That’s the argument made by The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, which stars Geoffrey Rush as Sellers. The film follows Sellers from his success with The Goon Show to his subsequent collaborations with Stanley Kubrick (Stanley Tucci) and Blake Edwards (John Lithgow). Sellers becomes an international star but remains a deeply unhappy person, cheating on his wives, emotionally abusing his son, and being difficult on set. The film makes the argument that that the only person that Sellers truly loved was his doting mother (played by Miriam Margoyles) and that, having been born into a show business family, performing was the only thing that he was capable of doing. Even the few times when he’s shown to be a decent father, husband, or friend, it’s suggested that he’s just acting the role. Rush plays Sellers as being someone who is incapable of understanding how other people think so, whenever he has to interact with them, he simply imitates what he’s seen others do. Just look at the scene where he attempts to flirt with Sofia Loren by grinning up at her like a character in a romantic comedy.
The problem with a film like this is that, because he’s portrayed as being so selfish and immature, it’s hard to make Peter Sellers into a character that you would want to spend any time with. The narrative goes from one Sellers tantrum to another. Stephen Hopkins livens things up by including fantasy sequences where Sellers is taunted by some of his best-known characters, driving home the point that there wasn’t much to Sellers beyond the characters that he played and reminding us of both Sellers’s talent and Geoffrey Rush’s as well. There are also frequent monologues from Rush, dressed up like the other characters in the movie and discussing their relationship with Peter Sellers. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Rush does a good job playing Stanley Tucci playing Stanly Kubrick but when he’s made up to look like Miriam Margoyles, the conceit gets too ridiculous to work.
The main reason to see the film is for the performances, especially Emily Watson as Sellers’s first wife and Stephen Fry as Sellers’s “spiritual advisor.” Stanley Tucci is an inscrutably brilliant Stanley Kubrick while John Lithgow is a hyperactive and crass Blake Edwards. Finally, Geoffrey Rush is a marvel as Peter Sellers. Rush has a difficult job, making an extremely unlikable character compelling but he succeeds despite not always being helped by the film’s script or direction.
Like the man it portrayed, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is flawed but filled with enough talent to watchable.