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Reed, Oliver (1938-1999)


Main image of Reed, Oliver (1938-1999)

There were never many British leading men one could imagine opening a film by marching resolutely into their offices and taking an axe to their desks as an act of rebellion, as Oliver Reed did in Michael Winner's I'll Never Forget What's 'is Name (1967). The charismatic hell-raising Reed managed this - and much more - with the apparently effortless aplomb that may have cost him the acclaim he often deserved.

The grandson of Herbert Beerbohm Tree and nephew of Carol Reed, he made, astoundingly in view of how much time his legendary barroom brawling occupied, nearly 100 films and TV programmes. Despite his offscreen antics, costar Glenda Jackson said in 1994, "What I admire in Oliver is his consummate professionalism". Whatever damage he was doing to himself between films - between takes - the moment the cameras rolled he was on the job.

Given his prolificacy, it is surprising how well how much of his work stands up. Even in early films like The League of Gentlemen (d. Basil Dearden, 1960), as a ballet dancer, and The Angry Silence (d. Guy Green, 1960), as a factory-worker bully, one couldn't miss him.

His first starring role was in Curse of the Werewolf (d. Terence Fisher, 1961) and he made several further Hammer horror films; he made four for Winner, when the latter was at his flashiest and zestiest; and had the good fortune to be taken up by Ken Russell.

This association led to the title role in TV's The Debussy Film (BBC, 1965) and Gerald Crich in Women in Love (1969). His famous nude wrestling scene with Alan Bates got so much attention that it tended to obscure the fact that Reed's was one of the finest performances of the decade - any decade, really - in a British film, effacing D.H. Lawrence's characterisation of Gerald as blond Nordic god. Reed played with tenderness as well as intensity and gave the finally tormented character a brush with tragic stature.

If this is his one indisputably great performance, there are others very much worth rescuing from the surrounding bill-payers: he is a very dangerous Bill Sikes in his uncle's Oliver! (1968); tackles courageously the lustful priest in The Devils (d. Russell, 1971); and enters enthusiastically into the spirit of Richard Lester's Royal Flash (1975) as Bismarck, as he did in Lester's Musketeers films (1973, 1974).

He returns, after years of dross, to reclaim himself in Nicolas Roeg's Castaway (1986), as the man who advertises for a wife, and in 1994 he injected some camp life into Peter Chelsom's acrid-tasting Funny Bones (UK/US). When all the tedious tales of trouser-dropping in public places and bullying macho competitiveness are laid to rest, these, and a few others, will attest to his real capacities.

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Cinema

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Selected credits

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Cautionary tale about a respectable girl turned sleazy stripper

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Joseph Losey's chiller about the after-effects of radiation

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Ken Russell's controversial film about the political abuse of religious faith

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Lionel Bart's Oscar-winning musical adaptation of Dickens' Oliver Twist

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Tony Hancock's big-screen debut stars him as a talentless but ambitious artist

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Ken Russell's portrait of French primitive painter Henri Rousseau

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Ken Russell's film-within-a-film about the French composer

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Thumbnail image of Russell, Ken (1927-2011)Russell, Ken (1927-2011)

Director, Producer, Writer, Actor