Being Peter Sellers

A sauve character actor or a 'holy idiot'? Social climber or complex simpleton? Everyone has an opinion about the former Goon. But Geoffrey Macnab wonders if a new biopic can do the comic genius justice
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The Independent Culture

How do you show Nijinsky dancing? How do you capture a truthful version of a genius like the ever-protean, ever-slippery Peter Sellers on screen? Which actor can convince an audience as Elvis? In theory, these questions are unanswerable. Film-makers trying to make movies about great performers - whether comedians, rock stars or actors - risk serving up cardboard cut-out versions of the talents being celebrated. Their problems are exacerbated if the performers' work is already instantly familiar. Who cares about Kurt Russell's Elvis or Gary Busey's Buddy Holly when footage and music of the originals are so readily available? Dennis Quaid might thump the piano with all his might in Great Balls of Fire!, but no audience will believe he is anything other than a pale imitation of the real Jerry Lee Lewis.

How do you show Nijinsky dancing? How do you capture a truthful version of a genius like the ever-protean, ever-slippery Peter Sellers on screen? Which actor can convince an audience as Elvis? In theory, these questions are unanswerable. Film-makers trying to make movies about great performers - whether comedians, rock stars or actors - risk serving up cardboard cut-out versions of the talents being celebrated. Their problems are exacerbated if the performers' work is already instantly familiar. Who cares about Kurt Russell's Elvis or Gary Busey's Buddy Holly when footage and music of the originals are so readily available? Dennis Quaid might thump the piano with all his might in Great Balls of Fire!, but no audience will believe he is anything other than a pale imitation of the real Jerry Lee Lewis.

The odds are stacked so heavily against them that most film-makers realise it is both pointless and incestuous to dabble in drama- tised movies about film stars or musicians. None the less, from The Glenn Miller Story to Sid and Nancy and The Doors, there has been a steady stream of biopics inspired by household-name performers. The latest to receive the treatment is Peter Sellers.

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, based on the Roger Lewis biography of that name and directed by Stephen Hopkins ( Lost in Space, 24), is in competition at the Cannes Festival next month. Advance word is very positive (Geoffrey Rush's performance as Sellers is said to be "uncanny"). When Hopkins and Rush went to Cannes last year, however, they came under attack from Sellers's son Michael, who objected both to Lewis's book and to Hopkins's off-the-cuff characterisation of Sellers as a "loony". Since then, Britt Ekland has joined the fray, claiming the film's portrayal of her relationship with Sellers is "inaccurate" in several respects. She's now threatening to take legal action.

The controversy underlines the perils and frustrations inherent in trying to dramatise the life of a performer - especially one as mercurial and elusive as Sellers. Everybody has an opinion about Sellers. Depending on your vantage point, he is either a character actor of genius; a "holy idiot" (like his Chance, the gardener in Being There); a mother's boy who never grew up; a social climber who loved hanging out with royalty; "very suave" (Britt Ekland); or a "complex simpleton" (Spike Milligan).

To some, his transformation from a small-time London comedian specialising in "drums and impersonations" to notoriously egotistical film star is a cautionary tale about the corrupting power of celebrity. To others, his journey from austerity-era post-war Britain to Hollywood, from poky little flats in east London to penthouse suites in the world's most expensive hotels, is both comic and inspiring.

As Roger Lewis recalls, when his (very scholarly) biography was published in 1994, it immediately polarised opinion. "When it came out in this country, the attitude was 'Peter Sellers! My God, what a bastard!' But when it came out in America, the attitude was 'Peter Sellers! My god, he got away with it!' Women, cameras, gadgets, cars, models: that wonderful 1960s Austin Powers-type life that he led."

Lewis argues that it's self-defeating to attack Sellers for not behaving more conscientiously in his private life. "There's no point saying he should have been nice to his wives or his children, or lived in a nice little house and been kind to everybody. If he had been that, he wouldn't have been Peter Sellers... [in the book], I don't conclude that he was clinically insane. What I do say is that he made choices that were wicked. But when you saw the man he was and the upbringing he had, he couldn't have been different."

Arguably, what makes Sellers so endlessly fascinating to fans, biographers and film- makers alike is the morbidity that so often went hand in hand with his comedy. As Lewis admits, when he first had the idea for his book, "it was the melancholia of Sellers I was drawn to; all those shuffling little ghostly figures he used to play in the Fifties in Boulting brothers films, or Clouseau, with those soulful, mournful brown eyes. For all the success and the women, he is rather a lonely and melancholic figure. And that is what redeems him."

Sellers, who died in 1980, certainly didn't think he was a fit subject for a biopic. He once characterised himself as "a person who has no real value of his own. I'm like a mike - I haven't a set sound of my own." Asked to explain his clairvoyant-like ability to get into a character's skin, he concluded that it was because his own personality was a blank. "To see me on screen would be one of the dullest things you could imagine."

