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We all have one or two — filmmakers and actors who we just can’t get behind no matter how much acclaim they receive. Sometimes it’s just a matter of taste. You either love Wes Anderson’s style or you don’t. You either enjoy Tom Cruise’s charisma or you don’t. Other times it’s actually a matter of objective criticism, a certainty that the person is no good, and that’s the kind that can be very difficult to admit if most of the intelligent world considers the director or performer to be a genius. That’s also the kind of argument that can upset friendships, as I’ve known one critic to confess of regarding his stance on Stanley Kubrick — a stance he is not yet brave enough to put onto a public forum. After all, commenters can be so cruel. So can academic peers.
My confession for today is relevant to the Kubrick one. I want to admit that I don’t like Peter Sellers. I never have. But it’s not enough anymore to admit that as a matter of opinion. I now believe that Sellers was in fact not a good actor, nor a good comedian. That’s not to say he wasn’t funny. He makes people laugh, so that’s irrefutable. Sense of humor is one thing, though, and talent is another. I can’t say that I’ve seen everything he was in, but how comprehensive a study must I make to find the exception? I’ve given him a chance over and over. I watched a few of his films over the weekend in the hopes of being able to write a piece titled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Peter Sellers.” But I can no better force that feature out of me than Sellers was able to force a character that doesn’t work — though he did try ever so much to do so.
To argue that Sellers was not a talented comedic actor is not to argue that his movies were all terrible. However, those of his movies that are masterpieces — Dr. Strangelove and Being There at the top of that list — are such no thanks to him. His performance as Chance in the latter is as simple as the character himself and dependent on stiff readings of amusing dialogue and stiff action in farcically ironic and satirical situations. As for the former, he’s best in the straight role of President Muffley but awfully over-the-top as the title character. He was the Robin Williams of his time, disastrously excessive when given the room yet sufficiently okay when restrained. Sellers was a ham of high school-level proportion, someone who seems to be trying too hard with every bit (we all acted beside these types if we did teen theater). Comedically he’s like the dancer who is thinking too much about her counting. You can perceive his consciousness of his acting with each action, a most unnatural dramatist.
Aside from a brief familiarity with his portrayal of Inspector Clouseau, whom my father must have enjoyed but I never thought highly of, my real introduction to Sellers was in another Kubrick film: Lolita. He is the ruin of that adaptation for me, swooping in immediately like a mad loon onto an otherwise steady and perfectly cast (outside of Sue Lyon’s age) translation of Nabokov’s moderate comedy. From there I’ve tried to bear him in other films I’d otherwise like (from his overdone bits in The Mouse That Roared — again doing multiple roles — and Murder By Death to his toned down stints in stuff like The World of Henry Orient). This past weekend I finally gave The Pink Panther a full shot, given that it had its 50th anniversary on Friday, and it was with the Clouseau debut that I decided Sellers was never going to happen for me.
As a man of slapstick, he’s been compared to Chaplin and Keaton, yet the truth is his skill as a physical comedian in’t even on par with Leslie Nielsen, to compare him to another known for his bumbling policeman. He lacks the grace (yes, there must be grace to the portrayal of gracelessness) of Rowan Atkinson let alone the silent film legends. Again, you can almost hear him talking himself through his stunts as he’s doing them, and his expressions are typically more a giveaway of self-satisfaction than appropriate to the role. It doesn’t help that his gags in the Pink Panther films are mostly unimaginative — setting things (often himself) on fire, knocking himself with swinging doors, tripping on props, getting caught on sets, etc. I should probably confess that I think Blake Edwards was a bad filmmaker, too.
There are no movies I accept as having been better because of Sellers, even though I understand his few characters in Strangelove to be iconically incapable of ever being redone equally or better. Funny or not, well-acted or not, those are creations that service a brilliant script and work of art like dull-colored spots that are integral to a great painting’s makeup. That movie works because of Kubrick, not Sellers. The Pink Panther doesn’t work mostly because of Edwards, but even if Sellers offers the only semblance of juice to the movie, he certainly doesn’t save it.
I’m definitely open to hearing defenses on his behalf, not just from people who like Sellers but from those who can make a case for his talent. I don’t want to fight anyone on this, nor do I expect to be turned, though I continue to welcome recommendations for exceptions (I’ve already received a few suggestions via Twitter, and so far further dips into the Pink Panther series and Edwards’s The Party haven’t changed my mind). More, though, I’d love to hear about readers’ personal equivalents, admissions of not ever being able to see the quality in Orson Welles, perhaps, or an argument for why Marlon Brando or Katherine Hepburn were terrible actors or how Gene Kelly wasn’t a good dancer (an opinion I’ve heard from a professional dancer friend) or anything contrary to popular critical opinion or “fact.” Feel free to comment anonymously if afraid of being stoned to death by fellow cinephiles.