HBO Films presents The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, a kaleidoscopic look inside the unquiet mind of Peter Sellers (Geoffrey Rush, Pirates of the Caribbean). Despite his phenomenal success as an international film star, his comic virtuosity belied a troubled private life plagued by self-loathing, insecurity and abusive behavior. The film peers behind the facades of his many characters to expose the one that the legendary comedic actor never revealed to the public, himself.
The Life and Death of Peter Sellers 7.0
eyelights: its unpolished look at Sellers.. Rush’s multi-part performance. the awesomeness of the cast.
eyesores: the superficial overview of Sellers’ life. the miscasting of the actors.
Peter Sellers: “I don’t really have any personality of my own. There used to be a me behind the mask but I had it surgically removed.”
I’m a pretty big Peter Sellers fan. Even though He’s been in an untold number of terrible films, when his films are good they’re bloody fantastic, and when he’s at his best, he’s formidable. I can’t really put my finger on it, but there’s just something about him that I connect with, that makes me want to watch him in action.
It was maybe 15 years ago that I started to get my sense of humour back, after years of grimness that had taken the life out of my eyes quasi-permanently. At first, however, I had to recondition myself to humour: even the Pink Panther movies couldn’t make me laugh anymore – I would just blankly sit there, wondering how I’d once found these corny pictures hilarious.
But as I massaged my funny bone, and I began to see the light: the Pink Panther films were actually terribly funny, and it was mostly on account of Peter Sellers’ performance! And thus it was that I started to explore his filmography, getting my hands on anything he was even remotely featured in, including old tapes and TV documentaries. To me, Sellers was a godsend.
So it goes without saying that, when I discovered that ‘ The Life and Death of Peter Sellers’ had been released on DVD (I had no idea it had even been produced and already aired on TV!), I absolutely had to get my hands on it. I knew that, being a TV movie, it would likely be inaccurate in some areas, but I wanted to know a little bit more about this comic genius, about the man behind the icon.
Little did I know that, beneath the veneer, one would find such a troubled man.
‘The Life and Death of Peter Sellers’ is based on the book by academic and journalist Roger Lewis, who has also penned biographies of Laurence Olivier and Anthony Burgess. I have no idea how accurate it is, but it is said to be controversial – although my superficial searches couldn’t substantiate these claims. Honestly, I would have to expect that there is some truth to the material or else there would have been attempts by Sellers’ estate and/or his family to halt its release.
The portrait of Peter Sellers that the TV movie paints is of a mercurial, abusive person with the emotional needs and tools of a child. For those of us who know him through his comedy, this can be shocking: who would imagine such a zany, hilarious man as dark-hearted, if not utterly mad? But when one considers his comment about not having a personality of his own, when one looks at his more serious output, such ‘Being There‘ and ‘Hoffman’, one can see that there were ripples under the surface.
Geoffrey Rush has the fortune of incarnating Sellers for ‘Life and Death’. At first glance, it’s hard to imagine Rush in the role, due to his morphology being rather different from Sellers’. Thankfully, not unlike Hopkins in ‘Nixon’, Rush manages to breathe into the part the essence of Sellers; while he may not look exactly right, one can imagine Sellers in his place – it’s just that one has to take a mental distance from his appearance. Frankly, his delivery was such that his portrayal of the genesis of Inspector Clouseau had me convulsing with laughter. He also got to play many other characters, as he broke the fourth wall and gave us extra background material. That must have been not just a challenge, but a gas for him to do.
Despite the coup of getting Rush for the lead, the casting for this movie was unusual to say the least. Not only was Geoffrey Rush chosen in spite of his appearance, but this seemed to be a recurring theme throughout the production: all the celebrities that I recognized in this TV movie (and likely even the ones I didn’t) were played by people who didn’t look one bit like them – and often barely acted the part. Blake Edwards? WRONG! Britt Ekland? WRONG! Stanley Kubrick? WRONG! Sophia Loren? WRONG! Spike Milligan? WRONG! Even Sellers’ kids we’re wrong, in that they didn’t age one bit for a long stretch of Sellers’ life. Veeeeery weird.
Of the whole lot, only Charles Niven was okay – and we saw him for such a short time that it really was impossible to say for sure. Don’t get me wrong: I love Lithgow, and he was a highlight of the picture, but he doesn’t look like Blake Edwards one bit; I think that Charlize Theron is luscious, but she certainly doesn’t resemble Britt Ekland (plus she can actually act, unlike Ekland!); Stanley Tucci is always a delight, but he looks nothing like Stanley Kubrick – so when he shows up, at first we think it’s a more sinister encounter. I don’t know what the casting director was going for, but it certainly wasn’t cinema vérité!
I suppose that someone decided that the important thing in ‘The Life and Death of Peter Sellers’ (aside from attracting stars irrespective of their appearances for marketing reasons) was to be true to the heart of Sellers’ life, to highlight his torments and tragic flaws – that details weren’t so significant in the grand scheme of things. If this is the case, then I can appreciate the intention and end result: whatever this film is, it isn’t a carbon copy, linear appreciation of Sellers’ life – it really does focus on his tortured soul and the impact that it has had on the people around him, including family, friends, and colleagues.
It was heartbreaking to watch him abuse his children verbally and emotionally (for instance, by telling them that he didn’t love them as much as he did Sophia Loren!), or even throw terrifying tantrums when they did something displeasing; they likely needed years of therapy.. From this account, Sellers seemed lost, like a child in an adult body; he comes off like a spoiled, eager brat throughout. He obviously intensely craved some sort of salve for his heart, as well as approbation; it was as though he sought meaning in his life. Sellers claimed not to have a personality, and perhaps there was truth in that – he may have been a frightened little boy who’d lost his way.
It was astounding to see just how much he got pushed to succeed by his mom, without whom we get the impression that he would have caved in and never made it in the business. She always had him pursue his goals and try harder. And yet, from his father’s perspective, she doted on Peter, giving him everything he ever wanted – to the detriment of everyone else. In this movie, their relationship is portrayed as uncomfortably close: Peter calls his mom by her first name and they are joined at the hip. It may have been difficult for him to piece together the enormous love she had for him and the tremendous pressure she put him under. Perhaps this explains his fragmentation.
‘The Life and Death of Peter Sellers’ skips over many details along the way, including the massive health issues that he suffered from from the mid-’60s onward; while one of his heart attacks is highlighted, the numerous other issues barely get a mention (for instance, he was apparently so weak by the time he and Edwards filmed The Pink Panther Strikes Again‘ that he needed a stand-in for many his more physical scenes). The film also blends some details along the way, either purposely or out of confusion (it’s hard to say which without having read the book); its clear focus was on the emotional and psychological health of the man behind the laughs.
‘The Life and Death of Peter Sellers’ truly shakes up one’s perception of the icon, one who was loved by millions – it shows us the agony behind all the laughter. Honestly, despite all the horrible things that the film claims, I remain a fan of Peter Sellers: his flair for comedy was unmatched in his time and he has left us a tremendous body of work that, while flawed, has includes some of the finest gems we’ve ever seen. Would I have liked him as a person? Likely not. But I do feel for him in some ways; he sought something that he never found in his lifetime: himself – and, consequently, inner peace. May you now rest in peace, Peter.
Businessman on Plane: “Excuse me, but aren’t you Peter Sellers?”
Peter Sellers: “Not today.”
Date of Viewing: February 2, 2013