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Michael Pergolani interviews Oliver Reed

The film The Devils by Ken Russell had not been out long. Maybe Women in Love had also come out around then. The fact is that Oliver Reed, protagonist of both films, had become a huge international movie star. I cant remember who gave me his number, perhaps a friend, at any rate I called to interview him. If I recall correctly he lived in Surrey, in the country. I got there by car. At the time I owned an old Morris 1000. I have to say that I was immediately struck by the fact that as soon I got to the gate I only saw a green hill of trees with tall trunks, probably oaks, flowery bushes, and a small asphalt road that wound behind the hill. You couldnt see the it was logical to suppose that the house was behind the hill and that there a lot of land. Well, the house was a brick castle with over 50 bedrooms. He came to meet me in a red tank top and jeans. It was an easy interview. Oliver responded without ay problems. We took about an hour to finish. It went so quickly that at one point he asked it I wanted to get a beer at the local pub. I said, ok. Two minutes later a Rolls (metallic blue, convertible with white leather interior) pulled up behind the house, it was the most beautiful thing my ass had ever sat on. Some hippy sat at the wheel and played driver.
"This is John", Oliver said, "One of the family..."
So John took us to the pub in his godlike car and he introduced me to "Newcastle Brown". Dark, intensely scented, with a body that was totally different... no, it wasnt a woman, it was his favorite beer. After two hours we were so drunk that if John hadnt been there (John was strictly prohibited from drinking) I dont know how we would have ever gotten back. But it wasnt over because at that point, we were disgustingly drunk and Oliver asked me if I wanted to go hunting on his property. He didnt even wait for my reply and came back a minute later with two guns and two cartridges. We shot at pigeons and rabbits. We shot a lot...but we didnt get anything.

Michael Pergolani Rome 8/8/2000

Conversation without complications "new male"
Dorking, thirty miles from London, an 18th century castle on a misty hill looks over 50 acres of land, woods, shrubery, were sleepy Irish horses graze in an early spring landscape that reminds one of a John Constable painting. It is Oliver Reed's house, the protagonist of "Women in Love" and "The Devils", a polemical and spectacular film by Ken Russell based on a story by Aldous Huxley. With his interpretation of Father Grandier, Oliver Reed has offered the world the image of an ideal male that is anything but conventional. In personifying a 17th century priest, as a sensual, revolutionary ideal male, Oliver Reed has added his face to the team. He is hard yet capable of expressing an aggressive, sweet sexuality, both violent and human. His type, or rather his personality, is one that audiences today find fascinating, at least according to what papers all over the world say about him. It is the identification with the character-interpretor, Grandier-Reed, that has made him a symbol and a model of the early seventies.

- PERGOLANI: Would you like to say something about your life before becoming an actor?
- REED: I don't think I have much to say because I don't think I was anything before becoming an actor, I was also really young then. I did many different things: I was an awful student, a pretty good athelete, and a bad soldier. Then I started acting. That's about it... (N.d.r.: Oliver Reed was born in 1938. His father, Peter Reed, was a rather well-known sports journalist. His academic career took place in over 13 different schools. At the age of 17 anni, he left home and decided to see the world. He ends up at a strip-tease club in Soho where he was responsible for bringing clients; he then went to a gym and tried boxing. This experience was cut short after a sound defeat in his second match.)

- Did you begin your acting career at an acting school?
REED- No, I didn't go to acting school, only to normal school. I'm not for acting schools because I suspect that the majority of the teachers are there because they can't find work as actors or because they think they can teach people to act but haven't had much experience themselves in the field. What I mean is that my skepticism derives from the fact that I believe that for an actor its much more important to learn with the audience...the audience is the real teacher and it's the audience that has taught me what I know The audience's reaction tells me what I need to do, just as the audience's reaction makes you into a first rate star. Its easy: the important thing is that a sufficient number or people, an audience, in a sufficient number of countries is willing to spend money to go see this actor. At this point the movie producers interfere and ask you to work on this or that film. And then one becomes an actor with international success depending on the public's reaction.

- You've just spoken of the audience and it almost seemed like you were talking about a theatre experience. Have you ever done any theatre?
REED- No, theatre doesn't interest me. It doesn't interest me because in England theatre means warm gin during intermission, not being able to smoke in the theatre, eat chocolates and try to find out who else is present in order to then greet them in the foyer. Going to this or that theatre premiere is very much an "in" thing to do. But this is only one of the reasons, the second reason is a bit more professional. Logically speaking, I think that for an actor or an actress working in the theatre is boring, but I am not referring to theatre actors who have always worked there, and this my own boring opinion, but because it means reciting the same lines every night six nights a week, not counting matinees... Boring don't you think?

