylor. “Apocalyptic,” was how he described her breasts. “They would topple empires before they withered.” That’s not even a sex scene, and Burton was, of course, an actor, but there are novelists whose collected works don’t contain a line that perfect.

I’m not sure when, or if, The Canterbury Tales started to make sense, but I know things got interesting when I realized everyone apparently was shagging one another, albeit in a difficult-to-understand language. In hindsight, I suspect my professor was hoping to make the material a bit more uh, titillating to easily-distracted students, but I came away with the notion that Chaucer was a bit of a Player. “The Miller’s Tale” alone is practically a medieval sex manual.

Exhibit A: “When Nicholas had doon thus everydeel/He thakked hire about the lendes weel/He kiste hire swete, and taketh his sautrye/And pleyeth faste, and maketh melodye.”

Exhibit B: “And prively he caughte hire by the queynte/And seyde ‘Y-wis, but if ich have my wille/For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille.” (Google queynte.)

Of course an entire essay could be devoted to virtually any play by Shakespeare, who arguably combined passion, humor and lasciviousness with more élan than any writer, in any language.

Show, don’t tell. That’s the sacrosanct tenet we’re taught in English class around the same time we are(n’t) being taught Sex Ed. And except for the masters (in art; in life) who actually did it and are speaking from experience, the rule should always apply. The exception can—and should—be made for the ones who are able to put it plainly because their prose is essentially a declaration: I did it, this is how I did it, and if you hope to do it you might imitate my expertise. Put another way, I learned more from Milan Kundera and his understated field notes during my formative years than I ever did from any of the more cocky and forthcoming Locker Room Don-Juan wannabes. And the less said about our more celebrated purveyors of purple-prosed nerd porn like Updike and Roth the better.

Everyone knows most writers are long on word and short on action, with the exception of Ernest Hemingway. He allegedly got plenty of action and instigated lots of excitement, but a contrived—and increasingly pathetic—code of masculinity was the white whale he chased, in his fiction and in his life, until he got too old to make it or fake it. (A Freudian could have a field day with what his minimalism actually signifies.) Perhaps our best semi-contemporary practitioner of doing in print what he did—or wanted to do—in the bedroom, is Charles Bukowski. A dirty old man and making no bones about it, he nevertheless expresses so many thoughts and emotions sex imbues with the requisite comic, tragic and prosaic elements it merits, in reality.

And when all else fails, experts have informed me that’s what the Internet is for. Nevermind books and even movies. If music, or conversation—that old fashioned and unforced chemistry called charm—or a competently cooked meal can’t get you to the Promised Land, you may as well cast a line into the weird, wild web. And, if you are irretrievably old school, seek salvation in one of those books with Fabio on the cover. If you want the genuine article, suitable for a certain type of reading, why settle for half-assed posturing when you can get your Harlequin on?

In the final analysis, the wisest way to handle any conquest, real or imagined, is to imitate the great ones and act—or at least pretend— like you’ve been there before. And for us literary types, it’s worth recalling the words of wisdom offered by the (fictional) intercourse aficionado Jackie Treehorn: People forget that the brain is the biggest erogenous zone.

Again, writing about sex is hard. Except when it’s not hard enough. And therein, as The Bard reminds us, lies the rub.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 12/10/2014.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex (In Fiction)

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WRITING ABOUT SEX is like engaging in sex: it’s hard.

Or, it should be.

It’s that time of year again, where we can count on three things: shopping-related stress during Thanksgiving, family-related stress during Christmas, and in between the two, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award conducted by London’s Literary Review. The 22nd annual honor was awarded last week and Ben Okri takes top prize for the suitably horrific scene in his novel The Age of Magic. More on him and the runners-up here.

This event is not a lark, or limited to third-tier writers. Some legit semi-heavyweights have taken this crown, including Tom Wolfe, David Guterson and (shocker) Norman Mailer. Amusingly—and appropriately—John Updike won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008; astonishingly, Philip Roth has never reaped what he’s blown, though it’s undeniably not for lack of trying. Take this passage (please) from The Dying Animal: “…with my knees planted to either side of her and my ass centered over her, I leaned into her face and rhythmically, without letup, I fucked her mouth.” (This and other of Roth’s overly penetrating portrayals were wonderfully cataloged by Christoper Hitchens in an epic, scathing 2007 piece for The Atlantic.)

Here’s the, um, climax of this year’s best worst passage, according to the intrepid readers and judgers at Literary Review: “The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.” Okay, that’s pretty terrible. Or awe-inspiring in its awfulness. How about an incriminating précis of reigning champs from recent years? Here’s a portion of 2012’s winning bit, by Nancy Houston (from Infrared): “oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alteration, never will I tire of that silver fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water.” That’s impossible to outdo. No it isn’t. Check this, from 2010, courtesy of Rowan Somerville (from The Shape of Her): “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.” It can’t credibly get worse than that, right? Wrong. Rachel Johnson raised the lowest of bars in 2008 with this (from Shire Hell): “he holds both my arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as to not miss a single drop.”

A pattern emphatically emerges, even with this, er, small sample size. They are all aesthetically offensive, cliché-ridden, and suffer from self-consciousness—either too much or a total lack thereof. Regardless of taste or tact, few readers—or few folks with a modicum of experience either fornicating or writing fiction about it—would quibble with how excruciating these excerpts are.

Yet in 2010, Laura Miller at Salon took exception to the glee with which these dishonors are doled out, the entire affair a combination of prurience and the puritanical impulse that has ever afflicted our upper classes. She posits that we are a bunch of snobs when it comes to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup proposition of combining sex and literature. I think she (wisely? cynically?) uses the occasion of the Bad Sex Award to make a larger point about what we talk about when we talk about sex (in fiction): she’s all for it. She does, however, utilize a bit of a Straw Man to complain about the Literary Review’s annual endeavor, suggesting that more self-aware readers have—or should have—no qualms about moments of ardor (and the moments those moments lead to) artistically rendered.

I think the issue is not so much that these scenes exist, but that they’re invariably so uninspired or unintentionally ridiculous. Or, readers aren’t saying not to include sex in novels, but that writers should do everyone a favor and 86 the 69, or any scenes that make a mockery of the function so many people hold sacred—at least in theory. After all, the mostly unspoken calculus that occurs under cover of intimacy compels relationships and builds or destroys marriages, even families. In other words, it’s noteworthy. Indeed, for more members of our species than we may care to admit, the deed (the thought of it, the desire for it, and the lack of it) influences almost every waking moment. So, perhaps this award offers a welcome—and by the abundance of material to choose from each year, often unheeded—admonishment for those who would kiss and tell: proceed warily if you must.

7168-triptych-of-garden-of-earthly-delig-hieronymus-bosch

Is this too much to ask?

Let’s face it: convincing sex scenes happen seldom enough in real life. How—or why—do we expect them to occur in literature? Especially when most writers (the honest ones would admit) are not exactly Lotharios, unless you count the hackneyed rite of passage so frequently painted, involving the professorial seduction of the over-achieving undergrad. And these scenes, even though the authors don’t realize it, are less erotic than confessional—and more than a little embarrassing for all involved. I’ve unfailingly seen the most accomplished authors flummoxed while attempting a basic depiction of consensual love. Or lust.

So how do you do it?

Sex scenes, that is.

Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the act, much less the art, of seduction and surrender understands that successful sex is like almost any human enterprise: you don’t need to talk about it if you can do it—whatever it is. Or, the people who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

A personal favorite comes from the immortal Richard Burton writing about the immortal Liz Taylor. “Apocalyptic,” was how he described her breasts. “They would topple empires before they withered.” That’s not even a sex scene, and Burton was, of course, an actor, but there are novelists whose collected works don’t contain a line that perfect.

I’m not sure when, or if, The Canterbury Tales started to make sense, but I know things got interesting when I realized everyone apparently was shagging one another, albeit in a difficult-to-understand language. In hindsight, I suspect my professor was hoping to make the material a bit more uh, titillating to easily-distracted students, but I came away with the notion that Chaucer was a bit of a Player. “The Miller’s Tale” alone is practically a medieval sex manual.

Exhibit A: “When Nicholas had doon thus everydeel/He thakked hire about the lendes weel/He kiste hire swete, and taketh his sautrye/And pleyeth faste, and maketh melodye.”

Exhibit B: “And prively he caughte hire by the queynte/And seyde ‘Y-wis, but if ich have my wille/For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille.” (Google queynte.)

Of course an entire essay could be devoted to virtually any play by Shakespeare, who arguably combined passion, humor and lasciviousness with more élan than any writer, in any language.

