(an “another unworthy artist” film review by Timothy J. Verret)
Okay, I get it, God! You are trying to get me to work through the unworthiness I feel as an artist! This message came to me some time back when I watched the miniseries, FOSSE/VERDON (2019). It happened when the extraordinary choreographer Bob Fosse was asked by his friend, Paddy Chayefsky, in a dream the ultimate “unworthy artist” question: “Three Emmys, two Tonys, and one Oscar, and you’re STILL not happy, Bob?” This same message again came to me about a week ago when I reviewed LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1972) and here the same message is again with THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS. Not sure what I can say in this film review that I haven’t already said above, but this review might just hit a bit closer in the acting realm that I know very well.
In the film’s poster, we are given a picture of Geoffrey Rush as Peter Sellers picking petal by petal of a flower with the mantra of “I love me….I love me not.” This is indeed the story of Sellers, a very talented actor who just never thought his talent was good enough and, thus, he as a talented human was never good enough. There is the nonartist who doesn’t feel good enough but with the artist who doesn’t feel good enough, it is an entirely different and entirely more lonely landscape. Sellers, very much like myself, got lost in his wild and varied roles. His personality was so extravagant that he got lost in the extravagant personalities of the characters he played on screen who bled off screen. No wonder many consider Sellers’ performance in DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO LOVE THE BOMB (1964) his best, as he plays 4 different characters, and no wonder many consider his performance as Chance the butler in BEING THERE (1979) his last best, as both films give us BOTH Sellers talented AND Sellers lonely. Particularly in BEING THERE, Sellers played a character who was listless in life, hardly a personality to speak of, simply carrying out each and ever moment with no past and no future. Sellers always wished his life was this easy, i.e., no strong personality and thus no need to be needed, to be depended upon, to be responsible for delivering love to himself or others because he had not this love to deliver. It was only in Sellers’ death that all was finally at peace, no pressure to deliver for he had finally been delivered into a final resting place of no more pressure.
Oh my God, Geoffrey Rush! An incredible actor! A talented actor! A Best Actor Oscar winner for SHINE (1996) and Oscar-nominated for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1999), QUILLS (2001) and THE KING’S SPEECH (2011). Rush as Peter Sellers is utterly convincing and just as utterly heartbreaking. Much like Sellers’ performance in DR. STRANGELOVE, Rush plays multiple roles very briefly in this film: Seller’s father and mother, Sellers’ first wife, director Stanley Kubrick, director Blake Edwards, just to name a few. When Rush plays these roles, the characters are looking in the camera at us in truth-spoken words, the same true words Sellers wished he could have spoken to himself. When Sellers’ first wife leaves him, he is in the cutting room as her, dubbing the words his wife didn’t speak. This kind of cutting out reality and dubbing in fantasy is something that ALL artists desperately do. ALL artists go into their cutting rooms and choose fantasy over reality, for fantasy is, well, fantastically pleasurable while reality is, well, just often too real. I don’t know about other actors, but I know what drew me to acting initially was this: The opportunity to play someone else, ANYONE but me!!!! The unworthiness of an artist INDEED!!!! And Sellers had this INDEED!!!!
I think there are actors like Peter Sellers and then there are actors like Meryl Streep. Both of these actors were and are able to fully immerse themselves in their “night and day” roles but unlike Sellers, Streep apparently is able to shut off her character when the camera shuts off. Sellers seemed to be unable to do this. Now, is this all a question of one actor being better than another? Probably not. However, every actor does need to know when their character is finished, whenever the camera turns off or the curtain comes down. Actors must always go down deep, for sure; they have to or we wouldn’t get all the good and deep stuff. But they don’t finish a performance and find themselves obsessed and possessed by the character they played to the point that they walk around their house still saying his or her lines. This is what happened to me after playing the merciless and jealously evil Iago in Shakespeare’s OTHELLO. I went down deep, for sure, and gave the good and deep stuff, but I couldn’t shut off “the bad and deep stuff” after the curtain had dropped and was left with a “bad breakdown.” It’s not a question of a better actor or not….or is it?
If I had the chance to speak to Peter Sellers beyond the grave, I would speak these words that my therapist, Mark, spoke to me today in our session. He said to me (and I’m paraphrasing a bit): “Timothy, there is nothing you can say or feel or do or think that will make you more loveable, because you’ve ALWAYS been loveable.” I would say to Mr. Sellers: “Peter, you didn’t have to try so hard in your extraordinary roles as an actor or your extraordinary roles as a son and husband and father to be loveable, because you ALWAYS were loveable.” My therapist totally changed my outlook today with this, and I would have loved the opportunity to totally change Mr. Sellers’ outlook with this, as well.