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I Bet You Didn't See... The Life and Death of Peter Sellers


The Film Poster
The Book

It is exactly as it says on the tin... it is the story of Peter Sellers' life. But it is a very melancholy piece really.

The film follows Sellers (Geoffrey Rush) mainly through his personal life behind the scenes of his public film career. We see his various relationships - with his mother (Miriam Margoyles), his first wife Anne (Emily Watson), his children and the Pink Panther director Blake Edwards (John Lithgow) - his health issues and his mental state.

Sellers is volatile, insecure and arrogant in much of the film, far from the confident and comic persona he was always known for on screen. This is highlighted brilliantly near the end of the film, after he is trying to get more serious in his roles, when he is filming Casino Royale (1967), he is told to improvise and is asked if he would do something funny. After making a mistake and causing a laugh, he walks off angry and runs off set. The film was well known for the destructive nature on set, with it going through five directors. We have a wonderful, Bondesc car chase as the director follows Sellers through winding roads trying to get him back.

Watson as Anne, in a rare happy scene

There is a focus on his first two marriages. Already a family man with his first wife, Anne, when the film starts, once success comes they move to a new home. Sellers starts chasing other women and when he finds out Anne is having an affair with their interior decorator, he confronts her and their marriage collapses. Later, while married to Britt Ekland, we experience Sellers' health struggles, in particular a rather psychedelic dream sequence of him meeting his many characters while going through eight cardiac arrests in three hours (brought on by drug use).

We also get to understand Peter's mental instability and insecurities. He often goes to see a clairvoyant, Maurice Woodruff (Stephen Fry), to get guidance on what to do. The film portrays Woodruff as a charlatan, which I imagine Mr. Fry would have enjoyed immensely. Sellers' anger comes through with everyone he interacts with in some form, except for his mother.

Performing "The Goon Show" early in the film

One more unusual technique of this film is when Rush, as Sellers in the costume of a character from whichever scene has just been, breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience as that character walking through the film sets. It is a very interesting way to try and show what Sellers wanted people to think of him. These include replaying the break up with Anne but with them making up and moving on; his mother accepting he is too busy and famous to drop everything and see her in hospital and; directors praising him.

The infamous Dr. Strangelove

It is an incredible film really. Intelligently made, dark and lighthearted, funny but ultimately sad. Considering I have never really heard Geoffrey Rush do any other voice than either his normal or his English accented voice, he was unmistakably Sellers. I thought he was superb, playing the insecurities and desperation so well. And the scene when he conjures up his Inspector Clouseau persona on a plane is spot on!

The scene of filming Chance in "Being There" (1979)

There is one particular scene near the very end. It is a scene from Being There (1979), which won Sellers a number of awards and even more nominations, including for Best Actor at the Oscars, and has been argued as his best film outside of The Pink Panther series. The scene is a short goodbye, with Sellers' character looking thoughtful and almost confused. We do not see Sellers in anymore film roles after this, which enhances the power of the ending, as this was the role Sellers was most determined to do and proudest of.

It is a sad film, but it takes you on a real ride of emotions. It shows that perhaps, if another path had been taken, Sellers may have had many more serious roles. But his comic genius and ability of immersing himself in his characters led him down a different route.

Rush (left) and Sellers (right)

Rush is outstanding as Sellers. Miriam Margoyles is wonderful as his mother. Emily Watson plays his first wife brilliantly as their relationship fails. And John Lithgow is charismatic and egotistical as Blake Edwards. It won almost 30 different awards, and with Rush winning four different acting awards. I believe that had it been released in the cinemas and not a television film, he would have been a favourite for an Academy Award.

As for the real Peter Sellers, he passed away in 1980 after another heart attack. He will always be remembered for his comic genius and voice talents, particularly in The Goon Show with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine. Sadly, it seems he was not able to cope with the pressures of success, or perhaps his expectations of himself were much higher than the public's. But whatever it was, he is a legend whose name will always live long in English popular culture.

Directed by: Stephen Hopkins

Screenplay by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

Based on: "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" by Roger Lewis

Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Charlize Theron, Emily Watson, John Lithgow, Miriam Margoyles, Stephen Fry

Release Date: October 1st, 2004

My Rating: 8/10

Inspector Clouseau, Chance, Dr Strangelove, Major Bloodnok, Bluebottle, Henry Crun... Peter Sellers

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