The beginning -- oh, the evocative beginning -- of HBO's "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers."
It's the quintessential Vegas hepcat song, "What's New Pussycat," belted out with booming gusto by Tom Jones. And it tells you: Sit back babee, we're going to groovier times.
But in this tell-all saga about the late British comedian, starring Geoffrey Rush, that cheerful pop music segues into something darker: a narrative dirge for a talented and troubled man.
For those born a decade or so too late to appreciate him, Sellers was something like Steve Martin, Rowan Atkinson and Jim Carrey rolled into one. There wasn't an accent he couldn't do, a pratfall he couldn't perform or a role he couldn't steal with unforgettable Sellers panache.
He needed to steal whatever he could. His movie career was mostly a disastrous string of flops. But when he was good, he was magnificent, particularly in "The Ladykillers" (1955), "Lolita" (1962) and "The Party" (1968). His hilariously mangled French accent and goofy mien turned his Inspector Clouseau of the "Pink Panther" films into a household figure. His multiple roles in "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" -- particularly as the wheelchair-bound, Nazi-esque Strangelove -- gave perfect sardonic touches to Stanley Kubrick's end-of-the-world black comedy. And he had a final, triumphant flicker as Chance, the messianic gardener in the 1979 comedy "Being There." He died of a heart attack at age 54 in 1980.
If public Peter was everyone's joker, private Peter was everyone's nightmare. As "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" shows, a vale of darkness lurked behind his extraordinary gift. According to Roger Lewis's 1994 book of the same name (on which the movie is based), Sellers was emotionally unavailable to his family, four wives, friends and lovers. At his worst, he was vindictive, treacherous, petty and tyrannical.
Thus we see Rush's Sellers in stormy love-hate relationships with his mother, Peg (Miriam Margolyes); his first, long-suffering wife, Anne Sellers (Emily Watson); his second spouse, Britt Ekland (Charlize Theron); and director Blake Edwards (John Lithgow), who worked with Sellers in five "Pink Panther" movies.
At one point in the film, Sellers -- furious at his son for painting over a scratch on his expensive Rolls -- runs into the boy's bedroom and smashes a toy train set into smithereens. Now we're even, he informs the terrified child.
A terrible man but a gifted artist, Sellers manages to hack out a career for himself through sheer determination. But he's constantly tormented by self-doubt, paranoia and indecision. He even consults with a fortuneteller (Stephen Fry) for advice about movie roles.
His obsession with success makes him churlish with the people close to him. Infatuated with the vivacious actress Sophia Loren (Sonia Aquino), he informs Anne he's in love with Loren and all but instructs his wife to have an affair with their interior designer. He heaps similar abuse on his other wives, including Ekland, and he's ruthless with Edwards, whom he publicly derides as mediocre at a "Pink Panther" premiere.
Like most biopics, "Life and Death" shows us the ups and downs of Sellers's life, but it also takes an unusual, surrealistic path. In occasional flights of fancy, Rush's Sellers dresses up like and imitates the principal figures in his life, including his mother, wife Anne and even Blake Edwards. These fantasy sequences not only show Sellers's talent for mimicry, they demonstrate his cluelessness about understanding people. He can do 'em but he doesn't get 'em.
"The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" is biographically instructive and, thanks to Rush's workmanlike performance, often entertaining. But for an actor, even of Rush's caliber, to imitate an idiosyncratic force of nature like Sellers is ultimately a fool's game. When, for example, Rush attempts to duplicate, note for note, Sellers's inspired routines in "Dr. Strangelove," we can't help but notice the differences between the original and the imitator. And in the end, one thing remains painfully clear: No one, past or present, can do Sellers better than Sellers could.
The Life and Death of Peter Sellers
Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO
Desson Thomson's best-liked Peter Sellers films:
DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)
Quite possibly the best and most endurable movie comedy of all time, "Dr. Strangelove" has some of Sellers's finest moments. As beleaguered U.S. President Merkin Muffley, terrified British Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake and the dominating Germanic Dr. Strangelove, Sellers showed three distinctive characters all caught in the madness of nuclear war. Sellers's hysterical renditions help you laugh your way through the terrifying prospect of mutually assured destruction.
A SHOT IN THE DARK (1964)
The funniest of the "Pink Panther" films, this shows bumbling Inspector Clouseau at his most startlingly cloddish. Asked to investigate a murder, he absolutely refuses to believe the culprit is guilty, even though she was witnessed standing over the victim holding a bloody knife. Sellers comes into his own as Clouseau, destroying pronunciations of normal English words, as when he complains of suffering a "bemp" to his head.
BEING THERE (1979)
This was the film that Sellers was obsessed with making for much of his career. His haunting performance as Chance, a simple-minded gardener who becomes something of a pop messiah because of his idiosyncratic aphorisms, shows that wait was well worth it.