Sellers, Peter


Sellers, Peter
(1925–1980)
   Richard Henry Sellers was born in Southsea, Hampshire, England, in 1925. He joined the Royal Air Force at 17 and became an entertainer at military bases. He gained popularity as a mimic on BBC radio’s “Goon Show,” and entered British films in the early 1950s. Sellers made his mark as a cello-playing hoodlum in The Ladykillers (1956) and as the blustering union leader in I’m Alright, Jack (1959), among other movies. In the early 1960s he became a world-class movie star as a result of his two STANLEY KUBRICK films, LOLITA (1962) and DR. STRANGELOVE (1964). In Blake Edwards’s The Pink Panther (1964) he essayed the role of the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. The many sequels to The Pink Panther curtailed his comic invention and his potential as an actor. Heart disease interfered with his later career. Being There (1979), his last movie of note, earned him an Academy Award nomination in the role of an eccentric gardener who is mistaken for a homespun philosopher. In Lolita, which is derived from VLADIMIR NABOKOV’s novel, the middle-aged Humbert Humbert (JAMES MASON) is obsessed with 12-year-old Lolita (SUE LYON). Sellers plays Clare Quilty, a television personality who is Humbert’s rival for Lolita’s affections. In order not to give the story of an older man’s perverse attachment to an underage girl too somber a treatment, Kubrick opted to emphasize the black comedy inherent in the plot; and Sellers was very much his ally in this regard.
   Kubrick would sometimes make additions to a scene based on the suggestions of Sellers and other actors as they rehearsed on the set. These give-andtake sessions at times yielded some significant moments in the picture; the movie’s prologue is a prime example of Kubrick’s working out a scene with Sellers on the set before the cameras rolled. Indeed, Sellers contributed some particularly excellent bits of dialogue to the prologue. The prologue, which follows the film’s opening credits, shows Humbert arriving at Quilty’s musty mansion for a decisive showdown with him about Lolita. This sequence firmly establishes the air of black comedy that permeates the picture. In fact, Sellers, in close collaboration with Kubrick, built this scene into a masterpiece of black comedy, in which Sellers displayed his talent for mimicry to perfection. Nabokov himself declared this macabre murder scene in the film a masterpiece. Hence it deserves to be carefully analyzed as a superb example of a director exploiting an actor’s creative talent to maximum effect. The scene opens with Humbert stumbling about among the cluttered rooms of Quilty’s bizarre castle; he is brandishing a revolver with which he intends to shoot Quilty, and shouting Quilty’s name. In the novel Humbert bumps into Quilty as the latter emerges from the bathroom. In the film, Kubrick introduces Quilty by having him begin to stir under the dust cover of one of the chairs in the living room, which is strewn with empty bottles and other remnants of the previous night’s orgy. The disheveled Quilty, dressed in pajamas and slippers and trying vainly to cope with a hangover, wraps the sheet around himself like a toga and says with a lisp,“I am Spartacus. Have you come to free the slaves or something?” Quilty’s quip indicates that he is not taking Humbert’s threats to kill him very seriously. Taking his cue from the Spartacus remark and the toga effect, Sellers suggested during rehearsals that Quilty challenge Humbert to play a game of Ping-Pong, like two civilized Roman senators.
   Quilty bats the ball at Humbert, who, perhaps without being completely aware of what he is doing, returns the ball. Quilty’s frivolous and erratic behavior is in arch counterpoint to Humbert’s singleminded, broken-voiced despair—“Do you remember a girl named Lolita?” Quilty shrugs and continues his aimless patter. Then, eyeing Humbert’s gun, he makes a remark which ostensibly refers to Humbert’s lack of dexterity at Ping-Pong, but which really is Quilty’s way of saying that Humbert should accept his loss of Lolita to Quilty as inevitable:“Gee, you’re a bad loser, Captain. I never had anyone pull a gun on me just for losing a game. ”
   “You are going to die,” says Humbert; but Quilty, wrapped in the haze of his hangover, is beyond grasping the situation. He glides into an imitation of an old sourdough, reminiscent of countless sagebrush epics. “That’s a durlin’ gun you got there, mister. ” Making every effort to ignore the horseplay, Humbert forces Quilty to read from a confession that he has composed for him; but Quilty blithely carries on the charade. “What’s this, the deed to the ranch?” Nevertheless, Quilty takes up the paper and focuses his bleary eyes. “‘Because you took advantage of a sinner,’” he reads haltingly; “‘because you cheated me and took her at an age when young girls—’ It’s getting smutty, mister. ”
   Fed up, Humbert snatches the paper back and Quilty dons boxing gloves, announcing that he wants to “die like a champion. ” Humbert opens fire and grazes Quilty’s boxing glove, prompting the latter at last to try to reason with Humbert a little more seriously. “Listen, Captain, stop trifling with life and death. I’m a playwright. I know all about this sort of tragedy and comedy and fantasy. ”As he sits down at a piano, like a composer in some forgotten Hollywood musical biography, Quilty seeks to distract his tormentor from his set purpose by saying,“You look like a music lover to me. Why don’t I play you a little thing I wrote last week. ” Launching into a Chopin polonaise, he adds,“We could dream up some lyrics, share the profits. ‘The moon is blue and so are you. She’s mine tonight’—I mean,‘She’s yours tonight!’” Finally bedeviled beyond endurance,Humbert fires again and nicks Quilty in the knee. The wounded man drags himself up the grand staircase. “If you were trying to scare me you did a pretty good job,” he moans. “My leg will be black and blue in the morning. ” Quilty scrambles behind a painting of a genteel 18thcentury noblewoman which is propped against the wall. The camera lingers on the painting,and we watch it fill up with bullet holes as Humbert empties his gun into it. The rest of the film unfolds in flashback. Peter Sellers’s dexterity in improvisation and impersonation has never been better employed than in Lolita. In subsequent scenes, Sellers proves himself a masterful monologuist as he impersonates a bogus school psychologist and a homosexual policeman, in his endeavors to intimidate Humbert into renouncing Lolita.
