I was born in the UK, and started to become seriously aware of movies in the mid to late 70s, and it follows that I was aware of Peter Sellers long before I tuned into many other film stars. He started out as a local hero, on radio’s The Goon Show and in a number of family-friendly, unadorned comedies, accumulating a reputation as a masterful stylized chameleon. In the early sixties he became an international star, with an Oscar nomination for Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove and a great popular success in Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther and A Shot In The Dark – he married Britt Ekland and branched out into the kind of “international” career you used to see at the time, in which the movies were all sunglasses and boobs, and pretty much all flops. Edwards rescued him (as well as himself) in the mid-70’s with three more Pink Panther movies, giving Sellers a box-office stature he’d never had before, even as his performance became visibly tired and mechanical (which, looking at them now, helps to make the pictures seem more nuanced and complex than they might otherwise).
Behind the Mask
In 1979 he made Being There, which was one of the first “adult” movies I ever went to see in a theatre. It’s a parable of a simple-minded gardener who falls into high-powered circles where his utterances about tending the plants are taken as profound strategic commentary; at the end of the film there’s a suggestion he might go all the way to the White House (it’s no surprise the movie is still cited from time to time, as a reference point for the latest political idiocy). Sellers embodied the character perfectly, with one of his quietest performances, and received a second Oscar nomination for it. Then, as if out of sheer perversity, he made The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu, and passed away, at the age of just 54.
Sellers is generally regarded as an exemplar of the largely blank canvas who comes to life only through performing – a book about him was titled The Man Behind the Mask, the point largely being there barely was one. In the mid-60’s he played James Bond in Casino Royale, and insisted on doing it largely as himself, the way Cary Grant would have; the result was merely deadening. A few years later, in his down period, he made There’s a Girl in My Soup, in which his character is meant to be shaken out of his playboy life through a connection with Goldie Hawn – again, Sellers seems inert throughout, as if she merely bewildered him.
I recently watched Sellers in a couple of his more successful films though – Kubrick’s Lolita and Edwards’ The Party – and it struck me how his entire persona is based on a kind of loneliness. In The Party he plays a colossally incompetent Indian actor who single-handedly messes up a big Hollywood production and is blacklisted; through a mix-up, his name ends up on a list of elite party guests instead, and he basically ends up wrecking the place. The movie - formally fascinating even when it’s not actually funny (although personally I do find it pretty funny) – draws its coherence from Sellers’ grasp of Bakshi as an extreme outsider, someone who simply doesn’t grasp behavioural norms (especially in the pretentious and venal way the Hollywood big-shots apply them), technology, or much of the universe’s physical laws (especially as Edwards subtly bends them from time to time), and who’s aware of that in a way, but doesn’t seem to regard it as a personal limitation. At one point he quotes a “saying” from India: “Wisdom is the province of the aged, but the heart of a child is pure.” In general terms, of course, this contrasts the “pure” Bakshi with the dubious “wisdom” of those around him (prematurely aged in soul if not in body), but Sellers has too much resonance to be regarded as being “pure” exactly, and the character clearly has ambition and a libido of some kind. It’s this sense of lying slightly beyond our grasp that elevates the film, giving it the vague sense of an existential meditation.
Lolita illustrates a very different kind of alienation. Sellers plays Clare Quilty, in this telling at least (I’ve never read Nabokov’s novel) a monumentally strange and resourceful character who torments James Mason’s Humbert Humbert through a variety of schemes and guises. The character never shuts up, overwhelming Humbert with an arsenal of tics, eccentricities and ploys; the final confrontation between the two, which frames the rest of the film, feels so abstracted from the “reality” prevailing elsewhere that you’re tempted to draw a vague parallel with the starchild sequence at the end of Kubrick’s later 2001. The fuel for this twisted sense of lift-off flows directly from Sellers; we’ve never encountered such synaptic wiring here on earth. By comparison, his more famous work in Dr Strangelove almost seems like a day at the beach.
Quilty builds very obviously on Sellers’ formative British work - the famous “zaniness” of The Goon Show, and his boisterous embodiment of the emblematic union organizer in I’m All Right Jack. But that quality drained from him as time went on, in part because of basic physical limitations: he had a heart attack in 1964 (causing him to lose out on Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me Stupid) and another in 1977, and the third one killed him. In the later Clouseau movies, as I mentioned, he’s increasingly stylized and slow-moving, almost swallowed up at times by everything else Edwards shoves in there. The movies evidence a weird mythological ambition, as if the director somehow imagined they could constitute his Lord of the Rings; when Sellers died, Edwards constructed a whole new film, Trail of the Pink Panther, out of leftover footage and doubles and a plot about the search for the “missing” Clouseau (and he didn’t even stop there, going on to Curse of... and then, a decade-and-a half later, ending his film career with Son of...). Although Clouseau would have seemed to belong to Sellers as much as any character could belong to an actor, Edwards seems to have been possessed by the desire to prove otherwise.
Most people now have only seen a handful of Sellers’ films - mostly selected from the ones I’ve mentioned in this article – and his bland status as a “classic” comedian doesn’t really reflect the odd, sad shape of his achievements. I wouldn’t claim he’s among the greatest of screen actors, even if the assessment’s confined to the comedy genre. But his career is a fascinating artifact; it’s a full, multi-faceted story, in a way few actors have the chance to forge now.