Men behaving badly: why cinema's great hellraisers were a breed apart

The death of the film and TV star Rip Torn, whose drunken exuberance so often resulted in the breaking of glass, the splintering of wood and the bandaging of limbs, has led the industry to ponder that exotic creature whose rock’n’roll behaviour, from the 1960s onwards, persisted for decades to tolerant chortling from the similarly inclined or wistfully well-behaved gentlemen of the press. And that creature is the “hellraiser” – a term that originates from a defiant credo espoused by the hard-drinking, hard-living Hollywood legend Richard Burton: “God put me on this earth to raise sheer hell!”

Peter O’Toole’s death in 2013 led to a similar outpouring of grief for the booze legends who have evidently been replaced by corporate dullards, drinking mineral water, policing their own language and anxiously checking their mentions on Twitter. Once we had hellraisers: now we have “disrupters”, people who give Ted talks about their revolutionary new app for maximising your leisure time. Actors used to spend every penny getting fantastically drunk. Now George Clooney gets a reported $1bn for selling his Casamigos Tequila brand to the drinks retailer Diageo — although Clooney was reported to lose his cool after a few drinks.

But isn’t “hellraiser” just a euphemism for alcoholic narcissist? Isn’t hellraising simply another supposedly amusing or picturesque aspect of arrogant behaviour that is becoming increasingly tiresome and objectionable, with wives and children left behind to pick up the pieces? Yes – almost certainly. But there are certain kinds of determinant factor in hellraising, aside from drinking and even sexual politics: it is part of the postwar history of publicity and celebrity, and the varying histories of Britain, Ireland and the US, whose hellraisers were very different beasts.

Oliver Reed, glass in hand, in 1985

Oliver Reed, glass in hand, in 1985. Photograph: Richard Young /Rex Features

The Brits and the Irish had O’Toole, Oliver Reed and Richard Harris, and the Americans included Rip Torn, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson. In literature, there were William Burroughs and Norman Mailer, in journalism Hunter S Thompson (the British had Jeffrey Bernard) and in literal rather than metaphorical rock’n’roll there were Keith Moon, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards and Pete Doherty. But women are not allowed into the club so easily. The exploits of, say Amy Winehouse, Lindsay Lohan or Lily Allen are not really “exploits” in the same sentimentally rousing sense. These anecdotes are tinged with tragic mourning or thin-lipped disapproval in a way they are not for the guys.

Torn commands a certain respect, for all the revisionism, because his hellraising continued unabashed into his late 70s, at an age when the O’Tooles of this world had long since sworn off the booze. He was charged in 2010, at the age of 79, with breaking into a bank while drunk and carrying a gun, claiming that he thought it was his home. One detail there is very important in distinguishing American hellraisers from the ones on our side of the Atlantic. Guns. Moreover, Americans were more prominently into cocaine, while our hellraisers were likelier to content themselves with gallons of warm brown bitter.

Hopper was once so coked up that he reportedly staged a mock “suicide” by lying down in a coffin in Texas, surrounding himself with sticks of dynamite, challenging people to blow him up, and finally leaving, allegedly shooting up heroin, and taking off for Mexico, where he tried to venture into the jungle without any clothes on. As for Jack Nicholson, he was notoriously drunk at a party thrown by the super-agent Sue Mengers in 1979. Nicholson staggered up to Princess Margaret and suggested they repair to the bathroom to do a line of cocaine together. Her Royal Highness icily declined.

Rip Torn’s 2010 police mugshot.

Rip Torn’s 2010 police mugshot. Photograph: NY State Police/REX/Shutterstock

The aggression, delusion and self-indulgence of non-American hellraisers is obviously comparable to those in the US. Harris was often a cheery soul whose conviviality charmed all those who came across him. But he could also be a crazily aggressive drunk whose addiction took him to the edge of self-destruction. When playing Oliver Cromwell in the 1970 biopic, with Alec Guinness as Charles I, Harris’s incessant drinking took him to a strange place, one in which he believed that the imminent execution of the king was real. He telephoned the director, Ken Hughes, in the middle of the night and yelled: “We must give him another chance!” A doctor had to be called, along with some strong men to hold him down while a tranquillising injection was administered.

As for Reed, he is said to have made an entrance at an airport, lying drunk on the baggage conveyor. While filming The Lion in Winter, O’Toole drunkenly cut off the top of his finger in a boating accident; he attempted to sterilise the fragment of finger in a glass of brandy before ramming it back on to the bloodied stump and wrapping it in a bandage. On removing this some weeks later, he discovered he had put the finger on the wrong way round. When acting on the stage, he very much enjoyed getting drunk in the pub right up until “the half” – the half-hour before curtain up when an actor is traditionally expected at the theatre – and beyond. He is said to have taken Michael Caine out for an almighty drinking session, after which Caine woke up in an unfamiliar flat and asked: “What time is it?”, to which O’Toole replied: “Never mind that, what fucking day is it?” Another lost weekend (a phrase immortalised by the Billy Wilder film), but Caine and O’Toole still had time to make the Monday night performance.