- How and why did you decide to become an actor?
REED - Why? Because I couldn't write well and I couldn't add without making mistakes, so it wouldn't have been easy to find a job in a bank or a newspaper. When? In 1958, yes, in 1958 I started to as an extra...but I don't want to write my autobiography! Because then you'd really need a book; we have just gotten to my life at 18 and the rest is pretty long.

-You became world famous almost overnight, after a series of film that were respectable on a professional level but that didn't help you emerge as an actor. This success is essentially based on two films: "Women in Love" and "The Devils". Do you feel you owe your success to these two films?
REED- Naturally I feel indebted to these films, as I owe Ken Russell a lot; just as Ken Russell owes me a lot, considering that I've done him favors in the past. I don't think I paid him a particular favor by acting well in his films, especially in light of the fact that I still have money coming to me from both films: actors also work for percentages and if the percentage is slow to come then one must continue to work. This is one of the reasons why I accepted various offers to work in Italy: because my films did well in Italy, I was offered work in Italy paid in cash: that's nice enough.

- What do you think it the reason behind both of these films' success?
REED- I think that the laws regarding film censorship in Italy have changed noticeably in the past months, a bit like what happened in the USA when they abolished prohibition; everyone started to drink everything. In any case I think it's a crime to take the freedom of choice away from the individual. I think that the reasons that motivated Italy to decide on this kind of censorship has a lot to do with hysterism and is wrong, it is especially wrong for the audiences, who were denied the right to make their own decisions. Only the "intellighenzia", the intellectuals, I believe, could view important films that were made elsewhere, either through private screenings or various film festivals. I don't believe that cinema belongs to film festivals. I believe that cinema, its actors, actresses and directors belong to their audiences. Consequently I believe that taking certain films away from the audience is an unjust act. I am happy they've reconsidered these laws in Italy and I am happy that the public can go and see my films...(N.d.r.: Probably Oliver Reed is not very clear about the situation in Italy.) I don't think that literature in Italy undergoes the same censorship laws as cinema. I don't think that Huxley's work was censored therefore it's a greater problem and can be directed against Huxley or against sex or against pornography or against Ken Russel's interpretation: as you wish. The fact remains that the audience should not be denied the right to decide.

- Do you think that the abovementioned films have a value in themselves or that goes beyond the audience?
- I think that the opinion I give when I decide to participate in a film reflects this and so I would say, yes. If you ask me why I can respond that its because I think that D.H. Lawrence was a very important writer, even though at the end of the 50's in England Lawrence was considered nothing but a vulgar pornographic writer. I think that that around that time I realized that "Lady Chatterley's Lover" was definitely not pornography. I believe that in order to fully understand the work ones needs to understand a man who lived in the twenties, lived under those circumsta ces, during that period, influenced by that same environment that was simultaneously richer and poorer than he was; it was necessary to make such a film. The Devils is an important film in order to understand what is going on in Ireland.

In what way?
- In one of the opening lines Grandier affirms: "Religious was are finally part of the past. Catholics have stopped fighting Protestants. We are the survivors." I am not sure that Grandier was right then just as I'm not sure he would be right today; until Grandier's sacrifices accounted for, until politicians and religions find a way to work together in agreement, there will be not answer to the problem that Grandier fought against durin his times. Accidentally, everyone knew that the orgies that took place favored Cardinal Richelieu's political motives and a young intellectual Jesuit named Surin, no, not the film's Barrier, the film in this case is not right. Naturally the hour and forty-eight minutes given to Ken Russell to evoke and show that historical moment in the church is not enough; the only possibility given to a director is that of directing tastes and public knowledge on events or reality that he is particularly interested in or feels are important; un a bit like a chef with his clients: all he does is direct the tastes.

Let's move on to that which you have come to represent to the spectator and to the world of cinema. In these two films, although for different reasons, you have very well become what is defined as a "sexual prototype". The question I would like to make is do you have a deep understanding of the magnetic power and sexuality you exude especially towards a female and gay audience.
- No I don't understand, honestly I don't understand... also because I am the one who knows the most about Oliver Reed's sexual capacities and like any other man I sometimes have doubts...and considering these doubts on my conscience, the thing that surprises me the most is that is that part of the community, as you say, considers me a sex symbol... I am surprised and a bit embarrassed, especially at my age.

