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The tortured genius of Peter Sellers.

Mr Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers. Ed Sikov. Sidgwick & Jackson. 18.99 [pounds sterling]. 428 pages. ISBN 0-283-07297-0.

Peter Sellers is now probably best-remembered for the inspired lunacy of The Goon Show on BBC Radio in the 1950s--John Lennon and Prince Charles were among those inspired--and for his role as the absurdly pompous French Chief Inspector, Jacques Clouseau, in five Pink Panther movies. He also starred in a number of highly influential films, however, films such as I'm All Right, Jack, which was credited with contributing to the Conservatives' landslide UK election victory in 1959, as well as two films for the now-legendary director, Stanley Kubrick: Lolita and Dr Strangelove.

Even such a brief summary of his career suggests how great was his talent, 'sort of showbiz, sort of genius', as the writer and director, Jonathan Miller, put it. According to Kubrick, he was the only actor who could really improvise, reaching what he termed 'comic ecstasy' in some of his films. Yet Peter Sellers could also have invented the expression 'tears of a clown'. All those interviewed for this biography are agreed that he was a tortured genius. 'I think he lived most of his life in hell', said Blake Edwards, the director of the Pink Panther movies. This aspect of Peter Sellers' life appears to have stemmed from his obsession with what he saw as his absence of identity. 'There is no such person', Kubrick said of him, and Miller, who directed Sellers in a TV adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, saw him as 'completely empty when he wasn't playing anyone. He was a receptacle rather than a person'. Sellers himself claimed that his experience of life was 'ghostly and unreal'.

The consequences of this phantom superstardom were rather predictable, particularly for a spoilt mummy's boy who was always used to getting what he wanted. Sellers enthusiastically set out to create an identity for himself through a succession of wives and girlfriends, houses and hotel suites, cars and yachts, drink and drugs, and every New Age fad he could find--he would hardly step out of his front door unless his astrologer thought it was a good idea. As all these seem to have had the opposite effect to that intended, so did Sellers grow increasingly dark and desperate until his tantrums almost became his identity.

The late Alec Guinness recalled an episode during the filming of Murder by Death in 1976, when the film's many stars were all given identical caravans set up in alphabetical order. Sellers, however, insisted on having a bigger caravan than everyone else and eventually accepted one that was six inches longer--but only after he had measured it himself. This biography abounds in such insights. The overall impression conveyed is terribly sad although the author insists that he never meant the book to be unsympathetic to his subject. But for those who delight in the professional performances, this book does at least attempt to explain how they came about.
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Title Annotation:Mr Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers
Author:Karwowski, Michael
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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