Monday , September 28 2020
HBO Films' adaptation of The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

“Aren’t you Peter Sellers?” “Not Today!”

If Roger Lewis’ show biz bio is to be believed, The Life And Death of Peter Sellers were hollow things, indeed. As portrayed by Geoffrey Rush in Stephen Hopkins’ HBO telemovie the brilliant British comic actor was less than the sum of his characters: it’s telling that the one figure he felt the most affinity to was the hero of Being There – a project that the actor pushed to get lensed, we’re meant to see, because Sellers envied Chauncey Gardiner’s emotion-free blankness.
Despite a rollicking cartoon opening meant to recall brightly colored sixties era comedies (done to the bellowing strains of Tom Jones’ “What’s New, Pussycat?”), Life And Death is pretty grim fare: Portrait of The Artist as An Empty Vessel. Reared by his grotesque show biz mama (Miriam Margolyes, looking as ever like a John Tenniel caricature) into infantile pursuit of perpetual self-gratification (“Peter always got the last cake,” his father sez in monologue, “even off someone else’s plate!”), Rush’s Sellers is never so appealing as when he’s playing one of his comic creations. Even when he’s within his family, the actor regularly retreats into a series of funny accents and poses. Stripped of all his covers, he’s an abusive spoiled brat.
Director Hopkins and book adapters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely work overtime to capture the living contradiction was Sellers, though it’ll probably come as no surprise to anyone that a gifted comedian could be an overly needy ass in real life. Hopkins sprinkles 60’s confectionary imagery throughout to contrast with the messiness of Sellers’ personal life, while each of the major figures in his life also gets to walk off the film set and deliver a face-the-camera monologue. In a what th? moment that initially comes across clever but ultimately falls apart by the time it’s used for Sellers’ dying mother, each off-set version of the character is played by Rush-playing-Sellers-playing-the-real-life-person: per the movie, playing dress-up was the only means that Sellers had of controlling the world around him. In one of the movie’s sadder scenes, the comedian is visited by his mater while he’s working on the filming of Dr. Strangelove. The whole time the two visit, Sellers, dressed as the title character, refuses to break out of his German accent as he delivers veiled insults to his mother. When later asked how her visit with Peter went, Ma Sellers responds, “I don’t know. I didn’t see him.”
As the Sellers, Rush (no mean chameleon, himself) is an inspired casting choice, even if he does look a bit too full in the face in spots. The rest of the cast is fine, though as someone who once had a big ol’ Sophia Loren poster on his dorm wall, I didn’t quite accept Sonia Acquino as the Italian actress. John Lithgow has crisp fun overplaying Blake Edwards, Sellers’ most successful long-term collaborator, while Stanley Tucci recreates soft-spoken control-freak Stanley Kubrick in a more subdued mode. Both directors find themselves victimized by Sellers’ erratic off-camera behavior: in the latter case, the actor ducks out of playing a fourth role in Dr. Strangelove by passive-aggressively “spraining” his leg (Slim Pickens’ll forever be indebted to this act!), while in the former, Sellers indulges in a squirmingly prolonged unplanned “roast” of director Edwards at the premiere party for a Pink Panther film. Of the many women in his life (Sellers was married four times – though we only meet two of ’em – and was not averse to sixties-style “swinging” either), Emily Watson and Charlize Theron play familiar roles as first wife, Anne, and second spouse Brett Eckland, respectively. Theron’s Eckland gets a strong fight scene with Rush (as egomaniacal-sized photos of the two actors look down on the proceedings), but it’s divine sufferer Watson who most sticks with you.
Like most movie bios, Life And Death can’t help but raise questions about just how true it all is, though to their credit, both writers and director encourage this by throwing their own filmmaking artifice in the viewer’s face. In one moment, for instance, a post-Strangelove Sellers has a dream patterned after the ending of 2001, with the comedian surrounded by visions of all the characters he’s played. In another, what we first take to be a conversation in a moving car turns out to be a movie car with rear screen projection.
For me, Life And Death best works the closer we get to the actor and the movies he made. We learn, for instance, that he was not Blake Edwards’ first choice to play that most-enduring character, Inspector Clouseau, and that he was offered this star-making role only after Peter Ustinov turned it down. At first reacting to the offer as if being given “sloppy seconds,” Sellers sniffs that the title Pink Panther “sounds like a bloody strip club!” On the set of the big-budget disaster, Casino Royale, the actor initially refuses to play any of his “characters,” instead portraying one of the movie’s multiple James Bonds straight. When this inevitably fails, he retreats to Clouseau-ian pratfalls.
Unfortunately, the movie most hedges its bets when it comes to actually detailing Sellers’ comic craft. Though it’s clear from so much of the unfunny material surrounding his scenes in ensemble flicks like the first Pink Panther or Royale that the comedian’s gift for improv lifted many a movie, the degree to which this was true is never clearly examined. (Why no reference to Blake Edwards’ The Party, a comedy that was supposed to be primarily improvised? Is it because the movie isn’t very good?) Even if it is true that the key to Sellers’ ability to inhabit so many great comic characters resided in his barrenness as an actual human being, that doesn’t really get to the core of his success as a movie comedian. If only Hopkins’ bio flick had focused just a little bit more on this most enduring part of the Life of Peter Sellers. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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