Judge Brett Cullum warns you that the minkey has a boem.
Peter Sellers: Can't I have your support?
Peter Sellers set the bar for madcap clown comics in his films, especially when he was teamed with director Blake Edwards in The Pink Panther films, as Inspector Clouseau. As much as I enjoyed his work in film, I never knew what a troubled and complex person he was in real life. Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean) takes on the icon in a stunning HBO film appropriately titled The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. It's a stylish biopic filled with celebrities and a gorgeous reproduction of the time Sellers lived and worked. HBO Films certainly made this look like a big-screen picture; there is little evidence that it actually was made for premium cable television. The only hitch is this: Sellers was such an unlikable twat that you may not find yourself entertained by anything other than the big-budget recreations of some famous Sellers routines. Can the actors save it?
Facts of the Case
The Life and Death of Peter Sellers chronicles the entire career of the famous actor, from his early radio days right up to his death at age 54. It's got a healthy running time of two hours, but still feels a little rushed, cramming an eventful lifetime into a single picture. We see his ups and—most poignantly—his downs. We see two of Sellers' three marriages, and get to see what he was like in his personal life. Surprisingly, he was a bitter, mean man who often mercilessly abused the people around him. That's the biggest revelation here, and it looms large over the entire film.
My father introduced me to Peter Sellers, mainly through his dead-on impersonations of the mangled Clouseau accent so famous from Sellers' films. He would often walk in the door after work and ask me "Have I any massages? What are you doing with that minkey?" Dad would also give this film treatment a stamp of approval for picking Charlize Theron (Monster) to play Britt Eckland (Sellers' second wife). My father thinks Charlize is the hottest thing on the planet right now. He's got good taste. Theron is perfectly cast in the film, and she is strikingly beautiful. The whole cast is quite remarkable. Stanley Tucci (Road to Perdition) embodies Stanley Kubrick for all the Dr. Strangelove sequences. Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves) plays Anne, Sellers' first wife, who left in a huff after Sellers lusted after Sophia Loren (Sonia Aquino, Eden). Stephen Fry (Otto in Beetlejuice) shows up in a hilarious turn as the studio-bribed psychic advisor who kept pushing Peter to accept more Pink Panther roles. They all turn in dynamic performances that do justice to their real-life counterparts.
But the film belongs to one man alone—Geoffrey Rush. He took home a Golden Globe for this performance—and had it been released theatrically, surely he would have been an Oscar contender as well. Jamie Foxx was perfect as Ray Charles in Ray, but Rush does an impeccable job here as well. There are some shots when I swore I was looking at the real thing. Rush always maintains a truth to his performance—here, he reaches deep down and proves his Oscar win in 1997 (for Shine) was no fluke or passing fancy. He's a consummate actor who takes on Sellers in many guises and roles. Not only does he recreate Sellers' famous film characters, but at certain points he assumes the guise of Anne, his mother, Blake Edwards, his dad, and a doctor treating him for his multiple heart attacks. It's a tour de force of a performance; one that would be enough to recommend the film on its own. It's a tough role, too, since Peter Sellers really only lived on screen. How do you play a man who was a blank slate until someone told him who to be? Sellers was a flirt and charming, but he was also prone to violent outbursts and insane rages. Rush has played many multi-faceted men in his career, like his brilliant turn as de Sade in Quills, but here he is asked to play someone who is never truly defined by anything other than his work. He's well up to the task, and turns in some of his best work here. He's a great actor, and here's the proof.
At the heart of the film are several questions. Can you forgive an artistic temperament when it is so out of control? Sellers abuses anyone and everyone who crosses his path. Spouses, children, directors, and co-stars all suffer at his talented but cruel hands. Also interesting is the way a good sense of humor makes a man so sexy. Why did Britt Eckland marry Sellers? Because he was such a lark and funny to be with. Too bad she found out too late that he was also abusive, both verbally and physically. Peter Sellers was complex as hell—why is it that the world's clowns are always the most tragic figures offstage? Look at Andy Kaufman, Jim Carrey, or any major modern day comedian to find a tragic tale of sadness behind the comic guise. It must be true when they say that all clowns are crying on the inside.