Show, don’t tell. That’s the sacrosanct tenet we’re taught in English class around the same time we are(n’t) being taught Sex Ed. And except for the masters (in art; in life) who actually did it and are speaking from experience, the rule should always apply. The exception can—and should—be made for the ones who are able to put it plainly because their prose is essentially a declaration: I did it, this is how I did it, and if you hope to do it you might imitate my expertise. Put another way, I learned more from Milan Kundera and his understated field notes during my formative years than I ever did from any of the more cocky and forthcoming Locker Room Don-Juan wannabes. And the less said about our more celebrated purveyors of purple-prosed nerd porn like Updike and Roth the better.

Everyone knows most writers are long on word and short on action, with the exception of Ernest Hemingway. He allegedly got plenty of action and instigated lots of excitement, but a contrived—and increasingly pathetic—code of masculinity was the white whale he chased, in his fiction and in his life, until he got too old to make it or fake it. (A Freudian could have a field day with what his minimalism actually signifies.) Perhaps our best semi-contemporary practitioner of doing in print what he did—or wanted to do—in the bedroom, is Charles Bukowski. A dirty old man and making no bones about it, he nevertheless expresses so many thoughts and emotions sex imbues with the requisite comic, tragic and prosaic elements it merits, in reality.

And when all else fails, experts have informed me that’s what the Internet is for. Nevermind books and even movies. If music, or conversation—that old fashioned and unforced chemistry called charm—or a competently cooked meal can’t get you to the Promised Land, you may as well cast a line into the weird, wild web. And, if you are irretrievably old school, seek salvation in one of those books with Fabio on the cover. If you want the genuine article, suitable for a certain type of reading, why settle for half-assed posturing when you can get your Harlequin on?

In the final analysis, the wisest way to handle any conquest, real or imagined, is to imitate the great ones and act—or at least pretend— like you’ve been there before. And for us literary types, it’s worth recalling the words of wisdom offered by the (fictional) intercourse aficionado Jackie Treehorn: People forget that the brain is the biggest erogenous zone.

Again, writing about sex is hard. Except when it’s not hard enough. And therein, as The Bard reminds us, lies the rub.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 12/10/2014.

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Peter O’Toole, R.I.P. (Revisited)

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They’re all gone.

Burton, then Harris, then Reed, then Taylor.

And now, O’Toole.

Yes, it all begins and ends with his once-in-a-millennium turn as T.E. Lawrence, and attention must be paid, period. But once that obligatory fact is uttered, how many dozens of other performances can we list as evidence of a greatness that become sui generis the old fashioned way.

I can’t think of a single actor who could have pulled off this scene (not to mention this performance, from the immortal masterpiece, The Ruling Class):

***

Here is Oscar Wilde (a name I don’t invoke lightly, and one of a handful of witty geniuses with whom O’Toole exists comfortably, on the literal and figurative levels), lamenting and/or celebrating the tragi-comedy of life (his, any artist’s): Would you like to know the great drama of my life? It’s that I’ve put my genius into my life; I’ve put only my talent into my works.

O’Toole certainly put his talent and genius into his work, even though it’s an ongoing embarrassment to the ongoing embarrassment that is the Academy Awards that one of our genuine masters never got his little gold statue.

O’Toole also, by all accounts –like his great friends Burton, Reed and Harris– put more than a little effort, industry and genius into his existence. Who could blame him? Being Peter O’Toole, he clearly came to realize early on, was its own burden, its own responsibility, its own obligation. Put another way, when I think about the musicians I most admire (think Hendrix, Coltrane), I have an ongoing fantasy bordering on obsession that I could transport myself in time and watch them, in the studio, creating the songs I know and love. With someone like O’Toole, as much as I would pay, in every sense of the word, to be in a small-ish theater seeing him become Hamlet, or on the set of Lawrence of Arabia (!!!), I can honestly state that above any other wish, nothing would please me more than to be amongst his company, or even a proverbial fly on the wall, during any random pub adventure he instigated in his prime.

At the end of the day, did he squander some, even much of his remarkable talent? Perhaps.

But that depends on how you choose to measure such things, and I say this as one who greatly appreciates, and tries to create, art.

I’d say while it’s our collective loss, as movie watchers, that quite probably Peter did not dedicate himself with the seriousness and care he might (ought to?) have, who are we to judge the decisions he made and the elan with which he sucked the marrow out of life, straight no chaser? His collected works outshine the majority of his peers, before or since, and while he might have made a few more indelible contributions to the canon, who can quarrel with the fact that he did things his way, on his own terms, and managed to be the best at everything he did, because he could? Best actor? Best looking? Wittiest? Without doubt. Uncautious? Impractical? Compulsively sybaritic? Probably. And: who cares? If he was going to do Shakespeare, he was going to do it unlike anyone else (for better or worse); if he was going to lose himself in the cups, by God he was going to do it bigger, badder and yes, better, than anyone. And have fun doing it. And make history, even if it was the type of history he couldn’t recall in later life; you can bet your ass the people who were there never forgot it. That is what it means to be a god.

We only get so many gods per generation. We’ve lost one that we were lucky to have in the first place. They won’t make any like him again because they never made any like him in the first place. Rest in peace you rascal, you raconteur. Sleep easily: your work here is done, and we lesser mortals will puzzle the rest of our days over how you ever managed to do the things you did.

(4/1/2010)

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 drank 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 full title is Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. To be frank, and 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 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 (cliche alert!) a truly different era. These types of artists simply don’t exist anymore and, to be honest, they could not possibly exist. 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. And 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 (cliche 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 came up with, and how fortunate they were getting paid to pretend as opposed to breaking their backs in a factory.

And, (cliche 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 spelt 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 one room and no electricity school. And 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. But 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 hearty 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 them 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).

Exhibit A, Richard Harris:

– 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’s wife): “I’ve got your husband.” She was shocked when (Harris’s 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. But 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. More than a few notable folks offered the opinion that had Burton exerted a bit more control over his vices he may have ultimately become the most revered stage actor of all time, surpassing even Olivier.)

– During one particular scene (in 1966’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) Burton was required to down a whiskey. The props department brought in flat ginger ale, the movies’ usual substitute for scotch, but Burton waved it away. “It’s only a short scene, won’t need more than a couple of takes. Bring me some real whiskey.” In fact the scene needed 47 takes. “Imagine it, luv,” Burton bragged to a journalist later, “47 whiskies!”

– Burton had arrived to work on The Klansmen drunk and stayed drunk throughout filming, consuming three bottles of vodka a day, a routine he’d been following for the past six months…when (the director) was filming Burton’s death scene he complimented the make-up man. “You’ve done a great job.” The make-up man replied, “I haven’t touched him.”

– Staggering home at three in the morning, O’Toole tried to carry (Burton)…and both men stumbled into the gutter. Somebody stopped beside them on the pavement. It was Alan Bates, O’Toole’s ex RADA colleague. “Peter,” he said, “today I’ve just signed up for my first commercial picture.” “We both looked up,” recalled O’Toole, and said “You coming down to join us, then?”

Exhibit C, Oliver Reed:

(Personal note: I have a special place in my heart for Ollie. I couldn’t have been more than ten the first time I saw the musical Oliver! and Reed, as Bill Sikes, scared the living shit out of me. He was the real deal: the kind of face you could smash a torch into, break a bottle on and pour hot oil over and he’d smile…before he killed you. I then enjoyed him as the perfectly cast father in the movie version of Tommy. He was (cliche alert!!) absolutely one of those rare actors who, for me, I’d watch in virtually anything he did just because he had that presence: he loved the camera and the camera bloody loved him. That he ended up dying, in a bar, after drunkenly arm wrestling with a group of sailors four decades younger was…pathetic, predictable, perfect.)

– In an early role (as a werewolf, in a wretched B-movie), Reed enjoyed keeping his make-up on at the end of the day and terrifying fellow motorists at traffic lights.

– After Tommy Reed and The Who’s Keith Moon continued their rabble-rousing friendship. Reed enjoyed a game that he christened “head butting”. Each player was required to smash his head against his opponent until one collapsed or surrendered. A regular victim was (The Who’s bass player) John Entwistle, who, after being knocked out three times, pleaded with the nightclub owner to either ban the game or ban Ollie.

