Richard Pryor. John Belushi. Jackie Gleason. Milton Berle. The contrast between the troubled offstage lives and the dazzling comedic characters invented by such performers has become a staple of show business biography in these anti-heroic, deconstruct-'em, postmodern times. It's rare indeed that a great comedian or comedic actor dies and his death isn't followed by biographies describing a tortured, twisted, sad and lonely life.
Even by the harsh standards of today, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, which airs tomorrow night on HBO and is based on a Roger Lewis' biography of the same title, is a stunner. The remarkable British actor who gave us such enduring film characters as Inspector Clouseau, Dr. Strangelove and Chance, the Gardener, suffered multiple addictions, physically abused his wives, emotionally maimed his children, savaged colleagues and was, if not insane, seemingly as close to it as anyone can get without being committed.
All this is brought to life with a jaw-dropping intensity created by a daring script, bold direction and grand performances by Academy Award winners Geoffrey Rush as Sellers and Charlize Theron as his second wife, actress Britt Ekland. Their work gives credibility to the HBO advertising motto: "It's not television, it's HBO."
The film opens in London in 1957 as 32-year-old Sellers performs with an absurdist comedy troupe, The Goons, which has become a hit with young listeners of BBC radio. Sellers seems nearly content with his life as a radio cult celebrity and recently married father of one. But his life is nowhere near good enough for his monster of a mother, Peg (Miriam Margolyes), who raised him as she made the rounds on England's vaudeville circuit.
"You simpering cow," she snarls at Sellers as she stands watching him change his daughter's diaper in an opening scene. "How can you be content changing nappies in a four-room flat like a woman? You want to be a failure like your father? Did I bring you up to be content? If you want success, you have to go out and grab it. Bite the hand that feeds you, and there'll always be another hand with more food. And they'll be impressed by the sharpness of your teeth."
No doubt about it, the one thing Peg didn't bring Peter up to be was content. Even as he quickly achieves the kind of fame and fortune for which she lusts, he never seems to find peace or happiness.
His mother apparently created the demons in her young son's head, and now they wreak havoc upon all who enter his sad life.
No one suffers more than his wife and children. The greatness of Theron's performance is that she takes what looks to be a bubble-headed, empty-vessel of a role and turns it into a canvas that captures every cruel slash and vicious stroke Sellers delivers. It is through her that the audience feels the fury of his self-loathing and madness.
The performance by Rush is grand opera. While it seems like a dream role - a chance to inhabit many of the fabulous characters created by Sellers - it could quickly become a nightmare for the actor and a travesty to the viewer if the imitation did not soar close to the same heights as the original. Rush is flying without a net from the first frame, and he never crashes.
"What made Sellers such an artist on such a grand scale was also what made him mad: the intensity and excitement of his imagination," Lewis writes in his book.
The triumph of Stephen Hopkins' direction is that, in the end, it captures an artist's imagination rather than merely recounting the story of a man who found fame but desperately lost his way.
What: The Life and Death of Peter Sellers
When: Tomorrow night at 9
In brief: The feverish and troubled imagination of a great comic actor captured on film