   Sellers’s versatility was likewise demonstrated to great advantage in Dr. Strangelove (1964). While making that film,Kubrick and Sellers employed the same sort of improvisation that they utilized in making Lolita. Dr. Strangelove concerns the decision of the deranged Gen. Jack D. Ripper to order a group of B-52 bombers to launch an attack inside Russia. Sellers plays not only the title role of the eccentric scientist, but also the president of the United States, Merkin Muffley, and Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, the British officer who tries to dissuade General Ripper from initiating the bombing attack. Kubrick had also intended Sellers to play Maj. “King” Kong, the Texan who commands the only bomber that gets through to its Russian target. Sellers hesitated to take on the fourth role, because he was uncertain that he could master Kong’s cowboy accent. Kubrick was disappointed that Sellers declined to play the fourth part, since, in his view, that would have meant that almost everywhere the viewer looks, there is some version of Peter Sellers holding the fate of the world in his hands. Nevertheless, Sellers enacted the roles of the three men behind the scenes who are most deeply involved in trying to keep Major Kong from carrying out the mission that he has been led to believe by Ripper’s orders is his duty. Kubrick allowed Sellers to improvise scenes during rehearsals as he had on Lolita. “Some of the best dialogue was created by Peter Sellers himself,” Kubrick says in Gene Phillips’s book. This is true of the scene set in the War Room, a murky, cavernous place where President Muffley sits at a vast circular table with his advisers, reminiscent of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. During this emergency conference called by the president, Gen. Buck Turgidson (GEORGE C. SCOTT) gleefully informs President Muffley that things have already gotten to the point where the only possible recourse is to back Ripper’s attack with an all-out nuclear offensive against the Russians before they can retaliate. The president, who is not quite the simp that some critics have made him out to be, counters sensibly that it is the avowed policy of the United States never to strike first with nuclear weapons and that General Ripper’s action was not an act of national policy; furthermore, he contends, there are still other alternatives to the acts of aggression that Turgidson is proposing. He accordingly phones the Russian premier.
   The monologue in which President Muffley attempts to arbitrate the crisis with Premier Kissoff constitutes a brilliant comic monologue, in which Sellers once more proves, as he did in Lolita, that he is a master of improvisation and of black comedy. Therefore, we must consider it thoroughly. Kubrick commented that Sellers was always at his best in dealing with grotesque and horrifying circumstances that other actors might not think playable at all. This made him the perfect ally for the director, of whom ALEXANDER WALKER has written, “Comedy, for Kubrick, makes it possible to deal with issues that would be unbearable in any other form. ” President Muffley begins by endeavoring to explain the critical state of affairs in such a way that Premier Kissoff will not go into a rage that will prompt him immediately to initiate retaliatory measures against the United States. The situation is not helped by the fact that the Premier is drunk. “Now then, Dimitri,” the president says to the inebriated premier, “you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the bomb—the hydrogen bomb. Well now, one of our base commanders went a little funny in the head and did a silly thing. He ordered his planes to attack your country. . . . Well, can you imagine how I feel about it?” The president goes on to say that the bombers will not reach their objectives for another hour; then Muffley haltingly offers to give to the Russian air staff a complete rundown on the targets for which the B-52s are aiming, along with their flight plans and defense systems. “We can’t recall them,” he says, dreading the sound of his own words, “we are just going to have to help you destroy them. ” Kubrick shot Sellers’s monologue in a long take without much camera movement or cutting. In fact, the camera work throughout the scene is markedly unobtrusive. Asked about this, Kubrick pointed to Charles Chaplin’s ability to create his films with a minimum of camera dexterity. As he told Gene Phillips, “If something is really happening on the screen, it isn’t crucial how it is shot. Chaplin had a simple cinematic style, but you were always hypnotized by what was going on. ” Certainly Sellers’s monologues, here and elsewhere in the film, deserve this kind of treatment.