– Filming The Great Question (1983) Reed was stuck in Iraq…in what was essentially a war zone. One night Reed joined the crew for numerous drinks in the hotel bar and, looking in the nearby restaurant, saw a Texas oil billionaire whom he knew. Jumping up, obviously drunk as a skunk, he rushed upstairs to his room. “When he came back down he was wearing a western shirt and cowboy boots and walked John Wayne style into the restaurant to see his buddy,” recalls stunt man Vic Armstrong. “Inside he gave this guy a Texas handshake, as he called it, which basically means lifting your leg up and smashing your cowboy boot down on the table. So Ollie walked up to this guy’s table, surrounded by women and other dignitaries, and smash, all the cutlery and glass went flying in the air. Suddenly Ollie looked at the guy and it wasn’t his mate at all, it was some Arab with his harem, deeply offended that this westerner had come stamping on his table and upsetting everything.

– Reed had his private parts (which he was fond of calling his “mighty mallet”) emblazoned with the images of two eagle’s claws. Not long after, he had an eagle’s head tattooed on his shoulder, so when people asked why he had an eagle’s head on his shoulder he could reply, “Would you like to see where it’s perched?”


Exhibit D, Peter O’Toole:

(Personal note: after reading this book I’m more convinced than ever that if I could come back as another person and experience their life, Peter O’Toole would be on the very short list.)

– Interviewer: “Are you afraid of dying?” O’Toole: “Petrified.” Interviewer: “Why?” O’Toole: “Because there’s no future in it.” Interviewer: “When did you last think you were about to die?” O’Toole: “About four o’clock this morning.”

– O’Toole once arrived late for a ferry back to Ireland, the gangplank having just been raised. When the captain refused him entry O’Toole seized the ship’s papers, without which it couldn’t sail. He was only persuaded to hand them over by the arrival of a policeman. O’Toole then chartered a plane to Dublin, hired a taxi upon landing and raced from the airport to the harbour. When the ferry arrived there was O’Toole waiting on the dock to challenge the officer to a fistfight.

– O’Toole had never been the most subtle of people and old age hardly dented his un-PC ways. He had little time for the current crop of British stars like Hugh Grant. “Ugh, that twitching idiot! Ooh, I musn’t say that, must I, but he’s just a floppy young stammerer in all his films.” (Personal note: HaHaHaHa!)

– At the 2002 Oscars, O’Toole was to receive a lifetime achievement award. However, on discovering the bar served no alcohol, he threatened to walk out. Panicked producers had some vodka smuggled in.

In the final analysis, these men were geniuses on the screen, and depending upon how one judges such things, geniuses off it as well. One could maintain that, like Oscar Wilde, they were equally geniuses at life: they lived life fully on their own terms, and after all the broken glass, bludgeoned livers, wrecked relationships, wounded feelings and untapped potential, the sum shined brighter than the bits and pieces. Were they running away from their demons even as they rushed, face first, into a mirror or bar brawl or oncoming vehicle? Perhaps. But there was a courageousness to their conviction and intolerance for half-measures that, for better or worse, we’ll seldom if ever see again. They lived the lives they led because they had no choice, and more to the point, because nobody else could.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex (In Fiction)

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WRITING ABOUT SEX is like engaging in sex: it’s hard.

Or, it should be.

It’s that time of year again, where we can count on three things: shopping-related stress during Thanksgiving, family-related stress during Christmas, and in between the two, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award conducted by London’s Literary Review. The 22nd annual honor was awarded last week and Ben Okri takes top prize for the suitably horrific scene in his novel The Age of Magic. More on him and the runners-up here.

This event is not a lark, or limited to third-tier writers. Some legit semi-heavyweights have taken this crown, including Tom Wolfe, David Guterson and (shocker) Norman Mailer. Amusingly—and appropriately—John Updike won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008; astonishingly, Philip Roth has never reaped what he’s blown, though it’s undeniably not for lack of trying. Take this passage (please) from The Dying Animal: “…with my knees planted to either side of her and my ass centered over her, I leaned into her face and rhythmically, without letup, I fucked her mouth.” (This and other of Roth’s overly penetrating portrayals were wonderfully cataloged by Christoper Hitchens in an epic, scathing 2007 piece for The Atlantic.)

Here’s the, um, climax of this year’s best worst passage, according to the intrepid readers and judgers at Literary Review: “The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.” Okay, that’s pretty terrible. Or awe-inspiring in its awfulness. How about an incriminating précis of reigning champs from recent years? Here’s a portion of 2012’s winning bit, by Nancy Houston (from Infrared): “oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alteration, never will I tire of that silver fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water.” That’s impossible to outdo. No it isn’t. Check this, from 2010, courtesy of Rowan Somerville (from The Shape of Her): “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.” It can’t credibly get worse than that, right? Wrong. Rachel Johnson raised the lowest of bars in 2008 with this (from Shire Hell): “he holds both my arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as to not miss a single drop.”

A pattern emphatically emerges, even with this, er, small sample size. They are all aesthetically offensive, cliché-ridden, and suffer from self-consciousness—either too much or a total lack thereof. Regardless of taste or tact, few readers—or few folks with a modicum of experience either fornicating or writing fiction about it—would quibble with how excruciating these excerpts are.

Yet in 2010, Laura Miller at Salon took exception to the glee with which these dishonors are doled out, the entire affair a combination of prurience and the puritanical impulse that has ever afflicted our upper classes. She posits that we are a bunch of snobs when it comes to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup proposition of combining sex and literature. I think she (wisely? cynically?) uses the occasion of the Bad Sex Award to make a larger point about what we talk about when we talk about sex (in fiction): she’s all for it. She does, however, utilize a bit of a Straw Man to complain about the Literary Review’s annual endeavor, suggesting that more self-aware readers have—or should have—no qualms about moments of ardor (and the moments those moments lead to) artistically rendered.

I think the issue is not so much that these scenes exist, but that they’re invariably so uninspired or unintentionally ridiculous. Or, readers aren’t saying not to include sex in novels, but that writers should do everyone a favor and 86 the 69, or any scenes that make a mockery of the function so many people hold sacred—at least in theory. After all, the mostly unspoken calculus that occurs under cover of intimacy compels relationships and builds or destroys marriages, even families. In other words, it’s noteworthy. Indeed, for more members of our species than we may care to admit, the deed (the thought of it, the desire for it, and the lack of it) influences almost every waking moment. So, perhaps this award offers a welcome—and by the abundance of material to choose from each year, often unheeded—admonishment for those who would kiss and tell: proceed warily if you must.

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Is this too much to ask?

Let’s face it: convincing sex scenes happen seldom enough in real life. How—or why—do we expect them to occur in literature? Especially when most writers (the honest ones would admit) are not exactly Lotharios, unless you count the hackneyed rite of passage so frequently painted, involving the professorial seduction of the over-achieving undergrad. And these scenes, even though the authors don’t realize it, are less erotic than confessional—and more than a little embarrassing for all involved. I’ve unfailingly seen the most accomplished authors flummoxed while attempting a basic depiction of consensual love. Or lust.

So how do you do it?

Sex scenes, that is.

Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the act, much less the art, of seduction and surrender understands that successful sex is like almost any human enterprise: you don’t need to talk about it if you can do it—whatever it is. Or, the people who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

A personal favorite comes from the immortal Richard Burton writing about the immortal Liz Taylor. “Apocalyptic,” was how he described her breasts. “They would topple empires before they withered.” That’s not even a sex scene, and Burton was, of course, an actor, but there are novelists whose collected works don’t contain a line that perfect.

I’m not sure when, or if, The Canterbury Tales started to make sense, but I know things got interesting when I realized everyone apparently was shagging one another, albeit in a difficult-to-understand language. In hindsight, I suspect my professor was hoping to make the material a bit more uh, titillating to easily-distracted students, but I came away with the notion that Chaucer was a bit of a Player. “The Miller’s Tale” alone is practically a medieval sex manual.

Exhibit A: “When Nicholas had doon thus everydeel/He thakked hire about the lendes weel/He kiste hire swete, and taketh his sautrye/And pleyeth faste, and maketh melodye.”

Exhibit B: “And prively he caughte hire by the queynte/And seyde ‘Y-wis, but if ich have my wille/For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille.” (Google queynte.)

Of course an entire essay could be devoted to virtually any play by Shakespeare, who arguably combined passion, humor and lasciviousness with more élan than any writer, in any language.

Show, don’t tell. That’s the sacrosanct tenet we’re taught in English class around the same time we are(n’t) being taught Sex Ed. And except for the masters (in art; in life) who actually did it and are speaking from experience, the rule should always apply. The exception can—and should—be made for the ones who are able to put it plainly because their prose is essentially a declaration: I did it, this is how I did it, and if you hope to do it you might imitate my expertise. Put another way, I learned more from Milan Kundera and his understated field notes during my formative years than I ever did from any of the more cocky and forthcoming Locker Room Don-Juan wannabes. And the less said about our more celebrated purveyors of purple-prosed nerd porn like Updike and Roth the better.

