The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I have formed an hypothesis: technique is a substitute for content.

There may have been a time when experimental techniques served to punctuate content, but that time seems to have passed. In our era, when you see the fourth wall start to disappear, you know the movie is running out of things to say and is trying to distract you by employing the obvious misdirection techniques used by amateur magicians.

Let me illustrate. You have decided to write a biopic of Peter Sellers. You've done your homework, and discovered that he was a very, very troubled man, neurotically insecure, not very likeable, and none too bright. Sellers believed in psychic humbuggery, terrorized his children, beat his second wife, and left his first wife because of his totally unrequited love for Sophia Loren. As the scriptwriter, you've realized that telling the truth about this man will lead to an unpleasant viewing experience for many who love his work, and will cause people unfamiliar with his work to avoid it. Let's face it, Peter could be a very unpleasant guy, given to childish temper tantrums, delusions, and fits of sheer nastiness.

You're a writer, so you know how to soften the blow a bit. You will show some of the great comedy bits that made Sellers so beloved by film fans. You will get the director to hire a brilliant character actor who can not only capture Sellers the man, but can completely replicate all of the characters Seller ever played. Ultimately you have to ask yourself, "What is the purpose of this film? And what is the hook that keeps people interested?" You come up short. You just don't really have any point other than that Sellers was a deeply troubled guy. You don't really have a tight little script like Immortal Beloved, and you are not making a comment on the nature of genius like Amadeus. It's just a rambling chronological recounting of events. You got nothin'.

So you decide to fill it with technique. You have your brilliant character actor assume not only all of Sellers's movie roles, but also become Sellers as all of the other characters in the Sellers saga, by having the lead actor impersonate all of the other actors playing major roles. In the course of doing that, you have "Sellers as his mom" or "Sellers as his wife" or "Sellers as his psychic" address the camera directly, explaining some element of the exposition, or providing some psychological insight. Throw in some dream sequences, break down the fourth wall, add some crazy psychedelic musical montages to recreate the cheesy side of 60s culture, and voila! Instant genius in a can.

I blame Eugene O'Neill for this. Yup, the great playwright. It's all his damned fault. He just couldn't stop tinkering with the classic theatrical format, and he tacitly gave everyone permission to do this kind of thing. O'Neill's Strange Interlude covers a long stretch of one woman's life with four lovers. It is a two part play in nine acts which was performed both as a matinee and an evening show, with a dinner break in between. It is filled with asides and long stream-of-consciousness soliloquies. We hear the actors deliver their lines, and then we also hear what they were really thinking. Sometimes it is staged with multiple actors delivering the spoken dialogue and the thoughts. At other times a single set of actors tries to deliver the natural dialogue and the subsequent hidden thought process by conveying the changeover to the audience through acting technique.

O'Neill could get away with this kind of experimentation for three reasons: (1) because he was original; (2) because he was using his technique to supplement his content, not to supplant it; (3) because he was Eugene O'Neill, dammit. The authors of The Life and Death of Peter Sellers are not doing anything new, can deliver no great point by using this technique, and are not Eugene O'Neill, but they have nonetheless tried to create a kind of lower grade Strange Interlude that moves through Sellers's consciousness as his mind wanders from the real to the surreal, from his life to the life of his characters, from "playing himself", to playing his characters, to playing the other people in his life.

This could have been an utter disaster, but it is not. One thing holds it together. Geoffrey Rush is a fooking genius. I am hesitant to say that he is the greatest character actor in history, because he is up against the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Spacey, Sir Alec Guinness, and Sellers himself, but Rush has proved that he is in the same league as those guys. There are times when you simply forget he is actually some lanky Australian guy with a craggy face, and see Peter Sellers on screen. It is uncanny. This film was aired on BBC and HBO, and was therefore not eligible for Oscar consideration, but in most years Rush would have been the sure Oscar winner for a performance like this. As it turns out, 2004 was not a routine year, and he would undoubtedly have lost even if he had been eligible. Rush's performance is similar to Jamie Foxx's in that they were both re-creating the lives of great stars, and Rush's performance is of comparable quality, but Foxx would have won because Ray is a better movie, because Ray Charles died during the year that the film came out, and because Ray Charles is more universally known and loved than Peter Sellers. At any rate, I think you can see my point - Geoffrey Rush's evocation of Sellers is a tour de force. It is one of the greatest performances in the history of filmed entertainment, generally in the same league as Jamie's performance as Ray.

The film has some nice production values, but simply needs to be more straightforward and either much longer or much shorter. If it is to cover this much of Peter's life, it would have been better off as a 12 part mini-series, in which it could have shown a more balanced and nuanced picture of the man. If it is to stay within the confines of a two hour film, it would have been better off to find a specific focus within his life and to create a structure supporting that focus.

On the separate subject of the DVD - it is excellent, as you might expect from HBO and BBC. There is a good 16x9 widescreen transfer, two separate commentary tracks, a "making of" featurette, and eight deleted scenes which include the complete storyline with Lynne Frederick, Peter's fourth wife.

Overall, a standing, shouted "bravissimo" is in order for Mr. Rush, and hearty applause for HBO's usual first-class job on the DVD, but only a polite golf clap for the movie itself. It is absolutely worth seeing because of Rush, but is less than the sum of its parts.



  • two separate full-length commentaries (one by Rush and the director, the other by the two screenwriters)
  • the transfer is anamorphically enhanced for 165x9 screens, and looks excellent
  • eight never-before-seen deleted scenes, including nudity from Emilia Fox
  • a short "making of" featurette


  • Emilia Fox shows her breasts in the deleted scenes (as Lynne Frederick, Peter's fourth wife)
  • Charlize Theron (as Britt Ekland) and Geoffrey Rush do a "wild" sex scene, but it is too dark to see much. There is a brief look at Charlize's bum, and MAYBE a look at the top of her pubes.
  • Heidi Klum shows one breast as Ursula Andress.

The Critics Vote ...

  • It won two Golden Globes: for best actor and best TV movie. It was also nominated for two other acting Globes.

  • British consensus out of four stars: two stars. Mail 4/10, Telegraph 7/10, Independent 6/10, Guardian 4/10, Times 2/10, Sun 8/10, Express 6/10, Mirror 6/10, BBC 3/5.

The People Vote ...

  • In the US, it was an HBO exclusive. It grossed about $200,000 in a brief theatrical release in the UK.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a C+. I recommend it highly for those who want to see a great performance by Geoffrey Rush. Otherwise - meh. Everybody did a great job at making a movie which wasn't worth making to begin with.

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