- What effect does being a sex symbol it have on you? Does it scare you? Embarrass you? Do you like it? Do you find it exciting or fun?
- I would have though it was fun had it not been for the fact that once you arrive at being a status symbol, you have to also prove something. It's easy for a football player to prove his abilities on the field by scoring few goals. Its not as easy for a symbol like myself, because its difficult to prove this ability or attribute, no?!

- How do you think the male audience has reacted to your popularity with the opposite sex? Have you ever received letters about this?
- No, no letters, usually they'd rather beat me up. That is to say, usually they react in a very hostile and aggressive way. I should say that this happens more here with my compatriots than abroad. The reason is that I mix with them. Actors usually barricade themselves in their castles or in their huge country houses in the middle of no where, maybe sit in their gardens with a gun on the table in case someone comes to bother them. I am used to living a simple life. All jokes aside, I don't think their reactions are that absurd, on the contrary, I think their reactions are quite normal. I think the crowds at the stadium react in a very violent way to something that is just a game. Therefore I think it's really natural the part of the community, or rather the young impressionable ones, because that is who we are talking about, react violently to something that symbolizes a challenge to their sexual issues. It is neither simple nor natural that because of such a vendetta I get punched on the nose, on my beautiful aquiline nose that is not used to getting punched... (N.d.r.: Oliver Reed's nose is not aquiline, on the contrary, it shows evident signs damage).

- You're not afraid to be identified as an object of desire?
- No, I am not afraid because I believe that I'll age and be forgotten. That is a marvelous compliment! I am sure that we would all like to be identified in that way! Can you imagine what a great thing this is for your self-esteem and how much confidence it would give you!

What is, in all frankness, your opinion on sex and love in general?
- What a disturbing question! I think that sex is here to stay. I also think that society is interested in surviving it has to seriously consider the birth rate and overpopulation problem. This will certainly have an influence on sexuality, therefore the community will need to establish some sort of law that a couple can only have two children, for instance, maybe through a government license and therefore forced to become sterilized or use other forms of contraceptives. I am certain all of this will cause a whole series of reactions. I don't think, and statistics have proven this, that the majority of people have already heard about contraceptive methods that deal with controlling the birth rate. It would therefore be extremely difficult to disperse such a law globally. Who knows perhaps it would caus catastrophes and bloodshed. Or perhaps men and women will find alternative ways to manifest with erotic stimulus. Maybe in the future people will spend more time listening to music than in the bedroom, or will want to go see a football match or will channel their sexual desires differently.Maybe there will be more homosexuals, both men and women, maybe nature will also see to this... We've seen that nature provides for everything and all forms of nature. So if you ask my opinion of sex I can only say that I am more surprised than even at the amount that is consumed daily by the world and I feel lucky to be part of that small army of men who is famous for it: its one of the great satisfactions of life! Now about love...I find love dangerous because it is coupled with too much pain for too little time. I think that if one should suffer for a longer amount of time, then maybe people would learn to treat it with a lot more respect.

- According to certain standards you are not considered a beautiful man. Why then have you become one of the most desired and sought after men of our times?
-I think someone once told me that women don't like very beautiful men because they spend too much time in front of the mirror, they are narcissistic. As far as I'm concerned...I have no idea, no idea! I don't know, maybe because I have a screwed up face.

- What do you think about the couple as an institution and as a sentimental reality?
- One of the most important and necessary things in any relationship based on trust is not having to always say what you want, even on a sexual level. I think that sex is extremely important in a long relationship. This kind of relationship goes well it turns into different relationship, one that doesn't require much sex because there is no longer that need or one becomes too old and the heart can't take it or whatever else. I think that after being with someone you get to the point of taking shortcuts, being in a relationship is a shortcut. A partner with whom one has lived for a sufficient amount of time is capable of knowing immediately what kind of behavior the other will have after 8 gin tonics or one cup of tea, if you are nervous or tired; all of this prevents a big waste of time and today people are interested in not wasting any time. This is all that I can say in public!

