Sunday, January 30, 2011

"Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers" - A book review

Ed Sikov finds the man behind the characters in his Peter Sellers biography, Mr. Strangelove.

The last time we spoke about books, it was to discuss David Michaelis' gargantuan biography of Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz. That book must have gotten me on a "biography" kick because I followed it up with Mr. Strangelove, Ed Sikov's look at the life story of British comedian and actor Peter Sellers. Sellers first came to prominence as a cast member of an anarchic BBC radio program called The Goon Show in the 1950s before achieving international success as a motion picture star in the 1960s through his appearances in such films as Lolita, Dr. Strangelove and The Pink Panther. That last film provided him with his best-known role, that of bumbling Inspector Clouseau, whom he portrayed in a series of highly profitable sequels for pretty much the rest of his life. Sellers' weak heart, combined with a lifestyle of heavy drinking and drugging, led to his death at the age of 54 in 1980, not long after his triumphant Oscar-nominated performance in Hal Ashby's Being There, a personal project Sellers had been trying to get off the ground for about a decade.

It would be tempting to write a truly scathing, damning book about Peter Sellers. He had so many serious character flaws that it's almost impossible to tabulate them all. Spoiled rotten by his controlling and manipulative mother, Peg (who emerges as the second-most astounding character in Sikov's book), Peter Sellers grew up to be a temperamental and immature child-man, infamous for his tantrums and wild mood swings, marked by swift and terrible changes of heart. Married four times (with no success), Sellers was an alternately neglectful and abusive father to his three (possibly four) children. Materialistic and greedy to an absurd extent, Sellers used his movie money to buy cars, houses, and gadgets he simply didn't need and took roles in some truly godawful films strictly for the cash, despite the damage it was doing to his career. Sellers could be a terror during the production of a film, slowing down filming with his erratic behavior and having various cast and crew members fired for no good reason. Ed Sikov does not shy away from detailing all of Sellers' faults in this book.

However, the minor miracle of Mr. Strangelove is that the reader does not emerge from the book hating its subject. Sikov writes with genuine affection about Sellers' best screen work, and he makes the reader want to track down these films and watch them again. (I'm particularly keen to revisit A Shot in the Dark and The Party as well as Being There.) It helps that the interview subjects, i.e. Peter's friends, relatives, and coworkers, generally seemed to have liked the man despite his many, many flaws. Even after decades of inexcusable behavior (and, believe me, there's a ton of it in this book), very few of the people close to Peter Sellers seem to hold a grudge against him. They all recognize his talent, and they often speak fondly of the humor, charm, and generosity he displayed during his more-lucid moments. Instead of waiting for Sellers to get his much-deserved comeuppance, the reader will instead be rooting for the man to get his act together. (Spoiler: he never does.)

I guess since I read the Schulz book and the Sellers book back-to-back, there's a temptation to compare the two. There are several parallels between the lives of Schulz and Sellers. Both were stereotypical "mama's boys" whose relationships with their mothers defined their adult lives. Both fought in World War II, though Schulz with much more distinction than Sellers. Both had troubled and argumentative marriages that ended in divorce. Both were in the business of making people laugh but were surprisingly complex and moody men in their private lives. And both were gawky and unattractive as youths, but became rather dapper and distinguished (and, thus, more attractive to women) in middle-age. The two books are not much alike, though. Schulz and Peanuts is a much heavier, yet more fulfilling read and offers plenty of food for thought on the nature of art and the relationship between an artist and his work. Mr. Strangelove is more of a page-turner, a well-written book with lots of splashy incidents about the life of an eccentric and well-known man. I recommend them both.

But I think I'm done with biographies for a while. One of the supporting characters in Mr. Strangelove is the American writer Terry Southern (who coauthored the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove), and I think it is high time I explored Southern's novels.

Before I go, I really must share with you this clip. Half of it was filmed during the making of Strangelove and half... well, wasn't. Either way, it includes a dazzling display of Peter Sellers' talent for regional accents. Enjoy.