Everyone knows most writers are long on word and short on action, with the exception of Ernest Hemingway. He allegedly got plenty of action and instigated lots of excitement, but a contrived—and increasingly pathetic—code of masculinity was the white whale he chased, in his fiction and in his life, until he got too old to make it or fake it. (A Freudian could have a field day with what his minimalism actually signifies.) Perhaps our best semi-contemporary practitioner of doing in print what he did—or wanted to do—in the bedroom, is Charles Bukowski. A dirty old man and making no bones about it, he nevertheless expresses so many thoughts and emotions sex imbues with the requisite comic, tragic and prosaic elements it merits, in reality.

And when all else fails, experts have informed me that’s what the Internet is for. Nevermind books and even movies. If music, or conversation—that old fashioned and unforced chemistry called charm—or a competently cooked meal can’t get you to the Promised Land, you may as well cast a line into the weird, wild web. And, if you are irretrievably old school, seek salvation in one of those books with Fabio on the cover. If you want the genuine article, suitable for a certain type of reading, why settle for half-assed posturing  when you can get your Harlequin on?

In the final analysis, the wisest way to handle any conquest, real or imagined, is to imitate the great ones and act—or at least pretend— like you’ve been there before. And for us literary types, it’s worth recalling the words of wisdom offered by the (fictional) intercourse aficionado Jackie Treehorn: People forget that the brain is the biggest erogenous zone.

Again, writing about sex is hard. Except when it’s not hard enough. And therein, as The Bard reminds us, lies the rub.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 12/10/2014.

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Peter O’Toole, R.I.P. (Revisited)

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They’re all gone.

Burton, then Harris, then Reed, then Taylor.

And now, O’Toole.

Yes, it all begins and ends with his once-in-a-millennium turn as T.E. Lawrence, and attention must be paid, period. But once that obligatory fact is uttered, how many dozens of other performances can we list as evidence of a greatness that become sui generis the old fashioned way.

I can’t think of a single actor who could have pulled off this scene (not to mention this performance, from the immortal masterpiece, The Ruling Class):

***

Here is Oscar Wilde (a name I don’t invoke lightly, and one of a handful of witty geniuses with whom O’Toole exists comfortably, on the literal and figurative levels), lamenting and/or celebrating the tragi-comedy of life (his, any artist’s): Would you like to know the great drama of my life? It’s that I’ve put my genius into my life; I’ve put only my talent into my works.

O’Toole certainly put his talent and genius into his work, even though it’s an ongoing embarrassment to the ongoing embarrassment that is the Academy Awards that one of our genuine masters never got his little gold statue.

O’Toole also, by all accounts –like his great friends Burton, Reed and Harris– put more than a little effort, industry and genius into his existence. Who could blame him? Being Peter O’Toole, he clearly came to realize early on, was its own burden, its own responsibility, its own obligation. Put another way, when I think about the musicians I most admire (think Hendrix, Coltrane), I have an ongoing fantasy bordering on obsession that I could transport myself in time and watch them, in the studio, creating the songs I know and love. With someone like O’Toole, as much as I would pay, in every sense of the word, to be in a small-ish theater seeing him become Hamlet, or on the set of Lawrence of Arabia (!!!), I can honestly state that above any other wish, nothing would please me more than to be amongst his company, or even a proverbial fly on the wall, during any random pub adventure he instigated in his prime.

At the end of the day, did he squander some, even much of his remarkable talent? Perhaps.

But that depends on how you choose to measure such things, and I say this as one who greatly appreciates, and tries to create, art.

I’d say while it’s our collective loss, as movie watchers, that quite probably Peter did not dedicate himself with the seriousness and care he might (ought to?) have, who are we to judge the decisions he made and the elan with which he sucked the marrow out of life, straight no chaser? His collected works outshine the majority of his peers, before or since, and while he might have made a few more indelible contributions to the canon, who can quarrel with the fact that he did things his way, on his own terms, and managed to be the best at everything he did, because he could? Best actor? Best looking? Wittiest? Without doubt. Uncautious? Impractical? Compulsively sybaritic? Probably. And: who cares? If he was going to do Shakespeare, he was going to do it unlike anyone else (for better or worse); if he was going to lose himself in the cups, by God he was going to do it bigger, badder and yes, better, than anyone. And have fun doing it. And make history, even if it was the type of history he couldn’t recall in later life; you can bet your ass the people who were there never forgot it. That is what it means to be a god.

We only get so many gods per generation. We’ve lost one that we were lucky to have in the first place. They won’t make any like him again because they never made any like him in the first place. Rest in peace you rascal, you raconteur. Sleep easily: your work here is done, and we lesser mortals will puzzle the rest of our days over how you ever managed to do the things you did.

(4/1/2010)

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 drank 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 full title is Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. To be frank, and 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 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 (cliche alert!) a truly different era. These types of artists simply don’t exist anymore and, to be honest, they could not possibly exist. 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. And 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 (cliche 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 came up with, and how fortunate they were getting paid to pretend as opposed to breaking their backs in a factory.

And, (cliche 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 spelt 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 one room and no electricity school. And 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. But 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 hearty 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 them 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).

Exhibit A, Richard Harris:

– 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’s wife): “I’ve got your husband.” She was shocked when (Harris’s 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. But 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. More than a few notable folks offered the opinion that had Burton exerted a bit more control over his vices he may have ultimately become the most revered stage actor of all time, surpassing even Olivier.)

– During one particular scene (in 1966’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) Burton was required to down a whiskey. The props department brought in flat ginger ale, the movies’ usual substitute for scotch, but Burton waved it away. “It’s only a short scene, won’t need more than a couple of takes. Bring me some real whiskey.” In fact the scene needed 47 takes. “Imagine it, luv,” Burton bragged to a journalist later, “47 whiskies!”

– Burton had arrived to work on The Klansmen drunk and stayed drunk throughout filming, consuming three bottles of vodka a day, a routine he’d been following for the past six months…when (the director) was filming Burton’s death scene he complimented the make-up man. “You’ve done a great job.” The make-up man replied, “I haven’t touched him.”

– Staggering home at three in the morning, O’Toole tried to carry (Burton)…and both men stumbled into the gutter. Somebody stopped beside them on the pavement. It was Alan Bates, O’Toole’s ex RADA colleague. “Peter,” he said, “today I’ve just signed up for my first commercial picture.” “We both looked up,” recalled O’Toole, and said “You coming down to join us, then?”

Exhibit C, Oliver Reed:

(Personal note: I have a special place in my heart for Ollie. I couldn’t have been more than ten the first time I saw the musical Oliver! and Reed, as Bill Sikes, scared the living shit out of me. He was the real deal: the kind of face you could smash a torch into, break a bottle on and pour hot oil over and he’d smile…before he killed you. I then enjoyed him as the perfectly cast father in the movie version of Tommy. He was (cliche alert!!) absolutely one of those rare actors who, for me, I’d watch in virtually anything he did just because he had that presence: he loved the camera and the camera bloody loved him. That he ended up dying, in a bar, after drunkenly arm wrestling with a group of sailors four decades younger was…pathetic, predictable, perfect.)

– In an early role (as a werewolf, in a wretched B-movie), Reed enjoyed keeping his make-up on at the end of the day and terrifying fellow motorists at traffic lights.

– After Tommy Reed and The Who’s Keith Moon continued their rabble-rousing friendship. Reed enjoyed a game that he christened “head butting”. Each player was required to smash his head against his opponent until one collapsed or surrendered. A regular victim was (The Who’s bass player) John Entwistle, who, after being knocked out three times, pleaded with the nightclub owner to either ban the game or ban Ollie.

– Filming The Great Question (1983) Reed was stuck in Iraq…in what was essentially a war zone. One night Reed joined the crew for numerous drinks in the hotel bar and, looking in the nearby restaurant, saw a Texas oil billionaire whom he knew. Jumping up, obviously drunk as a skunk, he rushed upstairs to his room. “When he came back down he was wearing a western shirt and cowboy boots and walked John Wayne style into the restaurant to see his buddy,” recalls stunt man Vic Armstrong. “Inside he gave this guy a Texas handshake, as he called it, which basically means lifting your leg up and smashing your cowboy boot down on the table. So Ollie walked up to this guy’s table, surrounded by women and other dignitaries, and smash, all the cutlery and glass went flying in the air. Suddenly Ollie looked at the guy and it wasn’t his mate at all, it was some Arab with his harem, deeply offended that this westerner had come stamping on his table and upsetting everything.