- What do you think about nudity in cinema? Do you think there are reasons to discriminate its use? Is nudity justified in art, for instance?
- No, I think its bullshit. You hear this sort of reasoning by certain actresses that use art or the value of the film as justification for taking of their underwear in front of a camera. Naturally, it they are asked to do it. I think that there will always be nudity in films and that its not always determined by the director or the actor or actress, but instead by the audience. The audience's taste will determine what kinds of films will be made. If the audience continues to form long queues to see a film with nudity then producers, directors, actors, and actresses will certainly justify nudity in their products. This is not a question for the actor but one that should be first asked to the audience.

- Don't you think that the sexual element is one of the reasons they make video-cassettes? Do you think this is a smart move on the part of the movie industry?
- I think every "film-maker's" drama has three sides 1) One has to give audiences a kind of show; 2) One has to give audiences an escape from reality that lasts two hours that could be the same thing. 3) One needs to reflect the times. I think that today's reality means that the public need in some way or another to escape from reality. So therefore its necessary to make on or two films that allow such an escape. One cannot ignore the directors who at one time or another reflected this realty. These are violent times we are in, a period that will probably be seen as extremely permissive, simply because it took the steps to lead humanity one step beyond in the recognition that sexual behavior is not to be considered something mysterious and alienating, as during the Victorian years and most of this century. I think that it's always a question of education and social position; the rich, 100 and 120 years ago, would have probably lead lives one considered exotic and erotic. Naturally the poor didn't. They couldn't allow themselves the luxuries of wine, women, perfumes, houses and the space. Now people are generally more well off and can allow themselves more intense sexual adventures. The youth today is a lot wealthier and therefore more erotic, more prone to experimentation we will probably become more wealthy and erotic. Who knows if we won't end up grazing cows and watching butterflies, maybe even being poor again... But all of this is a different topic.

- I would like to go back to your most successful film, "The Devils". Do you feel this film represents the most important achievement in your career?
- I don't know. Depends on what you determine as "most important achievement". I think that the most important achievement of my career was getting paid for something that I really wanted to do. I mean: there are many people who work in banks dreaming of becoming the new Ascari and so on. It's not easy, and things go the way they go. However what I just said the most important achievement I've accomplished. Another accomplishment that I haven't yet done would be to own a pub in the country. Then once I had enough money to buy one it wasn't worth it. Each year I change and want new things. So to say that "The Devils" was my biggest success is wrong, but I can say that at one point I thought that it was. Now I anxiously await the next one. I don't know what or when it will be. I only know that I want to raise the most spectacular horses for hunting.

- Would you like to say something about your role in "The Devils" on why you enjoyed making the film?
- Enjoyed it? Are you joking? I don't really think I enjoyed it. On the contrary, it was a difficult and tiring role. I don't think anyone in their right mind would say that they had fun shooting that film. It wasn't created with the intent of having fun or pleasurable, on the contrary, it was analyzed acutely and made with extreme seriousness. It was definitely a film about a certain society and the things that society did. We tried to show that humans are diabolical or can be as diabolical as in the film. I didn't have fun, it was four months of hard work and if anyone has the courage or the desire to sit his ass down on a firecracker and scream for four months with Ken Russell yelling in your ears, well...

- Why do you think, "The Devils" scandalized, surprised, and shocked people around the world?
- Because it vividly shows a side of the Church that was never scrutinized attentively or even less accepted. The film shows that the monarchy can be weak, that the Church can be corrupt, that society can admit that it has a lot to learn. I think these kinds of things were hidden from audiences for a long time. The masses go to the movies not the intellectual elites.

- With which director did you like working the most?
- Michael Winner. I did a film with him called " The System", a film called " Hannibal Brooks" and another called " I'll never forget what's his name". Who know why, maybe because I was very young, but I remember having a lot of fun making these films, I remember them fondly. I have not told Michael Winner that he is the director with the most talent; he is undoubtedly one of the most talented.

- Is there a particular director with who you would like to work?
- No. I don't think so. At one point I would have liked the role of Heathcliff "Wuthering Heights." Then I saw it done by Lawrence Olivier on television and he was so good that I decided to forget about it. I think that take as much work as possible. I think that work should only be "the next thing", I would like to think that maybe in five years I could work with someone whom I trust co pletely. I think that you can appreciate the work of a certain director, but that you shouldn't wish to work with him, otherwise the equilibrium is missing. At any rate, I'm starting a film soon called "Vadim", that will be shot mostly in Bulgaria and the rest in Italy, in Rome. After this I'll do another film in Italy.

Interviewed at Dorking, for PLAYMEN, by MICHAEL PERGOLANI, May, 1972

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