The Life and Death of Peter Sellers
Reviewed in January 2012 / Click Here to Comment
Written on the occasion of Emily Watson's 45th birthday.
Director: Stephen Hopkins. Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Miriam Margolyes, Charlize Theron, John Lithgow, Stephen Fry, James Bentley, Eliza Darby, Peter Vaughan, Stanley Tucci, Sonia Aquino, Alison Steadman, Lance Ellington, Lucy Punch, David Robb, Peter Gevisser, Mona Hammond, Kate Burrell, Henry Goodman, Heidi Klum. Screenplay: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on the book by Roger Lewis).
Twitter Capsule: Zippy scenes but few surprises or ideas. Engaging, but given the choice, take Man on the Moon.

Photo © 2004 HBO Films/BBC Films
Stephen Hopkins's The Life and Death of Peter Sellers remains the last decade's strangest inclusion within the Official Competition at Cannes, which does not imply it's the worst of the entrants, or even a bad movie. Context simply counts for a lot. Sellers has spiff and snazz, but no discernible style, which is the baseline of what you reasonably hope to find in a film chasing the Palme d'or. Sellers is full of concepts, which is no small claim for a movie that reached U.S. audiences on a television platform, even one as distinguished as HBO. Still, concepts are not remotely the same as ideas, much less surprising ideas, and these, too, are hard not to crave once the Croisette is invoked. The informing conceit of the movie, which the proud, perky, deliberately surface-bound script seems to rate as an idea, is that there was no real Peter Sellers. If we're in danger of missing this, though the movie does not pretend to hide the blatancy of its theme or the button-pushing aspect of its dialogue, Peter (Geoffrey Rush) states of Chance the Gardener in Being There that "the main character is a man with no self." He imagines this condition to be "marvelous," especially as someone who also maintains that "there used to be a 'me' behind the mask, but I had him surgically removed." The real Peter Sellers has been quoted as having said this... or would have been quoted as saying it, if there had been a real Peter Sellers. Etc., etc.

I don't dispute that this actor's peculiar life, gift, and temperament accommodate and even invite this sort of approach. Still, it smells of the tired cop-out, somewhere in the same clubhouse of desiccated phrases as "I love you, but I'm not in love with you" and "In a crazy world, only the mad people are sane." It's a bromide of a structure, quasi-passing as an insight, and in a sense the movie doesn't agree with itself. The impulse to psychologize, to venture bravely "inside" Peter Sellers, has hardly been forestalled in any movie that lards itself up with this much pennywhistle Oedipal psychology. Peter's mommy thought everything he said and did was hilarious, so he never grew up. Peter was in love with Mommy (Miriam Margolyes), whom he called "Peg" his whole life, so his relations with women his own age were pre-emptively stunted; at his wedding to the Nordic goddess Britt Ekland (Charlize Theron), a miraculous catch for someone of Sellers's aspect and mulish arrogance, he nonetheless explains to Peg that he's only hurtling into this high-glamour, low-prospect union because "they won't let me marry you!" Mother and son both find this punchline very charming. Once Peter marries Britt, his warm, practical, but severely exasperated first wife, Anne (Emily Watson), inherits the mantle of maternity such as Peg herself has never comfortably worn, and she is therefore recruited to affirm Peter in all of his decisions, including the one to marry Britt. Anne finds this perplexing, but also suggests a readerly interest in the bizarre graphic novel that is her ex-husband's life. Plus, even when seeking Anne's advice, it's remarkable how little Peter really expects her to say. In any event, although Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's screenplay omits Wives #3 and #4 (though only after Emilia Fox shot a handful of excised scenes as the controversial last one), it attempts a double-helix of psychobiography and radical anti-subjectivity. Each strand makes for some punchy scenes but they don't get along with each other all that well, and they give off a similar odor of old news. Amidst these old self-help saws of the bad mommy, the good mommy, the arrested child, the absentee dad, the impulse shopper, the drug-taker, the pathological liar, and the pathological truth-teller, one is tempted to tear a page from Tess Ocean's book and remind the filmmakers, "He also acted, occasionally."