Dull or not, Hollywood was immediately interested in adapting Lewis's biography for the screen. In the mid-1990s, Madonna's company Maverick bought the rights. This was the era of Alan Parker's Evita and of Oliver Stone's Nixon: a time when it looked as if stories about grotesque, larger-than-life individuals were the next big genre, but the Sellers project never got off the ground. Many different writers worked on the screenplay, among them Lee Hall (of Billy Elliot fame). Capturing Sellers's eccentricities and Nero-like behaviour was easy enough, but the trick was to make the comedian sympathetic while peeling away all the outer layers and reaching the real person beneath the masquerading. Eventually, the puzzle was solved by two young American writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who came up with a film-within-a-film structure in which Sellers assembles his own story, as if making a movie.

Hopkins has since distanced himself from Lewis's book. Some observers believe this "denunciation" is motivated by simple expedience: that it's a way of trying to "appease the family". The irony is that Lewis, whose 800-page book contains reams of footnotes and who claims to have interviewed 500 people as part of his research, consulted many of the family members. None, he claims, raised objections to the biography when it was first published 10 years ago.

More recently, Hopkins has claimed he was inspired by Sellers's 16mm home movies, which were featured in a 2002 BBC Arena documentary. And yet, perhaps surprisingly, Hopkins never attempted to consult the team behind the acclaimed Arena film. "I am puzzled by the lack of interest," admits Arena's series editor, Anthony Wall. He points out that the BBC spent years putting the Sellers documentaries together, doing "a fantastic amount of research". "If it was me making a feature film about Peter Sellers," he says, with just a hint of irritation, "I think I'd phone the documentary makers up or write them a letter saying, 'Would you mind if I talk to you about it.'"

The Arena team originally broadcast a three-part documentary on Sellers, The Life of Peter Sellers, in 1995. Then they compiled a follow-up, based exclusively on the home-movie footage. The challenge was "not to be allowed access to any image apart from the ones that Sellers had done himself". The home movies (released after the death of Sellers's widow Lynne Frederick in 1995) are a treasure trove for anyone interested in the actor. For 30 years, from the late 1940s until 1977, this most reclusive and enigmatic of performers had shot films of himself and his family. There is colour footage of a strangely chubby-looking Sellers (he used to weigh 14 and a half stone) strolling round late-Forties London, "a charming, chirpy little spiv", as Herbert Lom (his co-star in The Ladykillers) later characterised him. There are sequences of him on the beach with his children; on holiday with Princess Margaret, or basking in the affection of his mother, Peg.

As the Arena documentary makes clear, there was a fundamental change in Sellers's personality after his heart attack in 1964, which left him clinically dead for more than a minute. In its wake, he became ever more wilful, ever more aloof. He thought he had cheated death. "When he was getting better, we sent him a wire saying, 'You swine! We had you insured'," Harry Secombe (his former colleague from The Goons ) recalled. Sellers, though, had less and less time for old pals like Secombe after he recovered from the heart attack. He became preoccupied with the occult. "Sellers must be one of the few people in history, at least since Nero's time, to speak to his dead dog," Lewis notes. "He was trying to contact his mother, but he got his dog."

Sellers's interior world is crucial to the new film. A meeting between Sellers and Sophia Loren to discuss The Millionairess involved the actress stepping down from a train, banal as you please. Here, she descends from the heavens in a plane. The choice of Geoffrey Rush (in a role originally earmarked for Gary Oldman) also suggests there will be a gravitas and gloom to the portrayal of Sellers. When he accepted the part, Rush, 52, was already almost as old as Sellers at the time of his death and was reportedly wary about playing the comedian as a young man. But with make-up, wigs, false teeth, prosthetic noses and contact lenses, not to mention his own chameleon-like ability as an actor, the Australian made an extraordinary transformation. "What we have here is one genius playing another genius," notes one observer.

The new film will offer a roll-call of Sellers's celebrity friends. Though Princess Margaret doesn't feature, the film deals in detail with Sellers's romantic obsession with Sophia Loren (played by the Italian actress Sonia Aquino). Miriam Margoyles is Sellers's beloved mother, with Peter Vaughan as his morose dad. Stephen Fry plays his psychic, Maurice Woodruff; Charlize Theron is Britt Ekland and Stanley Tucci plays Stanley Kubrick.

Whether The Life and Death of Peter Sellers turns out to be a hagiography or a dark and unsettling evocation of the comedian, the heated responses in advance of its release suggest how the actor still has the ability to attract and bemuse audiences. Biographers, film-makers and fans can't agree what exactly he stood for and what his achievements really were. Even after a quarter of a century, Peter Sellers still touches nerves. It's almost as if we're battling for the soul of this national treasure.

Roger Lewis, 'The Life and Death of Peter Sellers' (Arrow, £9.99)

The HBO film 'The Life and Death of Peter Sellers' will be released in the UK later this year

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