Festival focus on film great Harris

 Richard Harris as the fading rugby league player Frank Machin in This Sporting Life, directed by Lindsay Anderson (left), for which he won an Oscar nomination in 1963.
Richard Harris as the fading rugby league player Frank Machin in This Sporting Life, directed by Lindsay Anderson (left), for which he won an Oscar nomination in 1963.

Why did nobody think of it before? The inaugural Richard Harris International Film Festival gets underway in his hometown of Limerick this weekend (Dec 6), 11 years after Ireland’s greatest Hollywood star of the 20th century passed away.

Harris was synonymous with Limerick. He left for London in the early 1950s to carve a career in acting, but returned regularly, often for Munster rugby matches, and trumpeted the city’s appeal at every opportunity.

After training as an actor, Harris served a useful apprenticeship with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop before film gigs started rolling his way in 1958. He came to international prominence with a defining role as the salty, fading rugby league player, Frank Machin, in This Sporting Life, a cult classic that earned him a best actor award at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival.

This Sporting Life will be the signature screening at the festival in Limerick, which also includes a strand of new films starring Ireland’s diaspora of acting and directing talent, an idea conceived by Harris’s son, Jared, one of the stars of the hit TV series Mad Men. There will also be a short film showcase and a children’s film-making competition.

“There were a number of reasons for showing This Sporting Life,” says festival director, Rob Gill. “It’s the 50th anniversary of its release. A lot of people haven’t seen it. It’s not one you’ll see screened very regularly on TV. It’s one of his most iconic roles. It was his first Oscar nomination. It’s a gritty kitchen-sink drama, part of the British ‘New Wave’ social realism. Even though it’s not a sports film, Harris revelled in the role of that tough rugby player. It resonates a little bit with Limerick.”

The stories of Harris raising hell are legendary: there were barroom brawls, dust-ups with his co-stars (Charlton Heston once referred to him as “something of a fuck up”), and he was administered the last rites in a hospital in Los Angeles after one binge. He curbed his carousing in the 1980s, which led to a golden autumn.

This included appearances in Unforgiven, Gladiator, a couple of the Harry Potter films (which he was coerced into doing by his granddaughter) and, of course, an Oscar nomination for his turn as the Bull McCabe in The Field in 1990.

“He had that thing called presence,” says film producer Noel Pearson. “Hilton Edwards used to have an expression, ‘he could displace air,’ as a definition of a great actor or star. Harris had it. When he came into a room, you’d know he was there.

“With The Field, he hadn’t made a movie in years, and nobody wanted him. What happened was that I got friendly with him and I said ‘unless he does it, we’re not doing The Field’. They didn’t even want to audition him.

“On the opening day of the shoot, he didn’t show up, and when he arrived he had a beard. What the hell is going on here? We never heard of a farmer with a beard, but he had a heap of photographs to prove that farmers did have beards.

“I remember when Munster were beaten in the Heineken Cup final at Twickenham in 2000,” says Pearson. “We went into the dressing room after the game, and when the Munster players saw him, they started grunting, ‘The Bull! The Bull! The Bull!’.”

* The Richard Harris International Film Festival runs in Limerick city, Friday, Dec 6 — Sunday, Dec 8. Further information: richardharrisfilmfestival.com.

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