– Reed had his private parts (which he was fond of calling his “mighty mallet”) emblazoned with the images of two eagle’s claws. Not long after, he had an eagle’s head tattooed on his shoulder, so when people asked why he had an eagle’s head on his shoulder he could reply, “Would you like to see where it’s perched?”


Exhibit D, Peter O’Toole:

(Personal note: after reading this book I’m more convinced than ever that if I could come back as another person and experience their life, Peter O’Toole would be on the very short list.)

– Interviewer: “Are you afraid of dying?” O’Toole: “Petrified.” Interviewer: “Why?” O’Toole: “Because there’s no future in it.” Interviewer: “When did you last think you were about to die?” O’Toole: “About four o’clock this morning.”

– O’Toole once arrived late for a ferry back to Ireland, the gangplank having just been raised. When the captain refused him entry O’Toole seized the ship’s papers, without which it couldn’t sail. He was only persuaded to hand them over by the arrival of a policeman. O’Toole then chartered a plane to Dublin, hired a taxi upon landing and raced from the airport to the harbour. When the ferry arrived there was O’Toole waiting on the dock to challenge the officer to a fistfight.

– O’Toole had never been the most subtle of people and old age hardly dented his un-PC ways. He had little time for the current crop of British stars like Hugh Grant. “Ugh, that twitching idiot! Ooh, I musn’t say that, must I, but he’s just a floppy young stammerer in all his films.” (Personal note: HaHaHaHa!)

– At the 2002 Oscars, O’Toole was to receive a lifetime achievement award. However, on discovering the bar served no alcohol, he threatened to walk out. Panicked producers had some vodka smuggled in.

In the final analysis, these men were geniuses on the screen, and depending upon how one judges such things, geniuses off it as well. One could maintain that, like Oscar Wilde, they were equally geniuses at life: they lived life fully on their own terms, and after all the broken glass, bludgeoned livers, wrecked relationships, wounded feelings and untapped potential, the sum shined brighter than the bits and pieces. Were they running away from their demons even as they rushed, face first, into a mirror or bar brawl or oncoming vehicle? Perhaps. But there was a courageousness to their conviction and intolerance for half-measures that, for better or worse, we’ll seldom if ever see again. They lived the lives they led because they had no choice, and more to the point, because nobody else could.

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Peter O’Toole, R.I.P.

 

They’re all gone.

Burton, then Harris, then Reed, then Taylor.

And now, O’Toole.

Yes, it all begins and ends with his once-in-a-millennium turn as T.E. Lawrence, and attention must be paid, period. But once that obligatory fact is uttered, how many dozens of other performances can we list as evidence of a greatness that become sui generis the old fashioned way.

I can’t think of a single actor who could have pulled off this scene (not to mention this performance, from the immortal masterpiece, The Ruling Class):

***

Here is Oscar Wilde (a name I don’t invoke lightly, and one of a handful of witty geniuses with whom O’Toole exists comfortably, on the literal and figurative levels), lamenting and/or celebrating the tragi-comedy of life (his, any artist’s): Would you like to know the great drama of my life? It’s that I’ve put my genius into my life; I’ve put only my talent into my works.

O’Toole certainly put his talent and genius into his work, even though it’s an ongoing embarrassment to the ongoing embarrassment that is the Academy Awards that one of our genuine masters never got his little gold statue.

O’Toole also, by all accounts –like his great friends Burton, Reed and Harris– put more than a little effort, industry and genius into his existence. Who could blame him? Being Peter O’Toole, he clearly came to realize early on, was its own burden, its own responsibility, its own obligation. Put another way, when I think about the musicians I most admire (think Hendrix, Coltrane), I have an ongoing fantasy bordering on obsession that I could transport myself in time and watch them, in the studio, creating the songs I know and love. With someone like O’Toole, as much as I would pay, in every sense of the word, to be in a small-ish theater seeing him become Hamlet, or on the set of Lawrence of Arabia (!!!), I can honestly state that above any other wish, nothing would please me more than to be amongst his company, or even a proverbial fly on the wall, during any random pub adventure he instigated in his prime.

At the end of the day, did he squander some, even much of his remarkable talent? Perhaps.

But that depends on how you choose to measure such things, and I say this as one who greatly appreciates, and tries to create, art.

I’d say while it’s our collective loss, as movie watchers, that quite probably Peter did not dedicate himself with the seriousness and care he might (ought to?) have, who are we to judge the decisions he made and the elan with which he sucked the marrow out of life, straight no chaser? His collected works outshine the majority of his peers, before or since, and while he might have made a few more indelible contributions to the canon, who can quarrel with the fact that he did things his way, on his own terms, and managed to be the best at everything he did, because he could? Best actor? Best looking? Wittiest? Without doubt. Uncautious? Impractical? Compulsively sybaritic? Probably. And: who cares? If he was going to do Shakespeare, he was going to do it unlike anyone else (for better or worse); if he was going to lose himself in the cups, by God he was going to do it bigger, badder and yes, better, than anyone. And have fun doing it. And make history, even if it was the type of history he couldn’t recall in later life; you can bet your ass the people who were there never forgot it. That is what it means to be a god.

We only get so many gods per generation. We’ve lost one that we were lucky to have in the first place. They won’t make any like him again because they never made any like him in the first place. Rest in peace you rascal, you raconteur. Sleep easily: your work here is done, and we lesser mortals will puzzle the rest of our days over how you ever managed to do the things you did.

(4/1/2010)

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 drank 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 full title is Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. To be frank, and 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 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 (cliche alert!) a truly different era. These types of artists simply don’t exist anymore and, to be honest, they could not possibly exist. 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. And 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 (cliche 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 came up with, and how fortunate they were getting paid to pretend as opposed to breaking their backs in a factory.

And, (cliche 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 spelt 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 one room and no electricity school. And 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. But 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 hearty 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 them 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).

Exhibit A, Richard Harris:

– 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’s wife): “I’ve got your husband.” She was shocked when (Harris’s 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. But 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. More than a few notable folks offered the opinion that had Burton exerted a bit more control over his vices he may have ultimately become the most revered stage actor of all time, surpassing even Olivier.)

– During one particular scene (in 1966’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) Burton was required to down a whiskey. The props department brought in flat ginger ale, the movies’ usual substitute for scotch, but Burton waved it away. “It’s only a short scene, won’t need more than a couple of takes. Bring me some real whiskey.” In fact the scene needed 47 takes. “Imagine it, luv,” Burton bragged to a journalist later, “47 whiskies!”

– Burton had arrived to work on The Klansmen drunk and stayed drunk throughout filming, consuming three bottles of vodka a day, a routine he’d been following for the past six months…when (the director) was filming Burton’s death scene he complimented the make-up man. “You’ve done a great job.” The make-up man replied, “I haven’t touched him.”

– Staggering home at three in the morning, O’Toole tried to carry (Burton)…and both men stumbled into the gutter. Somebody stopped beside them on the pavement. It was Alan Bates, O’Toole’s ex RADA colleague. “Peter,” he said, “today I’ve just signed up for my first commercial picture.” “We both looked up,” recalled O’Toole, and said “You coming down to join us, then?”

Exhibit C, Oliver Reed:

(Personal note: I have a special place in my heart for Ollie. I couldn’t have been more than ten the first time I saw the musical Oliver! and Reed, as Bill Sikes, scared the living shit out of me. He was the real deal: the kind of face you could smash a torch into, break a bottle on and pour hot oil over and he’d smile…before he killed you. I then enjoyed him as the perfectly cast father in the movie version of Tommy. He was (cliche alert!!) absolutely one of those rare actors who, for me, I’d watch in virtually anything he did just because he had that presence: he loved the camera and the camera bloody loved him. That he ended up dying, in a bar, after drunkenly arm wrestling with a group of sailors four decades younger was…pathetic, predictable, perfect.)

– In an early role (as a werewolf, in a wretched B-movie), Reed enjoyed keeping his make-up on at the end of the day and terrifying fellow motorists at traffic lights.

– After Tommy Reed and The Who’s Keith Moon continued their rabble-rousing friendship. Reed enjoyed a game that he christened “head butting”. Each player was required to smash his head against his opponent until one collapsed or surrendered. A regular victim was (The Who’s bass player) John Entwistle, who, after being knocked out three times, pleaded with the nightclub owner to either ban the game or ban Ollie.