Then again, one could not accuse Sellers of doing no acting in this, the pantomime of his life story. We see Chance, Clouseau, Strangelove, "Bond," Bakshi, President Muffley, and a good deal of the other alter egos we expect to see, although they feel diminished a bit by the familiar biopic cadences. Their introductions are typically preceded by about 60 seconds of signaling to the audience where we are headed, so that we feel both a pride in being one step ahead and a thrill of having the old landmarks reconfirmed as essential facts. Whether movies like this want to illuminate what we don't know or congratulate us for what we do know is often a lingering question. Even less could one accuse Geoffrey Rush of doing no acting, given that he not only has this flamboyant, self-deluding, frequently manic, frequently brilliant boy-child to put forward, but Sellers's other sustained motif has Rush playing Sellers playing almost every other major figure in the movie, one time apiece. He breaks fourth, fifth, and sixth walls, exiting the plywood sets of The Life and Death of Peter Sellers in full costume as his own scene partners, and selling us on some outlandishly pro-Peter gloss on whatever interpersonal travesty we have just seen Peter commit. The first time this happens, in a nimbly handled transition, Rush-as-Sellers inherits the role of his own father, henpecked into silence by his fireplug of a wife, and played by Peter Vaughan, whose agents decided long ago that he should only appear as aged fathers on the verge of heart attack. Eventually, Rush/Sellers takes over Watson's Anne, Margolyes's mama, Stanley Tucci's Stanley Kubrick, John Lithgow's Blake Edwards, and even Stephen Fry's odd role as Peter's spiritual medium-cum-psychotherapist. I already can't remember if Rush steps in as Britt Ekland at any point, which suggests that Geoffrey Rush as a Scandinavian sexpot was a bridge too far either for the filmmakers or for my mental storehouse. It's also symptomatic that this halfway nimble device starts to recede into the film's own wallpaper, calling attention to itself without calling enough attention to anything underneath itself.

Rush's mimicry of fellow performers in these scenes is just close enough to suggest his intent toward imitation, yet sufficiently "off" to suggest a degree of overconfidence. Unsurprisingly, his work as Sellers registers as the most proficient copy of his life-model, and it frankly benefits from an undercurrent of exhibitionistic self-love that permeated a lot of Rush's work for the decade or so after Shine made him globally famous. So why doesn't he click more in this show-boaty role? I can't fairly attribute any of the most likely pitfalls: he doesn't come on stronger than he should, he doesn't fuss too much over mimetic detail, he doesn't start at such a high pitch that there's no room for modulation when needed. I think the scene-constructions just work against him a bit. Unlike Jim Carrey in Miloš Forman's clever and consistently surprising Man on the Moon, with its long-setup jokes and its supporting cast as plausibly mystified by Andy as we were, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers keeps convincing us of its one-of-a-kind protagonist but sticking him inside dramatic scenarios that feel like cheap plastic containers. We've been to so many of these places before: the one where he bawls at Mom's funeral; the one where he can't believe no one will let him Be Serious; the one where he watches surprisingly edit-heavy home movies on an 8mm projector. (Is every family in every biopic hiding an old Avid in the attic?) During the latter scene, Peter's grown son is overheard leaving an unmistakably screen-written message on Peter's answering machine: "Mum told me about the operation—you know, the pacemaker and everything." This script is rarely that clumsy, but it must have arrived with four dotted lines surrounding a square-shaped blank and a caption that read, INSERT VIRTUOSIC PERFORMANCE HERE. Rush gives that performance, but I felt too much as though I was pulling it out of a carton he'd provided me. The fact that the Cannes jury took in this ambitious, tone-switching, multiple-plate-spinning, justifiably scenery-gobbling turn and conferred their Best Actor prize instead on a 14-year-old Japanese non-professional in a low-key orphan drama feels like a pointed message to send... and without bearing any grudge against Rush's work, I take that point completely.

Two more problems occur to me about these metatheatrical gambits. One is that they strike a false note insofar as Sellers seems in these moments at all preoccupied with what other people in his life must be thinking, even by way of twisting those thoughts into some new shape that flatters him better. Sellers keeps hawking a vision of the actor's exuberant autism, a tendency toward "out of sight, out of mind" thinking so profound that even when Peg lies dying in a hospital he declines to come visit her so that filming on The Party can continue apace—quite regardless of whether The Party actually means anything to him at all. That this man would walk even fifty paces to his generous-sized trailer thinking even a distorted version of someone else's thoughts seems abrasive to the screenplay's conception of the character. The other wrinkle is that The Life and Death of Peter Sellers looks at Sellers's chameleonic gifts for comedy and invests in the chameleonism more than in the comedy. President Merkin Muffley in Strangelove, to take one example, isn't a side-splitting performance because Sellers looks or sounds like someone completely different from himself or from other characters he plays, though all of that is true, but because the vocal pitch, the timing, the physical mien, and the line-readings have got their fingers so squarely on the pulse of banal and terrifying plutocracy, with the nuclear codes dangling inside a limp fist ("Dmitri... Dmitri... I'm ups– I'm upset, too, Dmitri"). If the sounds or the gestures or the carriage weren't funny, Sellers wouldn't do them. So for him, what's the percentage in walking in Kubrick's or Edwards's shoes for even 60 seconds while "they" extol their star's genius, or of stepping into Peg's orthopaedic clodhoppers so that she can march into her coffin? If the percentage is so uncertain for Sellers, then what's the payoff for the movie? Sure, he could ably pull off these semi-disguises, and Rush can, too. But why?

