The Life and Death of Peter Sellers
2004Director: Stephen Hopkins
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Charlize Theron, Emily Watson, John Lithgow
or a man whose self-evincing status as a nonentity allowed him to sublimate personalities in defiance of self-preservation, Peter Sellers stands out as the quintessential working actor turned star. Unable to rely on the iconic good looks were the calling cards of his costars, he rose to fame on his emptiness, capitalizing on considerable talent, voiding his ego to assume what for his peers would be staggering, if not debilitating, roles. Buried beneath the dramatis personae was an insecure and fragile child protected by those reassuring, blanketing identities who were seemingly more familiar, and who never judged, and were capable of great things. Despite raging success at home and abroad, Sellers, crippled by the internal conflict of his ambition and aimless jealousy, suffered from nagging self doubt and a damning contempt for his family and closest friends, who melted away in later years. A series of divorces left nothing for his heirs, and Sellers ended up dying alone at his home in Switzerland.
Director Stephen Hopkins introduces us to Sellers at a happier time, or at least a quieter one. The film starts with Sellers performing as part of the radio troupe “The Goons” in a madcap comedy show in which each actor plays several roles. Geoffrey Rush bears an astounding resemblance to Sellers, and from the outset dons and doffs characters like so many hats in a mimetic demonstration of the degrees of separation within Sellers’ Self. Rush’s previous work as madmen and savants lends an easy grace to his turn as Sellers, whose madness and brilliance often commingled. Although we witness Sellers first as a performer and family man, Rush gradually accretes Sellers’ mania with an all-consuming gravity, and those once touching moments wax rancid with polarizing alacrity. Overall, Rush plays Sellers as warm and wounded, a man whose innocence is undone by his mercurial rise to international renown.
Lest it already resonate as another hackneyed biopic destined for acclaim and cult status, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, like American Splendor and All That Jazz before it, attempts to place its main character at the mercy of his peers, rather than elevate him as a singular, faulted genius whose early demise is all too tragic. Absent are the incessant winking assurances that the subject was indeed a genius, something that beset Man on the Moon and ruined its credibility as a retelling of Andy Kaufman’s life. In fact, Life and Death in many ways combines elements from the best of its genre, employing behind-the-scenes documentary techniques to explicate the narrative, and a fanciful psychedelic montage connecting Sellers’ cardiac arrest as homage to Bob Fosse’s autobiographical landmark. By avoiding a hagiographical treatment and the cloying sentimentality that dooms so many of his ilk, Rush acquits himself with a believably understated performance which to a lesser actor would occasion the sort of scenery chewing reserved for Jim Carrey or Mike Myers.
But it wouldn’t be enough to play just Sellers, or Sellers and all the characters he played throughout the course of his career. Hopkins draws out several tangential moments in which Rush plays Sellers’ father, mother, and wife, as well as a scene-stealing moment as Stanley Kubrick among others, typically following heated exchanges. In these scenes Rush speaks directly into the camera and fleshes out Sellers as others saw him, communicating an ontological problem Sellers could never resolve: that despite understanding his psychical and metaphysical selves, he never completely inhabited himself as a human being, at once generous and cruel, rotten with the complexities and contradictions that are the stuff of existential malaise and the source of his deep-seated torment. Wracked by the grief and remorse for his life laid waste, Sellers self-medicates with all available stimuli, turning to drinking and drugs to elevate his mood, women and a personal psychic advisor to soothe his ego.
A minor flaw in an alternately enchanting and haunting film is that despite Rush’s aforementioned humility, Sellers’ preeminence reduces the supporting cast to a group of shiny satellites floating in epicyclic stasis. One notable exception is Emily Watson’s delicately nuanced performance as Anne Sellers, whose compassionate performance illustrates the depth and breadth of a scorned wife’s enduring love and a profound understanding as her stability serves to foil Rush’s most rancorous scenes. Sadly, Charlize Theron is underutilized as a breathtaking Britt Ekland, whose own heartbreak is but another tragedy left in Sellers’ wake. We see precious little interaction between Sellers and the caddish but caring Blake Edwards, played by John Lithgow, who moulded Sellers’ international reputation as a comedic performer and cemented his status as a critical favorite. And while it would be difficult to visit every film set and every character lurking in Sellers’ closet, the montage of his later career does little to piece together the fractured fairy tale of his ongoing, tumultuous creative partnership with Edwards other than remind us that it existed.
Perhaps his characters provided what his life didn’t, or couldn’t. If we believe that Sellers lived his life in serial simulacra, and that, once removed, he could enjoy love, friendship, trust, and feel whole, as part of an elaborate scheme to fight loneliness, then in some respect he was spared the pain and anguish that accompanies the lives he didn’t lead.
By: J T. Ramsay
Published on: 2005-02-14