– Filming The Great Question (1983) Reed was stuck in Iraq…in what was essentially a war zone. One night Reed joined the crew for numerous drinks in the hotel bar and, looking in the nearby restaurant, saw a Texas oil billionaire whom he knew. Jumping up, obviously drunk as a skunk, he rushed upstairs to his room. “When he came back down he was wearing a western shirt and cowboy boots and walked John Wayne style into the restaurant to see his buddy,” recalls stunt man Vic Armstrong. “Inside he gave this guy a Texas handshake, as he called it, which basically means lifting your leg up and smashing your cowboy boot down on the table. So Ollie walked up to this guy’s table, surrounded by women and other dignitaries, and smash, all the cutlery and glass went flying in the air. Suddenly Ollie looked at the guy and it wasn’t his mate at all, it was some Arab with his harem, deeply offended that this westerner had come stamping on his table and upsetting everything.

– Reed had his private parts (which he was fond of calling his “mighty mallet”) emblazoned with the images of two eagle’s claws. Not long after, he had an eagle’s head tattooed on his shoulder, so when people asked why he had an eagle’s head on his shoulder he could reply, “Would you like to see where it’s perched?”


Exhibit D, Peter O’Toole:

(Personal note: after reading this book I’m more convinced than ever that if I could come back as another person and experience their life, Peter O’Toole would be on the very short list.)

– Interviewer: “Are you afraid of dying?” O’Toole: “Petrified.” Interviewer: “Why?” O’Toole: “Because there’s no future in it.” Interviewer: “When did you last think you were about to die?” O’Toole: “About four o’clock this morning.”

– O’Toole once arrived late for a ferry back to Ireland, the gangplank having just been raised. When the captain refused him entry O’Toole seized the ship’s papers, without which it couldn’t sail. He was only persuaded to hand them over by the arrival of a policeman. O’Toole then chartered a plane to Dublin, hired a taxi upon landing and raced from the airport to the harbour. When the ferry arrived there was O’Toole waiting on the dock to challenge the officer to a fistfight.

– O’Toole had never been the most subtle of people and old age hardly dented his un-PC ways. He had little time for the current crop of British stars like Hugh Grant. “Ugh, that twitching idiot! Ooh, I musn’t say that, must I, but he’s just a floppy young stammerer in all his films.” (Personal note: HaHaHaHa!)

– At the 2002 Oscars, O’Toole was to receive a lifetime achievement award. However, on discovering the bar served no alcohol, he threatened to walk out. Panicked producers had some vodka smuggled in.

In the final analysis, these men were geniuses on the screen, and depending upon how one judges such things, geniuses off it as well. One could maintain that, like Oscar Wilde, they were equally geniuses at life: they lived life fully on their own terms, and after all the broken glass, bludgeoned livers, wrecked relationships, wounded feelings and untapped potential, the sum shined brighter than the bits and pieces. Were they running away from their demons even as they rushed, face first, into a mirror or bar brawl or oncoming vehicle? Perhaps. But there was a courageousness to their conviction and intolerance for half-measures that, for better or worse, we’ll seldom if ever see again. They lived the lives they led because they had no choice, and more to the point, because nobody else could.

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They Lived This Way Because No One Else Could (Revisited)

Everyone has their favorite picture.

I can’t say this one is mine, but it will do.

Even though I was always too young to fully (or even partially) feel the impact of Elizabeth Taylor, I was aware of greatness and beauty on an epic scale when I saw it. She was already considered “over the hill” by the time I came of age, but that is not the point: that’s what movies and pictures are for. She was rich and famous and endlessly discussed, but acting and antics aside, she was revered above all for her pulchritude.

It’s interesting, sort of, that she was so closely associated with Michael Jackson for a time, because both of them were once-in-a-century type tri-fectas in terms of talent, influence and societal psychoanalysis. And, like him, she had (for understandable as well as self-inflicted reasons) fallen so far from her exalted perch she –even more so than MJ– began being discussed in the past tense even while she lived. While this is obviously an unflattering insight for the way we regard and treat our heroes once they cease to thrill or enthrall us, it is also a unique, if perverse compliment. Only those who have been elevated to such an extent can fall so far. And at the end of the day, much of the fodder for our chattering classes is predicated on a grudging acknowledgment that few of us will ever comprehend what it’s like to be immortal. Not many people are able to matter once they’ve been gone and time, as we always see, is eager to put sand in the eyes of future generations. It is quite safe to suggest Taylor will endure as a distinctly American figure who mattered: her best days came closest to our collective ideal that they make her name an adjective as well as a noun.

Taylor has died, which makes it official. I can’t imagine I am the only one who may have forgotten that she was still alive.

As far as appraising her film career and cultural impact, I’m content to let those who lived through it all have their say. It’s not that I have nothing; indeed, I’ve already said more than I figured I would.

It is, therefore, with the same sense of awe that I revisit a piece I wrote almost exactly a year ago, discussing Taylor and the men she made history with (the section specifically relating to Taylor is directly below –and it’s worth checking out just to see Richard Burton’s sublime summation of her special gifts).

4/1/2010:

(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. But 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. More than a few notable folks offered the opinion that had Burton exerted a bit more control over his vices he may have ultimately become the most revered stage actor of all time, surpassing even Olivier.)

 

 

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 drank 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 full title is Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. To be frank, and 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 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 (cliche alert!) a truly different era. These types of artists simply don’t exist anymore and, to be honest, they could not possibly exist. 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. And 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 (cliche 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 came up with, and how fortunate they were getting paid to pretend as opposed to breaking their backs in a factory.

And, (cliche 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 spelt 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 one room and no electricity school. And 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. But 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 hearty 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 them 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).

Exhibit A, Richard Harris:

– 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’s wife): “I’ve got your husband.” She was shocked when (Harris’s 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. But 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. More than a few notable folks offered the opinion that had Burton exerted a bit more control over his vices he may have ultimately become the most revered stage actor of all time, surpassing even Olivier.)

– During one particular scene (in 1966’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) Burton was required to down a whiskey. The props department brought in flat ginger ale, the movies’ usual substitute for scotch, but Burton waved it away. “It’s only a short scene, won’t need more than a couple of takes. Bring me some real whiskey.” In fact the scene needed 47 takes. “Imagine it, luv,” Burton bragged to a journalist later, “47 whiskies!”

– Burton had arrived to work on The Klansmen drunk and stayed drunk throughout filming, consuming three bottles of vodka a day, a routine he’d been following for the past six months…when (the director) was filming Burton’s death scene he complimented the make-up man. “You’ve done a great job.” The make-up man replied, “I haven’t touched him.”

– Staggering home at three in the morning, O’Toole tried to carry (Burton)…and both men stumbled into the gutter. Somebody stopped beside them on the pavement. It was Alan Bates, O’Toole’s ex RADA colleague. “Peter,” he said, “today I’ve just signed up for my first commercial picture.” “We both looked up,” recalled O’Toole, and said “You coming down to join us, then?”

Exhibit C, Oliver Reed:

(Personal note: I have a special place in my heart for Ollie. I couldn’t have been more than ten the first time I saw the musical Oliver! and Reed, as Bill Sikes, scared the living shit out of me. He was the real deal: the kind of face you could smash a torch into, break a bottle on and pour hot oil over and he’d smile…before he killed you. I then enjoyed him as the perfectly cast father in the movie version of Tommy. He was (cliche alert!!) absolutely one of those rare actors who, for me, I’d watch in virtually anything he did just because he had that presence: he loved the camera and the camera bloody loved him. That he ended up dying, in a bar, after drunkenly arm wrestling with a group of sailors four decades younger was…pathetic, predictable, perfect.)

– In an early role (as a werewolf, in a wretched B-movie), Reed enjoyed keeping his make-up on at the end of the day and terrifying fellow motorists at traffic lights.

– After Tommy Reed and The Who’s Keith Moon continued their rabble-rousing friendship. Reed enjoyed a game that he christened “head butting”. Each player was required to smash his head against his opponent until one collapsed or surrendered. A regular victim was (The Who’s bass player) John Entwistle, who, after being knocked out three times, pleaded with the nightclub owner to either ban the game or ban Ollie.

