The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

Rush_peter_sellersComedians are a notoriously miserable lot, or so goes the pop-culture legend. Crying on the inside, they face the lights and transmute their private agonies into pratfalls. The specimen we meet in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, one of HBO’s usual iconoclastic biopics, is a hollow man to himself and others, an ingenious chameleon who has no true face. In this telling — based on a book by Roger Lewis — Sellers, who rose to international fame as Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther series, was an impossible narcissist, mama’s boy, and all-around case of arrested development. Given to lavish displays of atonement as well as rage, such as buying his little boy a pony after smashing the child’s toys, Sellers railed against his surfeit of onscreen personality by sabotaging his own. He may have felt that no one wanted him — just him with an accent, a fake nose.

The movie itself, directed by Stephen Hopkins (Lost in Space) in a rather extreme change of pace, deals in the expected psychotherapy (it’s all Mama’s fault) and inevitably functions as a shallowly telescoped portrait of a thirty-year career. Some attention is paid to Sellers’ virtuoso three-character work in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Tucci drops in for a sly turn as Kubrick), none at all given to Lolita, Sellers’ prior film for Kubrick. Roughly half the film documents Sellers’ tempestuous marriage to Britt Ekland (Charlize Theron, gratefully glamming back up after Monster), but forgets about his subsequent two wives and gives his first one (gamely rendered by Emily Watson) little more than a bit role.

As a showcase for Geoffrey Rush, though, Life and Death is more than worthwhile. A fellow chameleon, though presumably sounder of mind, Rush takes on the formidable task of mimicking Sellers’ best-known roles — Clouseau, Strangelove — and does spooky justice to the source. Physically, Rush shares Sellers’ broad-shouldered knack for knockabout comedy, and though the 53-year-old Rush doesn’t look much like the Sellers of the Goon Show/Ealing Studios years (where the movie begins), he grows into Sellers’ face the older Sellers gets, and by the time Sellers nabs his dream role in Being There the resemblance is startling. Even before then, from certain angles Rush is an uncanny dead ringer. Looks aren’t everything, though, and the performance wouldn’t work if Rush couldn’t paint a coherent picture of an often incoherent man. (The movie should’ve been called Nowhere Man.)

Driven to success by his fear of an anonymous life in a London flat changing diapers, and resentful of success when it came, Sellers seems never to have heard the maxim “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.” Money troubles force him to glue on the Clouseau mustache again; he gets royally pissed at the wrap party and insults Pink Panther director Blake Edwards (John Lithgow, who has not been credible in a wig for at least a decade, but triumphs with one of his warmer, saner performances). Brushes with mortality push Sellers to realize his long-coveted role as the aptly-named Chance in Being There; Sellers’ near-fatal first coronary allows director Hopkins his most inspired moment, when Sellers, ever the narcissist, is haunted by all his film characters, a Scrooge visited by himself.

Still, at the end of the lumpy two hours, one questions the point of the tale. This is a man who looks into a mirror (as the soundtrack breaks out David Bowie’s welcome but too-on-the-nose “Space Oddity”) and sees nothing — how can you dramatize that? The filmmakers try, and Rush performs heroically, but what we’re left with is a cluttered pastiche of an unhappy life. It’s not Hopkins’ fault thatCitizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard were there first (talk about hard acts to follow — particularly when re-enacting Strangelove), and he does get some clever use out of a device in which Sellers plays various figures in his life (sadly, we don’t get Geoffrey Rush in a blonde wig doing his best Charlize Theron). The Life and Death of Peter Sellers will be talked about primarily for Rush’s various transformations, but — except for a beautifully evocative final frame of Sellers alone on a snowy street — it can’t do much to suggest Sellers’ inner drama or explain why we’re spending an evening with this mercurial wretch.

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