Roles of a Lifetime

HBO's The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

Inspector Jacques Clouseau. Chance Gardiner. Dr. Strangelove, Lionel Mandrake, and President Merkin Muffley. All these memorable characters and a score more were the cinematic personas of a man who himself suffered from an almost complete lack of coherent identity: Peter Sellers of Pink Panther fame. The Life and Death of Peter Sellers , an HBO Films/BBC Films movie airing this Sunday night on HBO (Dec. 5, 9pm), gives a heart-wrenching and occasionally disturbing window into the life and times of the emotionally wounded, perpetually restless actor behind some of cinema’s most famous characters. With a star-filled cast and quirky, unconventional direction by Stephen Hopkins, the film guides viewers through Sellers’ life from his first movie role to his untimely death of a heart attack at the age of 54 in 1980.

Written for the screen by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers
is based on a 1994 biography of Sellers by Roger Lewis, a former editor of Punch, the legendary British satirical magazine. Lewis concluded, not without some controversy and objections from Sellers’ family, that Sellers’ comedy and bizarre personal life were both expressions of a borderline insanity. As played by Geoffrey Rush, Sellers in the film is not so much insane as he is crippled. Disabled inhibitions, delusions of grandeur and pathological deviance seemed to rule the personality of the erstwhile star, and Rush portrays Sellers as by turns ruthless and coldhearted then sentimental and vulnerable.

Geoffrey Rush does not bear any great resemblance to Sellers; in truth, he looks more like Phil Hartman playing Peter Sellers. However, his versatility allows him to portray Sellers’ many characterizations so skillfully that the sheer elasticity that marked Sellers’ roles comes across to a remarkable degree. Similarly, Emily Watson’s portrayal of Sellers’ unflappable first wife and only real emotional touchstone throughout his life is brilliant throughout.

No one exposed to comic performance or Hollywood’s cinematic culture should be surprised that broad physical comedy and farcical characterizations are often both a mask for and the result of severe personal pathology. Indeed, in many ways we have come to expect that those who make us laugh the loudest have suffered the most, as evidenced in recent decades by the haunted personal lives of Chris Farley, Andy Kaufman, Lenny Bruce, and countless others. All were tortured men who used comedy and play-acting as an outlet for their personal suffering and as a source of affirmation.

But Peter Sellers’ demons were unusually cruel. He was himself fond of pointing out that without a character to play he had no real personality of his own to possess, and the film repeatedly portrays Sellers reverting to comedy as an escape mechanism. He became one of a thousand personas every time he was confronted with pain or conflict. The most disturbing example of this habit is portrayed when Sellers’ young son scratches Dad’s beloved car: Sellers storms into the house and stomps on the shocked child’s toys, only to retreat into play-acting and buffoonery later in an attempt to disarm his wife’s wrath.

Throughout four marriages (only two are depicted in Life and Death ) and countless affairs, Sellers ran through personal relationships and professional partnerships with reckless abandon, always seeking the happiness that, the viewer is constantly reminded, was robbed from him by an overbearing mother who fulfilled her own dreams and ambitions through Sellers’ fame. Because the story begins with Sellers as a married man with two children, we see nothing of Sellers’ childhood other than a few wry “off-screen” comments by his mother and father, so the pair interact entirely as adults. The lack of overly dramatized or portentous scenes from Sellers’ childhood make the film stand out in many ways from the standard made-for-television biopic—the viewer is plunged immediately into the action.

Hopkins’ direction lacks subtlety at points: I suspect most viewers will have gotten the point that Sellers’ mother badly wounded him long before his second wife (Britt Eklund, played by Charlize Theron) smashes him over the head with a portrait of, yes, his mother. Nevertheless, the film-within-a-film format, with characters occasionally leaving the action to speak to the fourth wall, allows him to fill in biographical detail and characterization that might otherwise prove too clumsy or plodding for the fast-paced narrative.

Life and Death ends before Sellers finally succumbs to the
heart trouble that plagued him in what should have been his middle age, and the film’s conclusion offers no real climax: we are left only with a bewildered Sellers literally out in the cold, finished as an actor and as a man. It is a fitting and clever touch, because it is an honest portrayal of Sellers’ ultimate fate: dying too soon, recognized even in life as a comic genius who fell short of his potential, he remained a mystery to himself and to others to the very end.