Sandra Costello is visited by The Ghost of Richard Harris.
As someone with admittedly little knowledge of Richard Harris, Adrian Sibley’s documentary is a real delight. It is a balanced combination of voiceover by Harris himself, considered reflections by his three sons and interviews with many who worked closely with him and loved him dearly. The subject of this documentary is hardly a shrinking violet. If you know anything about Harris, you know the sensational stuff. There is no shortage of material to work with and as a viewer you are in no danger of becoming bored. In truth, they could easily have made the documentary twice as long.
Harris himself informs us early on “I’m going to tell you some lies”, which acts as a disclaimer, announcing the impossibility of truly figuring this man out. Described as excessive in every respect, he overindulged with alcohol, drugs and women yet, he loved his family fiercely and approached his work with an unrelenting passion. As with all larger-than-life personalities, you have to take the good with the bad.
Jared Harris takes us to the hotel suite where his father spent his final days and likens the experience to the death of an old lion. Jared admits that “the lights have dimmed since he left”, which feels appropriate considering Harris’ energetic personality and magnetism. We meet Damian and Jamie Harris who go through some of their father’s possessions together while reflecting on the man. The documentary feels deeply personal as we witness his three sons on screen guiding us along the narrative.
We are taken back to Harris’ very active early life when he was four-time rackets champion in Kilkee from 1947-1950. There is a statue of him brandishing a racket by The Diamond Rocks Café to this day. Later, we are told that he played rugby and that he could have been a professional. We see him at a rugby match in Twickenham in 2000 with his friend Peter O’Toole as he spontaneously rips off his jumper to proudly display his Munster jersey to the camera. We are also reminded of his music career with the hit song MacArthur Park. His endless talents prove difficult to keep track of.
At the beginning of his career and when Harris was penniless, he met and proposed to Elizabeth Rees-Williams who came from a wealthy family, ruffling many feathers in the process. He had a certain fearlessness to go after what he wanted, no matter how improbable his success. Various fellow actors share stories and opinions about working with Harris. Stephen Rea relays that “he would scare the life out of ya,” while Russell Crowe, clearly in awe of the man, believes that there was no performance about him and that he made everything authentic in his acting. Vanessa Redgrave tells us she loved him as an actor and friend, that he was enchanting to watch and had a great generosity of spirit.
Harris is shown to contradict himself aplenty which provides good humour to the documentary. Through voiceover he announces that he never played the Hollywood game but his sons assure us that he did. After the breakdown of his first marriage, he had a divorce honeymoon. He went on a week-long drinking binge with friends which was captured by the media. This is when his hellraiser reputation became solidified. We are introduced to the Rolls Royce he once owned and which was rumoured to have been gifted to him by Princess Margaret. The current owner asks his sons if this rumour is true and they deny it but there is doubt around the true origin of the car. This serves to convey the difficulty of accessing the full truth about Harris, even by those who knew him best.
The Field is deemed his “most defining” film and it is the one perhaps that most Irish people know him for. Harris was not Jim Sheridan’s first choice for the role. Sheridan surmises that Harris “thought he could do anything.” He describes him as kind but mad. He fought him on many of his directorial instructions particularly in relation to the scene in which The Bull McCabe breaks down. It is interesting to get a glimpse of how he worked with directors and how directors attempted to keep in check.
His final role of Albus Dumbledore was one that delighted him. He spun a story to the press about taking the part to please his granddaughter, which created a media buzz around him once more. He enjoyed it when he was able to control the narrative about himself in this way. At his funeral, the famous words from Hamlet were attributed to him: “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.” These words perfectly sum up his flawed yet unmatchable persona which this documentary certainly succeeds in communicating.
The Ghost of Richard Harris screened at the Cork International Film Festival on 13th November 2022.