The word “legendary” gets tossed around pretty easily when discussing important actors, but there’s a huge difference between starring in a lot of important movies, and starring in a lot of movies while leaving everyone you ever met with an epic, semi-fantastical tale about how incredibly drunk you got.
Premiering at the Venice Film Festival, Adrian Sibley’s documentary “The Ghost of Richard Harris” tells the story of — you guessed it — Richard Harris, but also his ghost. The Irish actor, musician and poet who starred in films like “This Sporting Life,” “The Field,” “Gladiator” and two “Harry Potter” entries led an extraordinary existence that’s well worth recording for posterity. And in his wake, he left behind three sons who barely knew their real father, and who seek in his absence a little bit of understanding and maybe some closure.
“The Ghost of Richard Harris” follows actors Jared Harris (“Chernobyl”) and Jamie Harris (“West Side Story”) and director Damian Harris (“The Wilde Wedding”) as they rifle through their father’s belongings, uncovering old photographs and poetry, dramatically walking into rooms he used to live in, and musing to themselves about the late actor’s motivations for becoming a brilliant performer and a hotheaded rake. Along the way, Sibley (“The Ivy”) also connects with famous actors and associates from Harris’s life, like Russell Crowe and Vanessa Redgrave, many of whom knew him — or at least liked him — even better than his own flesh and blood.
Like many documentaries about the lives of famous people, the film offers a ready-made answer to the question “Who is that?” If you don’t know who Richard Harris was, or if you were personally offended that someone you knew had to ask, you could throw on “The Ghost of Richard Harris,” and they would certainly get the gist of it. The film covers the dawn of his career, from his storied tennis days to the end of his life, embellishing tales about his granddaughter threatening to disown him if he didn’t play Dumbledore, just because it made for good press.
If you do already know who Richard Harris is, however, you’re in the market for anecdotes and depth. Sibley’s film provides. Harris was a notorious drinker and carouser, whose exploits were the meat of many a scandal page and the snack platter of many a talk show. He rejected, as he says in a clip, the moniker of an “alcoholic,” because he says he never drank to escape anything. He just really, really, really liked booze, and getting into fights, and having no idea what adventures he got into the night before.
It’s not a fawning documentary, and it’s eager to discuss (though hesitant to judge) Harris’s many character flaws. It also glosses over vast swaths of Harris’ career, whenever the filmmaker or the Harris brothers deem the films unworthy of scrutiny. So we get lots of footage of and interviews about “Camelot” and “The Field” but nary a word, nary a solitary image or clip from fascinating fiascos like “Orca” or “Tarzan the Ape Man.” The filmmakers are perfectly willing to admit he took a private plane on a week-long European bender just to make sure his newly-divorced ex-wife saw it in the papers, but they weren’t comfortable admitting that one time he fought a killer whale in a movie or acted with Bo Derek.
The one moment when Sibley can’t seem to decide if Harris had a mighty victory or an embarrassing episode was when the actor released the smash hit single “MacArthur Park.” The song, an unusually long-winded and melodramatic ode to a recreational area in Los Angeles, is notorious for head-scratching lyrics about leaving a cake out in the rain, followed by a gigantic lament about losing the recipe to said cake. The interviewees in “The Ghost of Richard Harris” can’t quite seem to decide themselves if it was a genuinely great song or a novelty number that got way out of hand which, to be fair, is the legacy of “MacArthur Park” that we all have to live with.
“The Ghost of Richard Harris” approaches Harris’ life and career with humility, frankness and good humor. His sons may regret not having their father fully present in their lives, but they also have to hand it to the man, because he had one hell of a run. Perhaps no interviewee sums up the film’s approach to Harris better than Jim Sheridan, who directed the actor to an Oscar-nominated performance in “The Field” — when Harris would let him, at any rate. Sheridan details story after story of Harris being impossibly difficult, refusing to do multiple takes and ruining all the blocking, driving the filmmaker all the way to the brink, before telling Sheridan something so deeply profound it literally changed the director’s life. You can complain all you want about Harris’ behavior, but in the end, apparently, Sibley’s film argues that you also had to admire what he could do.
The documentary leaves some stones unturned, but only for Harris fans who’d like the inside scoop on every single one of his artistic projects. For people more interested in Harris, the man, “The Ghost of Richard Harris” does an admirable job of covering his life and capturing his finest and worst qualities. And since Harris was, for most of his life, a media darling, the film doesn’t lack interesting footage or recordings of Harris explaining or excusing himself in his own words.
If you don’t know Richard Harris well enough, you’ll learn a lot more about him. And if you already know who Richard Harris is, by the end of this film you’ll probably like him even more.
“The Ghost of Richard Harris” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Venice Film Festival.