The style of the film is wicked and psychedelic. It's linear, but there are tons of fantasy sequences and strange turns that will disorient you for a few minutes. The soundtrack is a well-mixed collection of songs from the '60s and '70s, and Tom Jones hits. The style and the sounds work like gangbusters to make the film a joy to watch and listen to. It's a well-made piece, and it does the job of creating a believable world with the right amount of fantasy. Whimsy and tragedy are administered in equal doses, and it has a lot going on at every level. You have a nuanced cast, acting on well-designed sets, backed up with some solid cinematography.
The transfer to DVD is smooth. Being such a new film, there are no artifacts like dirt to distract you. Colors pop and seem to be rendered well. Bleeding is kept at bay, and edge enhancement is hardly there at all. Both audio tracks are strong, and I really enjoyed the 5.1 track. Plenty of extras, too. The deleted scenes are not just wasted outtakes, but rather nice-looking completed sequences that flesh out the movie, and probably should have by all rights been left in. They fill in some holes in the story, and it's nice to have them here. There are two commentaries present, both chock-full of information about the material and process. Geoffrey Rush and director Stephen Hopkins (mainly known as the director of 24) discuss why they made the choices they did, and talk a lot about Peter Sellers. Next up are screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely who recount even more anecdotes about their subject. Both tracks are talky and informative. There is also a featurette on the making of the film, which features interviews with the entire cast. It goes beyond mere fluff to give you a pretty decent look at the project.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With all this high praise you might think I feel the film is perfect. Well, it's not entirely without faults. First off, and most troubling, Sellers comes across as extremely unlikable. He was a bi-polar twisted mess of a man. It's not easy to watch a man make the same mistakes over and over for two hours and not find it terribly depressing. This is not a really enjoyable film like you might expect, given the silly persona of the subject. It's sobering and depressing, and it's hard to root for Sellers. It's a movie that will taint my vision of the actor anytime I watch one of his films. I applaud the film for its technical proficiency, but it may be a subject best left unexplored. Why do you want to know what an asshole one of the world's funniest performers truly was? And maybe in real life he wasn't this bad. Perhaps the film dwells too much on his shortcomings, and maybe it would have done better to show us a more balanced look at the man.
My other big gripe are the factual errors in the film, and the things about Sellers that they gloss over. I hate the montage approach many biopics take, and boy, do they use it to no end here. Mysteriously, the filmmakers skip his third wife entirely (though you can glimpse her in deleted scenes). They also play fast and loose with the facts, such as in the sequence where Sellers proposes marriage to Eckland. In the film we see him hire a big band, and he drops to his knees and presents her a ring while lip-synching and dancing to "You Make Me Feel Young." Great sequence, and it's so beautiful and fanciful. It's also entirely untrue and out of character. Peter Sellers proposed to Britt Eckland over the phone, because he was afraid she would reject him. He was lavish with her, but not like the movie would have you believe. Again, the film seems heavy-handed to an extreme. The style of the film sometimes overwhelms the material, and takes away from the truth. It makes for a more entertaining movie, but it smacks of revisionism.
I heartily recommend the film on the basis of the cast and the fine performances they turn in. Particularly Geoffrey Rush, who really outdid himself with this movie. Emily Watson is also a stand-out here. It's a dynamite cast doing excellent work. The production itself is handsome and well-crafted. My only gripe is that it becomes a decidedly unflattering portrait of a man who will always be known as a funny genius. Sometimes I just don't want to know that behind the mask there is nothing of any value. It destroys the illusion. I recommend the film, but place a warning that it may make you feel a little weary of this comic genius. I was also shocked that I felt so sad by the end of it. Honestly, I was expecting a better time than this. In the end, it's a little bit of a downer. So be forewarned, and go in looking at the brilliant acting and design.
Guilty of making the world of cinema a little sadder, but also a stunning, haunting portrait of a man who was a complex genius. It's a double-edged sword of a movie that will throw your opinion of Peter Sellers into turmoil. But in the end, that may be what makes The Life and Death of Peter Sellers so brilliant. Highly recommended for fans; a disturbing look into show business for everyone else.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary with Actor Geoffrey Rush and Director Stephen Hopkins
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