Not in the 2004 BFI Film Festival but on commercial release here in London, is a biopic, the subject of which is obvious, and which will undoubtedly arouse curiosity around the world. This biting "docu-drama" is directed by newcomer Stephen Hopkins and stars Australian Geoffrey Rush in the title role of a not very savoury Sellers. The picture has opened to "mixed reviews" - a nice way of saying that most local critics hate it, nor has it been a particularly strong box-office draw. Nevertheless, like it or not, this is a compelling study of the career of the major figure of late twentieth century screen comedy and, into the bargain, a searing dissection of his private life.
It is always a bit hard to accept a fictionalised portrayal of a personality whose physical image is still so much alive in the collective film going consciousness. Sellers died a mere 24 years ago, but it seems like much less, since many of his pictures are still frequently revived - notably the "Pink Panther" series, "Dr. Strangelove" and Kubrick's "Lolita". Geoffrey Rush who, with horn rimmed glasses has a passable resemblance to Sellers, but more important, has the same jittery, openly schizophrenic personality, was without a doubt the right actor for the job and delivers a telling, if not exactly uncanny, portrayal. Devoted Sellers fans, of which there are many, may find the extremely unflattering revelations of his private life, especially the grisly manner in which he treated his family - wife (poor Emily Watson - she got a better deal in "Breaking The Waves"), children and mother - distasteful if not downright insulting. This may, in fact, account for the picture's relatively weak box-office performance so far. People just don't want to know that their favorite comedian was such a creep.
The film, though star studded (John Lithgow as Blake Edwards, Charlize Theron as Britt Ekland, Christopher Fry as Sellers' spiritual adviser) has certain weaknesses - a tendency to telegraph some of its punches - but, overall it must go down as one of the more incisive studies in recent memory of the treatment of genius by the Hollywood establishment ~ and vice-versa. The point is made, over and over, that Sellers was in private life an empty shell of a man, which made him a horrible husband, disgusting father, and wimpy womaniser, but is precisely why he was so perfectly able to so fully inhabit the skins of the wild variety of characters he portrayed. One of many outstanding sequences in the film is when Sellers goes completely ga-ga over Sophia Loren during her visit to England in 1960 to do a film with him called "The Millionairess". Firmly convinced that he can win her away from her much older husband, Carlo Ponti, he flips and flops all over the place, finally making a complete ass of himself as she walks out on him in a secluded restaurant. The actress who plays Loren, Sonia Aquino, is even more busty, statuesque, and flourishing than the real Loren was, even at that time - m-mm - can't wait to see more of her! His successful courtship of Swedish beauty, Britt Ekland (via South African beauty, Theron) with the great line, "Hurry up and say 'yes' - I only have the band for another half hour" - is another high point of the film and also ends with a walkout and a divorce when his flimsy false-front machoism once again fails him. The real strong point of the film is the reconstruction of key scenes and characters from many of Sellers' landmark films: The hot-line sequence to the Kremlin in "Strangelove", various Clouseau extracts from the "Pink Panther" films, the famous Hindoo accent bit, and the representation of his tempestuous primadonna bickerings with famous directors such as Blake Edwards and Stanley Kubrick. One of the weak points of the film was the miscasting of a sombre John Cassavetes look- alike to portray the flamboyant Kubrick. This actor (Stanley Tucci) proclaims to the camera that the secret of direction is 'total control' - which Kubrick certainly exerted. The trouble is that Mr. Tucci appears to be more controlled than controlling. In fact, he seems to be playing in a different picture altogether. The only thing Stanley Tucci has in common with Stanley Kubrick is the first name. Lithgow, while emanating immense largesse, is less than convincing as a theoretically commanding Blake Edwards. One of the most painful scenes in the film is where Sellers ruthlessly denounces Edwards as a "totally no-talent director" before an enthusiastic crowd at the premiere of one of their most successful films. Talk about ingratitude ... I can scarcely imagine that the real Blake Edwards didn't tell him to just go F-himself on that occasion ...
In any case, from the late fifties until his final film, "Being There", 1970, for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination, Peter Sellers was the most versatile, the most ubiquitous, and the most acclaimed screen comedian of his time - a true celebrity, if something of a schlemiel in his disastrous private life. Director Stephen Hopkins has captured an amazing amount of this and of real film history in a film of normal running time, which is, in itself, an accomplishment worthy of note
Alex, Muswell Hill, London, October 21, 2008
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