On Friday, I finally got to see The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.
If you don’t know, I’m a Peter Sellers nut, and probably have about 15 of his films on video or DVD (plenty more to go…), plus lots of audio. I openly acknowledge that (a) a huge percentage of his output, or his directors’ output perhaps, was dreck (b) he was a complete shit of a person. But.
In many ways it’s a good film, though by no means a great one. Good things, of course, include a very plucky performance by Geoffrey Rush, and a great supporting cast, and some game quirks such as the bits where various people in Sellers’ life transmute into Rush (an attempt to capture the spirit of all those films where Sellers, and Alec Guinness (his hero) before him, played numerous roles) and talk to camera. But.
Rush frequently captures the mannerisms of Sellers well, and if you squint, you can see the man. He also has a good pop at some silly voices, but at heart I think he’s the wrong man for this job (who the right man is, I don’t know, or modesty forbids ho ho). His normal voice, for one thing, is far too deep and growly – Sellers had a very hard voice to capture, and distinctive largely for its nondescript quality (with an affected twang of the d?racin?), in the same way that the ‘ordinary’ voice of someone like Rory Bremner is, well, ordinary. I could never quite let go of it being Rush, alas (plus no amount of prosthesis can disguise Rush’s glaciated face).
And the mugging to camera – why? If you’re going to have an element like that in your film, surely the point is to ‘stylise’ the subject’s life in some way, with some ‘theory’ to interpret their behaviour. No such theory was ever offered, really, even in the relationship with his mother Peg, which was only sketched with the broadest brush. Sellers’ family music hall background was ignored.
It seems the whole aim of this film (it must have been secretly backed by bitter Blake Edwards) was simply to say ‘Peter Sellers was a complete shit’. It’s absolutely true that he treated everyone in his life badly in one way or another, but the film never attempts to engage in any depth with why this might be, and the idea of him as a ‘child-man’ is nodded at without any sense of making it a real way to think of him. As ever, the real Peter Sellers remains elusive.
What saddens me most, really, is that for all its accuracy in biography and the extreme and appalling moments of selfishness in his life, the film fails to capture the positive side of him at all. It showed audiences smiling happily at his performances, but failed to make its own audience smile as they could have done. There is no sense in which this film is a celebration of Sellers’ remarkable talent.
So, er, anyway. I think it *is* a good film, but clearly created in a spirit of loathing for its subject. Contrast Man in the Moon, another biopic of an intensely irritating, selfish and demanding comedian, which nevertheless makes you go away with sympathy and a smile.
But for general readers, the entertainment lay in the fact that the sound went two-thirds of the way through watching it, in Oxford’s remarkable Ultimate Picture Palace, closely followed by the picture, leaving 12 people (count ’em) looking around the auditorium, at each other, and at glimpses of a white haired old gent in the projection room, somewhat baffled. The owner of the cinema has completely disappeared. I took the opportunity to annoy H with a couple of public Clouseau gags, and shone my bike light up at the projection room. Eventually the owner appeared and the film was rewound to the wrong place, then back to the right place for us to watch loads of it again, and eventually we got to see all of it, if not quite in the order intended. Marvellous.