Starring boor with a bottle
MIDWAY through this startling book, Robert Sellers asks himself a question with such apparent seriousness, I barked with laughter: ‘‘ Was Oliver Reed an alcoholic?’’ A more pertinent inquiry would be: ‘‘ Was the man ever capable of drawing a sober breath?’’
What Fresh Lunacy is This? is the monotonous chronicle of a nasty drunk whose ‘‘ explosions of pissed aggression’’ filled every waking hour, culminating in a deranged session, while filming Castaway in 1986, when he attacked an aeroplane.
Reed would gulp 20 pints of lager as a way of limbering up. He’d then switch to spirits and the cycle of fighting and carousing would begin. Its a miracle he survived to be 61, dropping dead in a Maltese bar after ‘‘ drinking copious amounts of rum and armwrestling with 18-year-old sailors’’.
I find no amusement in dissipation, but Sellers seems always to be impressed and tickled by Reed’s nasty pranks: sticking a lit candle up his nose for a bet, chewing light bulbs or putting cigarettes out on his tongue. He loved to climb up a pub chimney and leap into the grate as a demonic Santa Claus. He liked to beat up waiters, hoteliers and chauffeurs. ‘‘ He was always trying to test a person to see how scared they were of him.’’ He would dangle people over balconies or insist on sword fights.
He said to a restaurant manager in Austria, ‘‘ I’m coming back tomorrow night. If you haven’t got a Union Jack by then, I’m going to trash this place.’’ They hadn’t. So he hurled chairs through the window.
There was real violence in him. On location, there would always be ‘‘ knife wounds, hospital visits and stitches’’. Reed urinated on foreign flags, on Mercedes limousines and on anyone standing below him on the stairs. He vomited over Steve McQueen, and Bette Davis said that he was ‘‘ possibly one of the most loathsome human beings I have ever had the misfortune of meeting’’. Of the directors he worked with, Reed put laxatives in Michael Winner’s coffee, headbutted Terry Gilliam and on numerous occasions threw Ken Russell across the room in judo tackles.
The Neanderthal behaviour — or riotous horseplay, as Sellers would have it — was present in childhood. Reed was born in Wimbledon. His grandfather was Herbert Beerbohm Tree. His father’s brother was Carol Reed. He was always being expelled from school for his angry outbursts, and he flourished as a bully. He threw a pet dog over the banister, broke his brother’s nose and hit a neighbour with a garden hoe.
Though Sellers tries to argue that Reed was dyslexic and insecure, ‘‘ with a low boredom threshold’’, it is surely simpler to say the man had a fascist mentality and was a crackpot. He clung to his instinctive belief that ‘‘ the strongest succeeded, while the weak got abused and ignored’’. He particularly enjoyed National Service because of ‘‘ the atmosphere of bullying’’. After he was promoted to corporal, ‘‘ his men came to despise him utterly’’. He never stopped being ‘‘ the macho army lout’’ and tried to volunteer for active duty during the Falklands. (He made Fanny Hill with Alfred Marks instead.)
Reed started out in show business as a male