We all remember Peter Sellers... or do we? We know the wonderful comedic actor who could blend so well into so many characters. The guy had a thousand voices and played so many different roles, sometimes in the same film. We usually remember him for one of his great roles, like Inspector Clouseau or Dr. Strangelove.
You don't even have to look too deep to see just how versatile he was, just look at his guest appearance on The Muppet Show where he'd create a new identity for himself every scene he appeared in, some weirder than others (like doing an impression of Queen Victoria while wearing a fake beard, a horned helmet, and a boxing glove because he forgot what she looked like). As he himself said on that show, "There is no me, I do not exist. There once was a me, but I had it surgically removed."
But how well do we really know Peter Sellers? We know all his great characters but what about the man himself? Well, that is what The Life and Death of Peter Sellers attempts to address. Beneath all his crazy characters and his sense of humor was a human being, one who had all kinds of difficulties in both his personal and professional life.
The title more or less sums up the movie perfectly (although technically we don't actually see the death of Peter Sellers): this is the story of his career, going from his beginnings in radio programming to his final work as a film actor. We follow his experiences in the production of several of his famous (and infamous) projects including The Pink Panther, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the disastrous 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale which he walked out on mid-production, and finally his dream project Being There.
Through these experiences we see his relationships with cast and crew, such as his brief affair with Sophia Loren, his difficult partnership with Blake Edwards, and the extreme stress he endured when Stanley Kubrick pressed him into playing four different roles as well as how he got out of it. We also his personal life, particularly two of his failed marriages and his efforts to keep in touch with his children along with the increasingly strenuous relationship with his mother.
Geoffrey Rush does a pretty impressive job capturing the role of Peter Sellers. Not only does he have the actor's likeness down but he also makes you feel like you're really watching the man himself and not an actor playing him. There's plenty of instances where Rush even manages to go a few steps further and convincingly play Sellers in character. One of the best instances would have to be when he first adopts his Clouseau persona while on en route to the set, shaving in an airplane lavatory and then proceeding to talk to the Stewardess precisely the way his character would. She is of course completely baffled (since this is happening before the movie came out) but he is spot on with the accent.
The supporting cast is pretty good as well. Stanley Tucci manages to do a reasonable job playing the enigmatic figure of Stanley Kubrick, along with Charlize Theron and Emily Watson playing Sellers' wives. There's plenty of good chemistry to be found throughout in how Geoffrey Rush interacts with the world around him.
The structure of the film gets a bit weirder, though. The first act (largely concerning his first marriage) is a bit slow but fortunately the story picks up once Peter gets his first contract. There is a weird trend in how they convey other people's views on Sellers. What happens is that there are several points in the film where a supporting actor is abruptly replaced by Geoffrey Rush in their clothes, and he proceeds to speak to the camera about how that particular person feels. It's weird but the transformations are actually pretty impressive in that they always appear seamless.
The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is certainly an interesting experience. The movie manages to put a great actor like Sellers into a new perspective, allowing some of his distinguishing comedy to shine through but never shying away from the darker aspects of his life. As strange as it can get it does have a very genuine feel to it. It's certainly worth your time if you're a fan of Sellers and his comedic styles which are replicated almost perfectly.
By the way, has anyone actually seen Being There? After seeing it in this film I'm wondering about giving it a watch. Maybe it would be a good one to put on next year's Blindspot Challenge.