In the interest of diversity, I’ll be slowly integrating mainstream and critically lauded biopics into Biopic Theater. Today’s entry into Biopic Theater won two Golden Globes and aired on the HBO network. I don’t know much about Peter Sellers outside of his movie roles, but The Life and Death of Peter Sellers fills every inch of its two-hour runtime to create as good a portrait of a star as I’ve seen in doing this series. Characters do have the tendency to come off a bit too black or white in parts, or in the case of Charlize Theron, simply being stunt casting, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed this film.
Peter Sellers (Geoffrey Rush) starts out as a radio personality for Britain’s Home Service. Eventually, he starts to amass a stable of popular film roles that give him fame and acclaim. Problems lie with his personal life as he can’t seem to please his mother Peg (Miriam Margolyes) and the various wives in his life.
I recall when this aired on HBO, but didn’t pay it much attention because I wasn’t aware of who Peter Sellers was. I can’t say I’m a fan of his work, but this biopic gives audiences an appreciation and understanding of the man behind Inspector Clouseau and other popular characters. The biopic gives an overview of his life including the filming of his famous roles (although Lolita isn’t mentioned), his interactions with acclaimed directors such as Stanley Kubrick (played by Stanley Tucci here) and Blake Edwards (played by John Lithgow). The strongest connections though are created when the movie focuses on Sellers and his family. The script is based on a biography by Roger Lewis that’s received scathing reviews on Amazon, mostly for how detailed it is. Honestly, I give kudos to any biopic that acknowledges source material at all. With that being said, I can see where people who are fans of Sellers would get mad about this biopic. Sellers does come off as a total jerk throughout a large portion of the biopic.
The main theme of The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is how childish the man was. While he was lovable charming, and free-spirited, he had the tendency to demand his way and throw insane temper tantrums. In one scene, Sellers’ young son tries to fix his father’s scratched car by painting it. Sellers, blinded by rage over the ruined car, proceeds to smash his sons toys under the guise of “fixing them.” It’s a shocking sequence for the sheer fact you’re watching a grown man devolve to acts of a child with little remorse. The movie emphasizes that Sellers’ first wife Anne (Emily Watson) is left to be the peacekeeper as well as the mother to not just her two children, but Sellers as well. Despite the name of the biopic being about Peter Sellers, the first half really acknowledges Anne Sellers because she is an part of the narrative (and based on the ending scroll, the movie implies she was the love of Sellers’ life). Emily Watson is simply phenomenal in the role of Anne. She’s patient, nurturing, and seeking stability. She angrily tells Peter she “doesn’t want the little boy anymore,” but Peter continues to feel victimized. When he does do something wrong he believes buying the children a pony or Anne a new house, will fix everything. When Anne becomes tired (and discovers Peter’s been having an affair) she breaks the façade and embarks on her own affair, only to be attacked by her husband! Their relationship is fully developed, and after Anne the movie seems tired of focusing on Peter’s relationships, which is unfortunate for Britt Ekland (Theron).
The other major relationship followed throughout the movie is Peter’s relationship with his mother, Peg. There’s a lot of tension and respect between the two, and dare I say an incestuous quality to their relationship? It’s said that Peg babied Peter, and you see that she really lets him get away with murder. When Peter separates with Anne, Peg’s response is to “let her go” and not have Peter fight for his family. You understand that Peg doesn’t want any woman to take care of Peter other than her; she calls Britt Ekland a “Nazi” without knowing her proving no woman was good enough. Peg’s character is where the black and white element is brought into blinding focus. She’s written as the worst kind of stage mother with little else to recommend her. She refuses to allow Peter to be content with his life, feeling that contentedness contributed to his father’s failure. Later on, when Peter has heart trouble (that would plague him till his death), Peg is seen being happy about his illness airing on multiple television channels. With all that, the audience doesn’t feel too sympathetic when she’s sick and dying, especially taking into account that earlier she doesn’t bother to call Peter when his father is dying (a scene that is heart-wrenchingly and beautifully acted by Rush). I can’t say whether Peg Sellers was the woman she’s depicted as in the movie, but she’s no better than any other stage-mother we’ve seen in these biopics.
Which brings us to Sellers himself. Geoffrey Rush is perfect casting for the role. He not only looks like Sellers, but comfortable doing the physical comedy, the accents, and the costume changes Sellers was known for. The movie employs a narrative device of having Sellers play various characters in his own life, as a means of creating and controlling the very movie of his life. This allows him to break the 4th wall and directly talk to the audience, as well as contradict what his friends and family really think about him. After Anne and him have an explosive fight, culminating in Anne leaving him, Sellers dresses up as her and redubbs her lines to sound romantic. To him, this is a “better” way to keep things going. Rush plays the dichotomy of the character so well, especially considering how frustrating Sellers appears to be. Sure, he’s funny, but people in his life never know where they stand with him. After filming the Pink Panther, Sellers berates director Blake Edwards and vows never to work with him (the two would later on). The script creates this belief in Sellers’ character that if he’s merely honest about his feelings than everything is alright. At one point, Sellers falls in love with Sophia Loren (Sonia Aquino) who obviously doesn’t care about him. Unfortunately, Sellers concocts a relationship and feels it’s important to tell his family. The problem is there’s no relationship to tell about, and he looks like a stalker and jerk. He even has the gall to tell his little girl “I love you very much. Just not as much as Sophia Loren.” Sellers comes off like a fool, and the problem is he never gets out of this mode. You feel as frustrated towards him as his family does which is the goal of the film. Towards Sellers’ later years, Rush plays the role stoic and exhausted which makes you see a progression in his character. It’s a taste manipulative when the movie scrolls to include that Sellers had a picture of Anne in his wallet at death. If true, it’s sweet, but based on all we’ve seen it feels more like a boy carrying a picture of his mother, as opposed to a wife.
The only true letdown is Charlize Theron as Britt Ekland. It’s not the actresses’ fault, it’s just the movie doesn’t seem to care about Ekland’s character. The relationship between the two is depicted as a whirlwind; their courtship lasted three weeks, and was based on a miscommunication from a fortune-teller. Theron is beautiful, and perfectly cast as Ekland, but there’s no exploration of their relationship. They marry, they have the lone sex scene in the movie which felt exploitative of Theron’s body, they get into a massive fight after Seller’s mother dies, he hits her, and she disappears forever. She’s not given any sufficient depth like Watson as Anne is, and really anyone could have put on a Swedish accent and played her. It’s the prime example of stunt casting in this movie. The film also ignores Sellers’s last two marriages (including his final marriage to Lynn Frederick that’s worth looking up on Wiki).
Overall, this is probably the best movie I’ve seen while doing Biopic Theater. It’s well-made, well-directed, and well-written. There’s complexity to a majority of the characters (excluding Peg and Ekland), and Rush and Watson are dynamos in their roles. I recommend seeking this out if you want an example of a well-made biopic, or if you’re a Sellers fan.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.