LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS, THE
British comedian Peter Sellers (Geoffrey Rush) was one of The Goons on BBC Radio , a long running madcap series of the 60s. Pushed along by his loving but overbearing mother Peg (Miriam Margolyes), Sellers forces his way into a screen career. This is launched by the unlikely success of his first supporting role in The Pink Panther, directed by Blake Edwards (John Lithgow) who went on to direct Sellers in six more films, in a turbulent relationship that see-sawed between love and hate. His marriage to Anne (Emily Watson) was also destined to fail, as were the other three, including his second to the celebrated Britt Ekland (Charlize Theron). Although he loved pretty women, Sellers could never get a handle on a relationship, which is not surprising since he never got a handle on himself, as he frequently admitted. Whether he was 'an empty vessel' welcoming other characters as required, or a seriously complicated man with border line personality disorders, no-one can say for sure. But he was unique - and never boring. He died in 1980 at 54.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Peter Sellers led a funny, tragic life, which is not unique among great comics. Some say comic genius is close to madness, and perhaps they're right. Sellers, and his fellow Goons Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan, worked the sort of innocent genius comedy that celebrates childish simplicities as if in direct challenge to the evils of an adult world. (It's still being re-run on the BBC; check it out on the bbc.co.uk website.)
In this film, Stephen Hopkins makes use of cinematic tools to not only tell the life story of Peter Sellers, but to give us a whirling approximation of what his mindset may have been. We see Geoffrey Rush morph from playing Sellers to playing his mother, or Blake Edwards or his wife Anne, in fantasy scenes that show Sellers' inner turmoils and wishes.
Hopkins also moves us from one set of realities to another, from one timeframe to the other. Some of these devices are more successfully accomplished than others, in terms of clarity, but then you can argue that clarity was the last thing Sellers possessed. So in that sense, the film gambles with the audience being able to stay tuned, at least in spirit. It's a bravura delivery from Hopkins, who was raised in Australia and made his debut with the locally made thriller, Dangerous Game (1987 - also photographed by Aussie Peter Levy, with whom Hopkins has worked on several projects).
Geoffrey Rush works hard to deliver this convoluted, complicated and self destructive comic actor, and succeeds in every emotional, psychological way. (He had David Helfgott to practice on, after all, in exploring brilliant but edgy humans from the real world.) And even if sometimes the make up/prosthetics is a little distracting, Rush conveys the essential Sellers physicality. This is always a stumbling block for actors, especially when the figure they play is so fresh in the fans' minds.
The supporting cast is truly excellent, from Emily Watson's underplayed Anne to Charlize Theron's precisely observed Britt Ekland and the matronly powered Miriam Margolyes. John Lithgow thrusts a fully functional Blake Edwards into our laps in a performance that does not rely on the recognition factor (how many people in the audience would know Blake Edwards other than by his work?) and Stanley Tucci makes a clever cameo as Stanley Kubrick.
The film is bold, inspired and - far from being awestruck by its subject - shows its genuine affection by an honest, warts and all portrayal that is underpinned by pathos - an essential flipside of the comedy coin.
Review by Louise Keller:
Absorbing and entertaining, yet intensely revealing, The Life And Death of Peter Sellers thrusts us headfirst into the highly complex life of the iconic movie star, comic actor, husband, father and son. In a brilliant portrayal by Geoffrey Rush, we are given a glimpse of the absurd, extravagant, surreal, lonely, tragic life of a comic genius. We glean an insight into Sellers' obsessive relationship with his mother, his extravagances, the excesses and irrational behaviour as he skyrockets to movie superstar.
Often the scenes from Sellers' real life are more bizarre than any from his films. Inhabiting the characters he creates, or becoming possessed by his characters; we watch as he creates his famous bumbling Inspector Clouseau (conceived in a plane as he flies to the set). He is a paradox: a director's nightmare, but endearing, amusing, charming.
In their first screenplay for film, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's intelligent script (from a book by Roger Lewis) focuses on the emotional pivots that make up the man. And director Stephen Hopkins guides us through the highs and lows with great affection, allowing us to not only soar to the dizzy heights of elation, but to also grasp an understanding of the dark demons that possess him. The journey is punctuated with music, using such tunes as Hey Big Spender and Goodness Gracious Me to great effect.
There are no impersonations, but Rush (with wonderful make-up, wigs, prosthetics and costumes) and the impeccable cast manage to remind us of the people concerned. There are moments, I felt, when Rush actually becomes Peter Sellers. It's a wildly demanding role, involving over 40 voices and covering 30 years of emotional havoc and Rush shines brightly - from funny and charming to sulking and irrational. The instance when Rush is physically transformed to portray his mother (and later, director Blake Edwards) is an effective tool to allow Sellers to voice what we already perceive - his guilt and anguish.
The challenge of casting well-known personalities such as Blake Edwards, Stanley Kubrick and Britt Ekland are well and truly met. I especially enjoyed John Lithgow's Blake 'I'm calling the shots' Edwards, while Emily Watson generates compassion as the ever-patient first wife Anne, and Charlize Theron's glamorous, ditzy Swedish bombshell is irresistible. Then there's Stephen Fry's calculating fortune-teller to the stars who makes predictions ('you like pretty ladies') and voluptuous Sonia Aquino as the one and only Sophia Loren. As Peg Sellers, Miriam Margolyes brings pathos as Sellers' ambitious, manipulative mother, who becomes obsessed by Sellers' celebrity ('Why are you making the same mistake again', she asks as he is about to get married a second time. 'Because they won't let me marry you,' he smiles).
A splendid near-final scene showing Sellers hallucinating through the bright, circular light of the operating theatre, when all his characters surround him. We are never sure whether they are taunting him, comforting him, keeping him company or just watching him. But we do know that Sellers is a lonely man who does not handle choices well. The Life And Death of Peter Sellers is well worth seeing - on every count. Not the least being as an insightful homage to an artist like no other.
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GEOFFREY RUSH INTERVIEW
LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS, THE (M)
CAST: Geoffrey Rush, Charlize Theron, Emily Watson, John Lithgow, Miriam Margolyes, Peter Vaughan, Sonia Aquino, Stanley Tucci, Stephen Fry, Nigel Havers, Edward Tudor-Pole
PRODUCER: Simon Bosanquet
DIRECTOR: Stephen Hopkins
SCRIPT: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (book by Roger Lewis)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Peter Levy ACS, ASC
EDITOR: John Smith
MUSIC: Richard Hartley
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Norman Garwood
RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Icon
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 26, 2004