Melbourne Documentary Film Festival: The Ghost of Peter Sellers Review
Peter Sellers is a minor personal obsession of mine. Ever since my late teens, when I first saw his Promethean triple roles in Dr. Strangelove I became fascinated with finding out more about the man. Periodically I have kept my eye out for films, books and documentaries, gathering bits and pieces to inform the puzzle of this profoundly talented, deeply broken and even sinister performer.
This latest documentary, The Ghost of Peter Sellers from director Peter Medak, is the latest piece in that jigsaw puzzle. It is Medak’s cathartic revisiting of his encounter with Sellers on the unreleased 1973 pirate film Ghost in the Noonday Sun, and the legacy of trauma, madness and missed opportunity realized by that project.
For those unfamiliar with Sellers he was an impressionist, comedian and actor who rose to prominence in the 1950s, first as a cast member of the BBC Radio comedy The Goon Show, then through a string of successful UK and US film roles. Sellers is best known for portraying Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films, and for his performances in Dr. Strangelove, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Sellers passed away in 1980.
He had an exceptional ear for accents, phenomenal instincts for character work and in his finest moments, a felicity for invention that outshone any of his contemporaries. He was also a promiscuous megalomaniac, violent spouse and drug-abuser who was a nightmare to those he professed to love. He once woke one of his children in the middle of the night to ask whether he should marry his co-star Sophia Loren. Another time he threatened to jump out a window unless his wife came to placate him. In one fit of rage he even tried to drown a puppy in a swimming pool.
On film sets his mania would surface in being unable to let anyone else upstage him, insisting on re-shoots if he sensed such was the case (co-star Ringo Starr experienced this on the set of The Magic Christian) or, in what would become an ongoing habit, hiring people only to express dissatisfaction with them later. Sellers himself asked Peter Medak to be the director of Ghost in the Noonday Sun in which Sellers would play the lead, only to turn against Medak once filming began. This side of Sellers is shown in Medak’s The Ghost of Peter Sellers. As the documentary progresses, we hear how Sellers even went so far as to rally the crew to abandon the project, citing Medak’s direction as the reason the film was unraveling.
Sellers’ “ghost” looms large over the proceedings and quite obviously over Medak, who 45 years later, still feels compelled to revisit his fateful pairing with the comic. Through archive photos, footage from Ghost in the Noonday Sun and extensive interviews with Medak and his collaborators, we learn how the production came unstuck.
Neither Medak nor executive producer John Heyman had much faith in the script, they committed only because Sellers was a hot property at the time. Medak recounts how, when he met with the actor to discuss the role, an argument between Sellers’ and his then fiancé Liza Minelli, prevented a proper discussion from happening prior to filming. The Ghost of Peter Sellers convingly implies that the production was doomed from the beginning.
When the pirate ship was delivered to the Cyprus set, the inebriated captain ran it aground on a rocky bay. When it came time for filming, Sellers would arrive each day later and later, until finally he stopped showing up at all, forcing the project way over schedule. We even hear how during one scene Sellers faked a heart attack, resulting in Medak shutting down the production for his leading man to recuperate, only two days later to find Sellers on the front page of a newspaper escorting Princess Margaret around London.
The documentary reveals, through Medak’s research and reunions with key members of the production team, that Sellers wasn’t the only figure to betray Medak on the film. The Ghost of Peter Sellers explores harsh actions taken by producers and even extras, that haunted this production.
Noonday Sun’s director has clearly been marked by the experience, however his moments of genuine, heartfelt emotion are often at odds with his insistence on the staging of moments in this documentary. For example, re-entering a room if he felt the encounter was too subdued or even addressing the timing of a touching revelation by calling “cut” on himself afterwards. The surrounding artificiality of these “genuine” outbursts leave the viewer feeling oddly cheated - but then the collision of authenticity and artifice is in itself an excellent encapsulation of film as a medium.
But is it fitting for the documentary format, which by definition should always strive to be a record of the “real”?
By displaying the documentary’s behind-the-scenes footage within the documentary itself, Medak raises this uneasy question. This choice, however, could also serve as a distraction from the overriding purpose of the film; to detail the 40+ year trauma of a film project gone off the rails.
Nevertheless this documentary remains a compelling record of a troubled film production, the troubled character of Sellers and the traumatized figure of Medak. It ultimately gives Medak an opportunity to exorcise his demons and guilt relating to the project, and perhaps offer him the prospect of closure.
In The Ghost of Peter Sellers, Medak shares his feelings that Noonday Sun blighted his career and stunted his growth as a filmmaker. Given this documentary is being sold on Seller’s involvement, and not Medak’s (whose post-Noonday Sun credits include only minor highlights like The Changeling, Romeo is Bleeding and Species 2), that should perhaps give viewers pause.
The Ghost Of Peter Sellers is showing at Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. The festival runs from July 19th to 28th at Cinema Nova. For more information, including session times, visit Cinema Nova online.