I have to say this for The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, though, even though it reads like an application to the Backhanded Compliment Hall of Fame. As much as I kept wanting to fiddle with the movie's rabbit-ear antennae, in hopes of getting a clearer reception for Sellers's own frequency, I didn't stop playing the angles and checking the picture. A lot of movies, especially biopics, slide so fully into genre or into flaunty mirages of "defying" the genre that you just lose faith and wish you were reading a biography. Even more often, I find myself wishing I was off enjoying the art that the movie is allegedly about, instead of this cubic zirconium knockoff. Sellers didn't push those buttons for me. Though not a dexterous exercise in filmmaking, it still has fun with its medium and feels at all times like the filmmakers cared about the project itself, not just the person who inspired it. I keep hearing that the script Markus and McFeely wrote for the recent Captain America reboot was niftier and more genial than almost any of the recent Marvel adaptations, and Sellers bears the same relation to the biopic. It's fleet; it plays. I was never unclear about what wasn't working for me and often felt befuddled by local choices ("I Heard It Through the Grapevine" for an amorous fling?), but I rooted for the movie the way you root for someone's promising second draft.

It helps that there are plenty of peripheral pleasures to counter-balance all the tiny things that go wrong or the bigger structures that bear rethinking. Sonia Aquino didn't remind me of Sophia Loren in the slightest, and she didn't have too much of her own charisma to substitute in its place, but Charlize Theron breezes you right past her sporadically Swedish accent with her nuanced symphony of naughty fun-girl giggles. Plus, she manages to do that without playing down to Britt's intelligence. She's the charmed and offended and mystified audience for Peter's inimitable marriage proposal—"Would you care to become the second Mrs. Sellers?"—but even if that sounds like the plot of Rebecca, her ego doesn't seem vulnerable to his peculiar carelessness. This is not because she's a narcissist or a hussy, thank God. Without digging deep, exactly, Theron finds plenty of other occasions to sell us on the conflicted emotions of someone with a sufficiently secure sense of self that she doesn't mind an egomaniac who makes her laugh (until he doesn't, and then makes her cry, at which point she starts minding). Emily Watson is similarly effective as Anne, hardly taking our eyes off the limitations in the role but infusing them with an adult's temperament—a sense that Anne is thinking about Peter, not just emotionally reacting to him, as patience-tested wives often seem to do in these movies. I liked that when Peter comes to see her on another solipsistic quest for advice, late in the film, we find her with lightened hair, a few unbuttoned buttons in her shirt, and a casually sexy way of smoking while she gardens, as though she's noticed her ex-hubby's glistening Amazon of a second wife and has felt inspired in a not-at-all-pathetic way to ape Britt's attractive ease with herself. Even when they aren't striking such sly character notes as this, hair and makeup throughout Sellers are pretty peerless, and I'm assuming they sailed to their Emmy wins.

Outside the realm of performance, in a movie this top-heavy with gimmicks, some of the best stuff is quick and peripheral: the delicious use of Strangelove's War Room set for a mother-son lunch, even if it ends with a lamely "thematic" line; the not-quite-facing indigo blow-ups of Peter and Britt that dominate their bedroom; the combination of pride and annoyance that Peg expresses with the era-specific gripe "Both channels," when her son's headline-grabbing heart attack costs her the pleasure of an evening's pleasure in front of her TV. Best of all is a scene of staggering meanness in which Sellers, loathing others even more than he loathes himself, offers a toast at the premiere party for yet another Pink Panther sequel, and he absolutely flays the reputation of director-ally-enabler Blake Edwards. It's not just the fact that he extols Edwards for having gotten further on a modicum of mediocre talent than just about anyone ever had, but that Sellers/Rush refuses to act so drunk as he says this that the sentiment plays as totally alcohol-fueled. The attack, too aggressive to be passive-aggressive, discomfits the onscreen audience but sure perked me up, and not just because it brings Lithgow's unconvincingly turned-on effigy of Edwards into sharper, clearer focus for just a second.

