Peter Sellers was part of the background of my life. I grew up with the radio classic 'The Goon Show', featuring him alongside Harry Secombe and my favourite certified genius, Spike Milligan. His films added seemingly endless dimensions to his already crowded personas. How could so many people inhabit one body?
So important was Sellers in my personal pantheon that I refused to see The Life and Death of Peter Sellers on its cinema run here. I could not believe anyone could play him. Impossible.
Well, mea culpa. Mea bloody culpa. I was wrong, wrong, wrong. I'd disliked Geoffrey Rush's frenetic, pathetic character in Shakespeare in Love, and had made the typical, naive mistake of confusing character with actor.
How bloody stupid! For in this made-for-television Home Box Office production, Geoffrey Rush shows all the qualities of a great actor. There's no trace of extrovert show-off 'look how clever I am' impersonation in this movie. Instead, Rush simply (!) becomes Sellers -- and along the way becomes almost every character Sellers became.
Sellers was of course a genius at assimilation and improvisation of character. Rush was given a great starting-point. But it could be argued that to convincingly depict Sellers at work would be just as hard, maybe even harder, than Sellers' original task. That debate could be endless. Enough to say that if this movie had been made for North American cinema release instead of for television, the Oscar would indisputably have been his.
The telemovie is based on Roger Lewis's biography, 'The Life and Death of Peter Sellers'. The story is quite harrowing. Sellers, smothered by a doting mother of the worst kind, is shown as having never grown up. Everything is about his own gratification and need for constant reassurance. The succession of wives, the ignored children, the temper-tantrums and downright maniacal behavious -- these all reveal a personality who ultimately believed himself to be totally worthless.
The drama shows convincingly that the only time Sellers believed in himself was when he was playing someone else. Sellers, in his best movies, wasn't playing a role; he was penetrating deep into another character, and became that person. And it's that aspect of his craft that Geoffrey Rush depicts so brilliantly.
Sellers, the movie shows, spent much of his later life just not knowing who what he was. It was hell, folks. This is in some respects quite harrowing viewing. But director Stephen Hopkins quite magnificently leavens the grimness with brilliant black-comedy, in keeping with Sellers himself. Particularly impressive are the scenes in which Sellers takes his characters out from his movies into 'real' life. Watch for the scene when his monstrous mum (played wonderfully by Miriam Margolyes) has a bite of lunch with Dr Strangelove in the studio canteen.
There are too many felicities to discuss in full. But John Lithgow ('Third Rock from the Sun') must be mentioned for his wonderful assumption of the role of the King of Celluloid Mediocrity, director Blake Edwards -- finding Sellers for the 'Pink Panther' movies was obviously the best thing that ever happened in his otherwise crass career.
Stephen Fry delivers a rich cameo as a cruel, mendacious clairvoyant used by film studios to direct Sellers' life. And huge credit must go to director Stephen Hopkins, for his absolutely meticulous and realistic restagings of key scenes from many of Sellers' key movies.
Is this the best showbiz biopic ever made? I really cannot think of another which comes close to this one's honesty and brilliance. Well, I guess there's Night and Day, but that compelling example of Hollywood veracity did have the natural advantage of Cary Grant in the lead role of handsome man-about-town composer Cole Porter. But somehow, I think this one might even top that!