Peter OToole

Peter OToole: a better class of hellraiser? Photograph: Archive Photos/Getty Images

For British thespian hellraisers, drunkenness is much more of a public performance, more about sentimentally singing or declaiming verse in the pub after the landlord has despairingly called time – in a booming, actorly voice. The British hellraiser, unlike his American counterpart, thinks he is a mixture of John Falstaff and Prince Hal, a superb and lovably bohemian force of nature, who may yet get someone into bed at the end of the evening. Or sort of wishes to, anyway: Harris once said that the only thing drink will get up is your hopes.

But it is important that all this originated in the 1960s. It is difficult to credit now how pinched, cramped, uptight and class-bound Britain still was in the postwar period, with restaurants and saloon bars like the dining room of Fawlty Towers, with everyone getting rude service and being afraid to complain. When Reed and O’Toole took their trousers down and started singing in the middle of a public place, it was at least partly a reaction against all the pomposity and hypocrisy and, as stars, they were allowed to do it. It was a quainter sort of hellraising performance.

There is something different also in the way that these anecdotes are produced and consumed. They are exactly that – anecdotes – refined and burnished over cigars at the dinner table at Langan’s in the 70s and 80s and then presented to Michael Parkinson or Russell Harty on TV chatshows, by and large by the grinning participants themselves. The events happened far from the gaze of press and public. Now, in an age of, when everyone can take high-quality pictures or video on their smartphones, these things mean something different: they are captured instantaneously in all their unfunny chaos and squalor, without the people involved getting a chance to change or suppress the details to make it into a funny story.

The hellraising of Torn, Hopper et al is performative as well. Of course it is. But it is also much more obviously about machismo, about clout and prestige, about showing the other guy who is boss. In the US in the 60s, the studio system was coming to an end, with actors no longer treated as obedient contract players. A new golden age of star power was in the ascendant, with A-listers throwing their weight around, sometimes literally. So much of the creative energy in Hollywood is expended invisibly to the general public – in the meeting. The big players have to intimidate, in one way or another. In a new culture of method acting, it’s about real sweat, real passion, real fists, real people. And so hellraising is more about status.

Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail (1973)

Method acting: Jack Nicholson as Billy ‘Bad Ass’ Buddusky in The Last Detail (1973). Photograph: Allstar/COLUMBIA/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

As to whether there are hellraisers now, well, of course there are, although the eco-system of deference, naivety about alcoholism, press complaisance and tolerance of male behaviour has worn away.

Johnny Depp is someone who has never grown out of his hellraiser – or hellraiser’s apprentice – period, being a mate of Keith Richards and Hunter S Thompson and having, in his 20s, bought the notorious Viper Room nightclub in Los Angeles, and trashed many a hotel room. In middle age, his rather sad, ageing wild-man persona was exposed in the Rolling Stone interview he conducted in very late-Brando style. It was given in a sepulchral rented mansion in north London’s eerie “Millionaire’s Row” district of Bishopswood Road, notorious for deserted megahouses purchased by absentee plutocrat investors.

What emerged was a huge party lifestyle that was not exactly “hellraising”, in that it was perhaps more about ostentatious spending than ostentatious drinking: $3m to shoot the late Thompson’s ashes into the sky from a cannon; $75m for 14 houses; $200,000 a month on private air travel.

Johnny Depp and Matt Dillon flank Hunter S Thompson

Johnny Depp and Matt Dillon flank Hunter S Thompson in 1996, during the 25th anniversary celebration of the writer’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Photograph: Dave Allocca/Associated Press

But he has certainly been accused of having the hellraiser’s tendency to toxic male aggression and arrogance: his former partner Amber Heard claims that he abused alcohol and drugs, and claims that he choked, hit and headbutted her during his drunken and drug-fuelled rages. He has launched a defamation suit to refute this.

Much hellraising is about anger: the director David O Russell once had a quasi-hellraiser reputation for confrontational rage on the movie set and Alec Baldwin is a kind of boozeless hellraiser in his way (although he has been a drinker in the past) in that he can get involved in public situations. Tellingly, these tend to be with paparazzi and precisely those 24-hour media warriors who have made hellraising mythology untenable. Leonardo DiCaprio is a “player”, rather than a “hellraiser” in the classical sense, in that whatever high-jinks this famously eligible single guy gets up to, they are still not for public consumption.

The writer and film-maker Emma Forrest has written insightfully about her relationship with the Australian wild-man actor Ben Mendelsohn, indicating that there are still men for whom an uproarious lifestyle is absolutely natural and authentic, not a pose. And there is Colin Farrell, who has spoken out honestly about his battle with drink. He has become a kind of legend for getting drunk with Dame Eileen Atkins, a star many years his senior, in a hotel bar, and then coming up to her hotel room and, to her bemused astonishment, offering to read her bedtime book aloud to her: a bizarre but strangely romantic and even innocent kind of hellraising that turned Farrell and Atkins into firm friends. Hellraising, of a sort, isn’t quite dead.


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