Peter Sellers - Mr. Strangelove
Ed Sikov's Mr.Strangelove (Hyperion, $27.95), a shrill biography of actor-comedian Peter Sellers, is, as the title shouts, the story of a human monster. How many bios have been this hostile to the subject of inquiry, whom Sikov characterizes (a not atypical passage!)as "an emotionally spoiled, spiritually amoebic mama's boy, whose innate and fierce talent for mimicry allowed him...to perpetuate... his own evacuated personality."
The tale is all-too-familiar for a mightily paid movie star: failed marriages and compulsive womanizing, neglect of his children when he was not beating them with a belt, loathsome, megalomaniac behavior on movie sets. Kubrick liked Sellers, but Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards, Vittorio DeSica were among directors who wished to kill him.
His meeting with young Woody Allen? Sellers pulled a power trip, rudely rewriting Allen's dialogue for What's New Pussycat? Cast with Orson Welles? The ego-driven two despised each other, turning the shooting of Casino Royale into a Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Scratch Sellers, and there was nobody home, in the heart or soul. The emptiness was filled a thousand ways with a thousand personas, from "Queen Victoria when she was a lad" to falling-over-his-feet Inspector Clouseau to Lolita's protean Claire Quilty to Being There's TV-watching blob Chauncey Gardiner to his schizoid characterizations in Dr.Strangelove. Sikov: "The seamless flow of dissociation with multiple characters produced was remarkable, Men, women, old, young, upper class, working class."
When Sikov quotes Sellers on Sellers, the all-empty bottle thesis is verified by the source, but with a manic-depressive twist. The comedian, describing himself in 1962: "Someone who has never grown up, a wild sentimentalist, capable of great heights and black, black depths-a person who has no real value of his own. I'm like a mike-I haven't a set sound of my own.
The Ma was "Peg" Sellers, a show-biz dame in London indulging her narcissist little boy, who practiced voices while tuned to BBC radio. His break was becoming a member of the Goon Show. Here was madcap, pun-dependent, anarchic Brit humor which fathered Beyond the Fringe and the Beatles movies, grandfathered Monty Python. You can read lots about The Goon Show, yet there's no way to experience what really happened revolutionizing England's jolly air waves. You must take the word of a reliable witness such as stage director Jonathan Miller, who said, "The Goon Show at its best was as good as Lewis Carroll."
Sellers's amazing talents are a given, and part of Mr.Strangelove is going through one Sellers movie after another and showing, in a perfunctory way, how good they were. But the book's juice is certainly in the nasty stories, like when Sellers broke his engagement to Liza Minnelli after she jokingly yanked off his wig. When, in 1980, Sellers succumbs in the book, nobody reading it is going to care. Billy Wilder, skeptical of Sellers's heart failure: "You have to have a heart to have a heart attack."