What Fresh Lunacy is This?: The Authorized Biography of Oliver Reed, by Robert Sellers
Reviewed by Gabriel Byrne
What Fresh Lunacy is This?: The Authorized Biography of Oliver Reed
He urinated on other countries’ flags, spiked peoples’ drinks for fun and pushed his factotum and friend Reg Prince off a balcony, breaking his back and ending a career in film. On the set of Castaway, he was so drunk he attacked an aircraft and was glassed in a pub, receiving 36 stitches in the face and leaving him scarred for life .
Although a compulsive womaniser in earlier days, after many turbulent relationships and at the age of 42, he wooed and won a 16-year-old girl named Josephine Burge and it was the beginning of a remarkable love story that endured till his death (I shall always remember Ollie sitting meekly by her side between takes while she sewed contentedly). There is no doubt they loved each other deeply.
Ollie had a disdain for the business of acting and eschewed the company of fellow actors. What he was in love with was being a star; and people were in love with him being an outrageous star. Fame, which often felt like being locked inside a drum with everyone banging on the skin, shielded and protected him, and allowed his alcoholism to worsen.
Inevitably, his career atrophied, then began to deteriorate into a declivity where he made only dross for the money, a bloated parody of his former self. You can watch on YouTube the infamous chat show appearances toward the end, where he is exploited and prodded like a wounded bull for the titillation of the whooping audience. (It is terribly sad to watch him drunkenly undress, unaware there is a camera secreted in his dressing room by callous producers.)
By now the lunacy has lost its freshness; the bacchanal is coming to its inevitable end. His final acting performance was in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, a role that could have heralded a comeback. But he died suddenly during filming from a heart attack, on his day off, having consumed three bottles of rum and arm-wrestled a group of 18-year-old sailors.
He went probably as he’d have liked , on the floor of a pub in Malta, the complex stew of melancholy , gentleness , kindness, and cruelty dead at 61. The miracle is he lived so long.
Oliver Reed is buried in a cemetery in Churchtown, Co Cork, where he and Josephine lived the final years of his life. His grave, once seeded with wild flowers, is now a place of pilgrimage for drinkers with T-shirts proclaiming “Ollie Reed died in action” .
Alas poor Ollie! What a falling off was there!
What a Heathcliff he would have been, a Richard III, Stanley Kowalski, Hotspur, Lear, or James Bond. (He came within a hair’s breadth of being cast as 007.) At his peak he was cited in the same breath as Marlon Brando and Robert Mitchum. “He made the very air move,” Orson Welles had said. But he, in Dylan Thomas’s phrase, gave his “soul a blind, slashed eye, / Gristle and rind, and a roarer’s life” and drank away his talent till there was nothing but the shadow of what once had been.
Here is a list worth pondering: Baudelaire, Doctor Johnson, Faulkner, Bukowski, Tolstoy, Dylan Thomas, Coleridge, Sartre, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Ray Carver, John Cheever, Burton, Harris, Hank Williams, George Best, John Barrymore, Bogart, WC Fields, John Ford, Ted Kennedy, Churchill, Judy Garland, Kerouac, Anne Sexton, Truman Capote, Spencer Tracey, Brendan Behan, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, Amy Winehouse, etc, etc. What they all have in common is that like millions of unknown others they suffered, and in most cases died, from addiction to drugs or alcohol.
As a society we must begin to view this deadly illness not with condemnation but with compassion, and cease criminalising or romanticising the suffering of the addict. Let’s stop the prurient and voyeuristic media reporting of their sad travails (Lindsey Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Paul Gascoigne).
I knew and drank with many famous “hellraisers”: Oliver, Richard Harris, Jon Finch, Richard Burton, George Scott, Sterling Hayden, Nicol Williamson, and many not so famous. All of them found the world as it is intolerable. They needed something more: the moon perhaps, something demented, as Camus says. But I’m convinced that all of them were half in love with easeful death itself – the soul a battleground, as in the story of Jekyll and Hyde, for the angel and the fiend.