– Filming The Great Question (1983) Reed was stuck in Iraq…in what was essentially a war zone. One night Reed joined the crew for numerous drinks in the hotel bar and, looking in the nearby restaurant, saw a Texas oil billionaire whom he knew. Jumping up, obviously drunk as a skunk, he rushed upstairs to his room. “When he came back down he was wearing a western shirt and cowboy boots and walked John Wayne style into the restaurant to see his buddy,” recalls stunt man Vic Armstrong. “Inside he gave this guy a Texas handshake, as he called it, which basically means lifting your leg up and smashing your cowboy boot down on the table. So Ollie walked up to this guy’s table, surrounded by women and other dignitaries, and smash, all the cutlery and glass went flying in the air. Suddenly Ollie looked at the guy and it wasn’t his mate at all, it was some Arab with his harem, deeply offended that this westerner had come stamping on his table and upsetting everything.

– Reed had his private parts (which he was fond of calling his “mighty mallet”) emblazoned with the images of two eagle’s claws. Not long after, he had an eagle’s head tattooed on his shoulder, so when people asked why he had an eagle’s head on his shoulder he could reply, “Would you like to see where it’s perched?”


Exhibit D, Peter O’Toole:

(Personal note: after reading this book I’m more convinced than ever that if I could come back as another person and experience their life, Peter O’Toole would be on the very short list.)

– Interviewer: “Are you afraid of dying?” O’Toole: “Petrified.” Interviewer: “Why?” O’Toole: “Because there’s no future in it.” Interviewer: “When did you last think you were about to die?” O’Toole: “About four o’clock this morning.”

– O’Toole once arrived late for a ferry back to Ireland, the gangplank having just been raised. When the captain refused him entry O’Toole seized the ship’s papers, without which it couldn’t sail. He was only persuaded to hand them over by the arrival of a policeman. O’Toole then chartered a plane to Dublin, hired a taxi upon landing and raced from the airport to the harbour. When the ferry arrived there was O’Toole waiting on the dock to challenge the officer to a fistfight.

– O’Toole had never been the most subtle of people and old age hardly dented his un-PC ways. He had little time for the current crop of British stars like Hugh Grant. “Ugh, that twitching idiot! Ooh, I musn’t say that, must I, but he’s just a floppy young stammerer in all his films.” (Personal note: HaHaHaHa!)

– At the 2002 Oscars, O’Toole was to receive a lifetime achievement award. However, on discovering the bar served no alcohol, he threatened to walk out. Panicked producers had some vodka smuggled in.

In the final analysis, these men were geniuses on the screen, and depending upon how one judges such things, geniuses off it as well. One could maintain that, like Oscar Wilde, they were equally geniuses at life: they lived life fully on their own terms, and after all the broken glass, bludgeoned livers, wrecked relationships, wounded feelings and untapped potential, the sum shined brighter than the bits and pieces. Were they running away from their demons even as they rushed, face first, into a mirror or bar brawl or oncoming vehicle? Perhaps. But there was a courageousness to their conviction and intolerance for half-measures that, for better or worse, we’ll seldom if ever see again. They lived the lives they led because they had no choice, and more to the point, because nobody else could.

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They Lived This Way Because No One Else Could (Revisited): R.I.P. Liz

Everyone has their favorite picture.

I can’t say this one is mine, but it will do.

Even though I was always too young to fully (or even partially) feel the impact of Elizabeth Taylor, I was aware of greatness and beauty on an epic scale when I saw it. She was already considered “over the hill” by the time I came of age, but that is not the point: that’s what movies and pictures are for. She was rich and famous and endlessly discussed, but acting and antics aside, she was revered above all for her pulchritude.

It’s interesting, sort of, that she was so closely associated with Michael Jackson for a time, because both of them were once-in-a-century type tri-fectas in terms of talent, influence and societal psychoanalysis. And, like him, she had (for understandable as well as self-inflicted reasons) fallen so far from her exalted perch she –even more so than MJ– began being discussed in the past tense even while she lived. While this is obviously an unflattering insight for the way we regard and treat our heroes once they cease to thrill or enthrall us, it is also a unique, if perverse compliment. Only those who have been elevated to such an extent can fall so far. And at the end of the day, much of the fodder for our chattering classes is predicated on a grudging acknowledgment that few of us will ever comprehend what it’s like to be immortal. Not many people are able to matter once they’ve been gone and time, as we always see, is eager to put sand in the eyes of future generations. It is quite safe to suggest Taylor will endure as a distinctly American figure who mattered: her best days came closest to our collective ideal that they make her name an adjective as well as a noun.

Taylor has died, which makes it official. I can’t imagine I am the only one who may have forgotten that she was still alive.

As far as appraising her film career and cultural impact, I’m content to let those who lived through it all have their say. It’s not that I have nothing; indeed, I’ve already said more than I figured I would.

It is, therefore, with the same sense of awe that I revisit a piece I wrote almost exactly a year ago, discussing Taylor and the men she made history with (the section specifically relating to Taylor is directly below –and it’s worth checking out just to see Richard Burton’s sublime summation of her special gifts).

4/1/2010:

(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. But 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. More than a few notable folks offered the opinion that had Burton exerted a bit more control over his vices he may have ultimately become the most revered stage actor of all time, surpassing even Olivier.)

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 drank 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 full title is Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. To be frank, and 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 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 (cliche alert!) a truly different era. These types of artists simply don’t exist anymore and, to be honest, they could not possibly exist. 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. And 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 (cliche 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 came up with, and how fortunate they were getting paid to pretend as opposed to breaking their backs in a factory.

And, (cliche 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 spelt 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 one room and no electricity school. And 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. But 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 hearty 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 them 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).

Exhibit A, Richard Harris:

– 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’s wife): “I’ve got your husband.” She was shocked when (Harris’s 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. But 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. More than a few notable folks offered the opinion that had Burton exerted a bit more control over his vices he may have ultimately become the most revered stage actor of all time, surpassing even Olivier.)

– During one particular scene (in 1966’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) Burton was required to down a whiskey. The props department brought in flat ginger ale, the movies’ usual substitute for scotch, but Burton waved it away. “It’s only a short scene, won’t need more than a couple of takes. Bring me some real whiskey.” In fact the scene needed 47 takes. “Imagine it, luv,” Burton bragged to a journalist later, “47 whiskies!”

– Burton had arrived to work on The Klansmen drunk and stayed drunk throughout filming, consuming three bottles of vodka a day, a routine he’d been following for the past six months…when (the director) was filming Burton’s death scene he complimented the make-up man. “You’ve done a great job.” The make-up man replied, “I haven’t touched him.”

– Staggering home at three in the morning, O’Toole tried to carry (Burton)…and both men stumbled into the gutter. Somebody stopped beside them on the pavement. It was Alan Bates, O’Toole’s ex RADA colleague. “Peter,” he said, “today I’ve just signed up for my first commercial picture.” “We both looked up,” recalled O’Toole, and said “You coming down to join us, then?”

Exhibit C, Oliver Reed:

(Personal note: I have a special place in my heart for Ollie. I couldn’t have been more than ten the first time I saw the musical Oliver! and Reed, as Bill Sikes, scared the living shit out of me. He was the real deal: the kind of face you could smash a torch into, break a bottle on and pour hot oil over and he’d smile…before he killed you. I then enjoyed him as the perfectly cast father in the movie version of Tommy. He was (cliche alert!!) absolutely one of those rare actors who, for me, I’d watch in virtually anything he did just because he had that presence: he loved the camera and the camera bloody loved him. That he ended up dying, in a bar, after drunkenly arm wrestling with a group of sailors four decades younger was…pathetic, predictable, perfect.)

– In an early role (as a werewolf, in a wretched B-movie), Reed enjoyed keeping his make-up on at the end of the day and terrifying fellow motorists at traffic lights.

– After Tommy Reed and The Who’s Keith Moon continued their rabble-rousing friendship. Reed enjoyed a game that he christened “head butting”. Each player was required to smash his head against his opponent until one collapsed or surrendered. A regular victim was (The Who’s bass player) John Entwistle, who, after being knocked out three times, pleaded with the nightclub owner to either ban the game or ban Ollie.

– Filming The Great Question (1983) Reed was stuck in Iraq…in what was essentially a war zone. One night Reed joined the crew for numerous drinks in the hotel bar and, looking in the nearby restaurant, saw a Texas oil billionaire whom he knew. Jumping up, obviously drunk as a skunk, he rushed upstairs to his room. “When he came back down he was wearing a western shirt and cowboy boots and walked John Wayne style into the restaurant to see his buddy,” recalls stunt man Vic Armstrong. “Inside he gave this guy a Texas handshake, as he called it, which basically means lifting your leg up and smashing your cowboy boot down on the table. So Ollie walked up to this guy’s table, surrounded by women and other dignitaries, and smash, all the cutlery and glass went flying in the air. Suddenly Ollie looked at the guy and it wasn’t his mate at all, it was some Arab with his harem, deeply offended that this westerner had come stamping on his table and upsetting everything.