This sadistic avatar of Sellers As Truth-Speaker is a bleakly funny asset to the movie on multiple occasions, a blood-drawing pistol where we've come to expect a pop-gun. In an earlier scene, as he's walking out on Anne and their two small children, he answers his daughter's inevitable questions about whether he still loves them with the line, "Of course Daddy still loves you and Mommy... just not as much as he loves Britt Ekland." Such harrowing candor is also quite darkly funny, because Sellers delivers it in a fruity, adults-talking-to-children tone. Why does his larynx know to soften the same blow that his mind has honed to such a serrated edge? Or is he just being perverse for the hell of it—his unique version of cauterizing the wound of divorce? Anne, after all, does something similar (but leaves the kids out of it) when she's worried Peter will try to make up to her, and she has to tell him how much she hates him, even if she doesn't, just to make sure that they'll both go their separate ways. Which, of course, neither of them fully does.

These momentary jolts and glimmers of interest make The Life and Death of Peter Sellers an engaging, Emmy-friendly watch, two-dimensional but not fully disposable. You have to suppress any sense of what it must have been like to see this projected in the Grand Palais, and cease imagining what on earth Tilda Swinton and Tsui Hark could have said about it while holding it up in their jurors' quarters against The Holy Girl and Tropical Malady. The final beats, after the memorably weird sendoff the movie provides to this very cold man, incorporate an unwieldy handful of P.S.-style captions on a hodgepodge of subjects: Peter died less than a year after losing the Oscar for his comeback project. He hurt his children deeply by leaving everything in his will to that fourth wife we never met. A Fu Manchu B-movie was of all things his final picture. When he died, the only picture in his wallet was of Anne. This spray of information betrays a notable lack of clarity about just which tidbits the film has set us up to care about. I can report a lukewarm interest in all of it, but also a sense that all these darts fell about equidistantly from an imaginary bulls-eye that very little in the movie had come close to hitting, and which no one may have known exactly where to hang. That's better, still, than a lot of movies that feel like they've got no target to hit. Better, too, than a lot of biopics, which land every toss because the target is as vast as a barn door (she suffered, and from that suffering, she made art!), and because the sense of surrounding space is so obliterated by the embrace of unquestioned convention. This movie has margins, and it colors them brightly, sometimes more brightly than what's actually inside the lines. The Life and Death of Peter Sellers has, in this way, an identity. I just wish it weren't so seduced by the truism that its incorrigibly role-playing subject had none. I wish the movie had made some bolder, more consistent choices about how to penetrate that identity, or about how to confront its very evasiveness. Grade: C+

Emmy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best TV Movie or Miniseries
Best Director (Movie/Miniseries): Stephen Hopkins
Best Actor (Movie/Miniseries): Geoffrey Rush
Best Supporting Actress (Movie/Miniseries): Charlize Theron
Best Casting (Movie/Miniseries): Nina Gold
Best Screenplay (Movie/Miniseries): Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Best Cinematography (Movie/Miniseries): Peter Levy
Best Art Direction (Movie/Miniseries): Norman Garwood, et al.
Best Costume Design (Movie/Miniseries): Jill Taylor & Charlotte Sewell
Best Film Editing (Movie/Miniseries): John Smith
Best Main Title Design: Andrew White, John Sunter, Paul Donnellon, and David Z. Obadiah
Best Sound Mixing (Movie/Miniseries): Simon Kaye, Rich Ash, and Adam Jenkins
Best Sound Editing (Movie/Miniseries): Tim Hands, et al.
Best Visual Effects (Movie/Miniseries): Joe Pavlo, et al.
Best Makeup, Prosthetic (Movie/Miniseries): Wesley Wofford & Davy Jones
Best Hairstyling (Movie/Miniseries): Veronica McAleer, Enzo Angileri, and Ashley Johnson

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best TV Movie/Miniseries
Best Actor (TV Movie/Miniseries): Geoffrey Rush
Best Supporting Actress (TV Series/Movie/Miniseries): Charlize Theron
Best Supporting Actress (TV Series/Movie/Miniseries): Emily Watson

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