   In the end, one of the U. S. bombers (the one commanded by Major Kong) reaches its Russian target. The bomb hits its target, setting off the Russians’ retaliatory Doomsday Machine. In this moment of desolation, Dr. Strangelove speaks up. He is not at a loss for a plan for the survival of himself and his colleagues, whatever may happen to humanity at large as a result of the denotation of the Doomsday Machine. Dr. Strangelove, an ex-Nazi atomic scientist, historian Paul Boyer observes, was based on Wernher von Braun, a former Nazi rocket scientist, who headed America’s space research after the war. Dr. Strangelove, as Sellers portrays him, is more of a robot than a human being: he is confined to a wheelchair; his mechanical arm spontaneously salutes Hitler, his former employer; his mechanical hand, gloved in black, tries to strangle him. James Howard cites Sellers as recalling that “Stanley suggested I wear a black glove, which would look rather sinister on a man in a wheelchair. I gave the arm a life of its own; that arm hated the rest of the body; . . . that arm was a Nazi. ” Just at the moment when the Doomsday Machine is set off,Dr. Strangelove miraculously rises from his wheelchair. “Mein fuehrer,” he exclaims, “I can walk!” Strangelove, with all of his false limbs, is more of a machine than a man. Therefore, once the Doomsday Machine has been denotated, he experiences a surge of energy, a sympathetic vibration, as it were, with the ultimate and decisive triumph of the machine over humankind. Dr. Strangelove, it seems, still delights in the means of mass murder. As a matter of fact, Dr. Strangelove’s “resurrection” from his wheelchair was the product of one of Sellers’s improvisation sessions with Kubrick during rehearsals.
   Commenting on Sellers’s achievement in playing three roles in Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick says in James Howard’s book that each of the parts required a singular talent. “If there is only one man who has that talent, then he must play all three roles. ” Sellers’s two films with Kubrick unquestionably mark the high point of his career. His inspired work in both Lolita and Dr. Strangelove provided some of the most memorable moments in both films. Consequently, they are deservedly Sellers’s best remembered roles.
   References
   ■ Boyer, Paul, “Dr. Strangelove,” in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, ed. Mark Carnes (New York: Henry Holt, 1995), pp. 266–269;
   ■ Chion, Michel, Kubrick’s Cinema Odyssey (London: British Film Institute, 2001);
   ■ Corliss, Richard, Lolita (London: British Film Institute, 1994);
   ■ Dundy, Elaine, “Stanley Kubrick and Dr. Strangelove,” in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews, ed. Gene Phillips (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), pp. 9–16;
   ■ Ebert,Roger,“Great Movies:Dr. Strangelove,Chicago Sun-Times, July 11, 1996, sec. E, p. 6;
   ■ Howard, James, Stanley Kubrick Companion (London: Batsford, 1999), pp. 78–84, 91–97;
   ■ Kolker, Robert, A Cinema of Loneliness, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 119–128;
   ■ Phillips, Gene, Stanley Kubrick:A Film Odyssey (New York: Popular Library, 1977), pp. 83–102, 107–136;
   ■ Quirk, Lawrence, The Great War Films (New York: Carol, 1994), pp. 184–185;
   ■ Tibbetts, John, “‘Lolita,’” in The Encyclopedia of Novels into Film, rev. ed. , John Tibbetts and James Welsh, eds. (New York: Facts On File, 1999), pp. 134–138;
   ■ Walker, Alexander, Stanley Kubrick, Director, rev. ed. (New York: Norton, 1999), pp. 114–158.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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  • SELLERS, PETER — (Richard Henry; 1925–1980), British actor. Born in Portsmouth, the son of a non Jewish pianist and a Jewish mother, Agnes née Marks, Peter Sellers was educated at a Catholic school to the age of 14 and was originally a jazz drummer. Joining the… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • Sellers, Peter — orig. Richard Henry Sellers born Sept. 8, 1925, Southsea, Hampshire, Eng. died July 24, 1980, London British film actor. The son of vaudeville performers, he acted from childhood in his parents comedy act. In the early 1950s he performed on radio …   Universalium

  • Sellers, Peter — • СЕ ЛЛЕРС (Sellers) Питер (наст. имя Ричард Генри) (8.9.1925 24.6.1980)    англ. актёр, режиссёр. Вырос в театр. семье. В 1948 стал популярным эстрадным актёром и певцом. В кино с 1951. Успешно снялся в эпизодич. роли нерасторопного бандита… …   Кино: Энциклопедический словарь

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  • Peter Mayle — est un écrivain anglais contemporain, né le 14 juin 1939 à Brighton. Le gouvernement français l’a élevé au grade de Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur en 2002, pour coopération et francophonie[1]. Sommaire 1 Biographie …   Wikipédia en Français


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