– Reed had his private parts (which he was fond of calling his “mighty mallet”) emblazoned with the images of two eagle’s claws. Not long after, he had an eagle’s head tattooed on his shoulder, so when people asked why he had an eagle’s head on his shoulder he could reply, “Would you like to see where it’s perched?”


Exhibit D, Peter O’Toole:

(Personal note: after reading this book I’m more convinced than ever that if I could come back as another person and experience their life, Peter O’Toole would be on the very short list.)

– Interviewer: “Are you afraid of dying?” O’Toole: “Petrified.” Interviewer: “Why?” O’Toole: “Because there’s no future in it.” Interviewer: “When did you last think you were about to die?” O’Toole: “About four o’clock this morning.”

– O’Toole once arrived late for a ferry back to Ireland, the gangplank having just been raised. When the captain refused him entry O’Toole seized the ship’s papers, without which it couldn’t sail. He was only persuaded to hand them over by the arrival of a policeman. O’Toole then chartered a plane to Dublin, hired a taxi upon landing and raced from the airport to the harbour. When the ferry arrived there was O’Toole waiting on the dock to challenge the officer to a fistfight.

– O’Toole had never been the most subtle of people and old age hardly dented his un-PC ways. He had little time for the current crop of British stars like Hugh Grant. “Ugh, that twitching idiot! Ooh, I musn’t say that, must I, but he’s just a floppy young stammerer in all his films.” (Personal note: HaHaHaHa!)

– At the 2002 Oscars, O’Toole was to receive a lifetime achievement award. However, on discovering the bar served no alcohol, he threatened to walk out. Panicked producers had some vodka smuggled in.

In the final analysis, these men were geniuses on the screen, and depending upon how one judges such things, geniuses off it as well. One could maintain that, like Oscar Wilde, they were equally geniuses at life: they lived life fully on their own terms, and after all the broken glass, bludgeoned livers, wrecked relationships, wounded feelings and untapped potential, the sum shined brighter than the bits and pieces. Were they running away from their demons even as they rushed, face first, into a mirror or bar brawl or oncoming vehicle? Perhaps. But there was a courageousness to their conviction and intolerance for half-measures that, for better or worse, we’ll seldom if ever see again. They lived the lives they led because they had no choice, and more to the point, because nobody else could.

Share

They Lived This Way Because Nobody Else Could

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 drank 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 full title is Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. To be frank, and 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 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 (cliche alert!) a truly different era. These types of artists simply don’t exist anymore and, to be honest, they could not possibly exist. 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. And 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 (cliche 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 came up with, and how fortunate they were getting paid to pretend as opposed to breaking their backs in a factory.

And, (cliche 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 spelt 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 one room and no electricity school. And 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. But 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 hearty 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 them 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).

Exhibit A, Richard Harris:

– 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’s wife): “I’ve got your husband.” She was shocked when (Harris’s 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. But 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. More than a few notable folks offered the opinion that had Burton exerted a bit more control over his vices he may have ultimately become the most revered stage actor of all time, surpassing even Olivier.)

– During one particular scene (in 1966’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) Burton was required to down a whiskey. The props department brought in flat ginger ale, the movies’ usual substitute for scotch, but Burton waved it away. “It’s only a short scene, won’t need more than a couple of takes. Bring me some real whiskey.” In fact the scene needed 47 takes. “Imagine it, luv,” Burton bragged to a journalist later, “47 whiskies!”

– Burton had arrived to work on The Klansmen drunk and stayed drunk throughout filming, consuming three bottles of vodka a day, a routine he’d been following for the past six months…when (the director) was filming Burton’s death scene he complimented the make-up man. “You’ve done a great job.” The make-up man replied, “I haven’t touched him.”

– Staggering home at three in the morning, O’Toole tried to carry (Burton)…and both men stumbled into the gutter. Somebody stopped beside them on the pavement. It was Alan Bates, O’Toole’s ex RADA colleague. “Peter,” he said, “today I’ve just signed up for my first commercial picture.” “We both looked up,” recalled O’Toole, and said “You coming down to join us, then?”

Exhibit C, Oliver Reed:

(Personal note: I have a special place in my heart for Ollie. I couldn’t have been more than ten the first time I saw the musical Oliver! and Reed, as Bill Sikes, scared the living shit out of me. He was the real deal: the kind of face you could smash a torch into, break a bottle on and pour hot oil over and he’d smile…before he killed you. I then enjoyed him as the perfectly cast father in the movie version of Tommy. He was (cliche alert!!) absolutely one of those rare actors who, for me, I’d watch in virtually anything he did just because he had that presence: he loved the camera and the camera bloody loved him. That he ended up dying, in a bar, after drunkenly arm wrestling with a group of sailors four decades younger was…pathetic, predictable, perfect.)

– In an early role (as a werewolf, in a wretched B-movie), Reed enjoyed keeping his make-up on at the end of the day and terrifying fellow motorists at traffic lights.

– After Tommy Reed and The Who’s Keith Moon continued their rabble-rousing friendship. Reed enjoyed a game that he christened “head butting”. Each player was required to smash his head against his opponent until one collapsed or surrendered. A regular victim was (The Who’s bass player) John Entwistle, who, after being knocked out three times, pleaded with the nightclub owner to either ban the game or ban Ollie.

– Filming The Great Question (1983) Reed was stuck in Iraq…in what was essentially a war zone. One night Reed joined the crew for numerous drinks in the hotel bar and, looking in the nearby restaurant, saw a Texas oil billionaire whom he knew. Jumping up, obviously drunk as a skunk, he rushed upstairs to his room. “When he came back down he was wearing a western shirt and cowboy boots and walked John Wayne style into the restaurant to see his buddy,” recalls stunt man Vic Armstrong. “Inside he gave this guy a Texas handshake, as he called it, which basically means lifting your leg up and smashing your cowboy boot down on the table. So Ollie walked up to this guy’s table, surrounded by women and other dignitaries, and smash, all the cutlery and glass went flying in the air. Suddenly Ollie looked at the guy and it wasn’t his mate at all, it was some Arab with his harem, deeply offended that this westerner had come stamping on his table and upsetting everything.

– Reed had his private parts (which he was fond of calling his “mighty mallet”) emblazoned with the images of two eagle’s claws. Not long after, he had an eagle’s head tattooed on his shoulder, so when people asked why he had an eagle’s head on his shoulder he could reply, “Would you like to see where it’s perched?”

Exhibit D, Peter O’Toole:

(Personal note: after reading this book I’m more convinced than ever that if I could come back as another person and experience their life, Peter O’Toole would be on the very short list.)

– Interviewer: “Are you afraid of dying?” O’Toole: “Petrified.” Interviewer: “Why?” O’Toole: “Because there’s no future in it.” Interviewer: “When did you last think you were about to die?” O’Toole: “About four o’clock this morning.”

– O’Toole once arrived late for a ferry back to Ireland, the gangplank having just been raised. When the captain refused him entry O’Toole seized the ship’s papers, without which it couldn’t sail. He was only persuaded to hand them over by the arrival of a policeman. O’Toole then chartered a plane to Dublin, hired a taxi upon landing and raced from the airport to the harbour. When the ferry arrived there was O’Toole waiting on the dock to challenge the officer to a fistfight.

– O’Toole had never been the most subtle of people and old age hardly dented his un-PC ways. He had little time for the current crop of British stars like Hugh Grant. “Ugh, that twitching idiot! Ooh, I musn’t say that, must I, but he’s just a floppy young stammerer in all his films.” (Personal note: HaHaHaHa!)

– At the 2002 Oscars, O’Toole was to receive a lifetime achievement award. However, on discovering the bar served no alcohol, he threatened to walk out. Panicked producers had some vodka smuggled in.

In the final analysis, these men were geniuses on the screen, and depending upon how one judges such things, geniuses off it as well. One could maintain that, like Oscar Wilde, they were equally geniuses at life: they lived life fully on their own terms, and after all the broken glass, bludgeoned livers, wrecked relationships, wounded feelings and untapped potential, the sum shined brighter than the bits and pieces. Were they running away from their demons even as they rushed, face first, into a mirror or bar brawl or oncoming vehicle? Perhaps. But there was a courageousness to their conviction and intolerance for half-measures that, for better or worse, we’ll seldom if ever see again. They lived the lives they led because they had no choice, and more to the point, because nobody else could.

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