Being There for Peter Sellers

When people ask me what my favorite comedy film of all time is, I often stall for time.

“Oh, that’s a tough question.  Do you mean modern comedy or British comedy?  I mean there’s all kinds of comedy; and therefore all kinds of comedy film.  There’s classic love farce like Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russel.  Fast talking one-liners zinging throat close and leaving no wound.  Then there’s  physical comedy and of course, who could exclude the immortal Charlie Chaplin, who became the black and white embodiment of the unspoken political statement without uttering a sound.” 


Not even sex.   In fact, sex is a sub-category of comedy.  That’s been my experience anyway.  More than religion and politics, no topic of conversation is more heated than who’s the funniest film comedian or what film is the funniest.  Just 20 years generation separation and you could be arguing with someone older or younger than you why “The Jerk” is 10 times more funny than say, “There’s Something About Mary”.  The smart comics know their lineage.  They know their twenty-something young souls were nurtured by the same comedy their parents watched on a nightly basis before they were told to go to bed, but it’s just 9.


But it’s on those “older shows” where the breakout comedy begins.  The rebel must have a stronghold to defeat.  Otherwise comedians find themselves in the worst imaginable hell for their type.  A permission based society.  I didn’t grow up in a world where everyone is treated like the polite stranger.  I grew up in America.  Where we treat everyone as either one of two things and two things only.  A friend or an enemy. But, I lived in England for nearly 20 years.  Where one assumes that being polite will get them what they seek.  How can I explain this properly……


You ever see the classic comedy film Being There? The 1979 comedy farce based on the book by one of my favorite writers Jerzy Kosinski and directed by the late great Hal Ashby.  Ashby was a Hollywood one of a kind legend.  His talent was immense and he left an indelible mark on Western Culture (he wasn’t a cowboy) with such classic films as Shampoo (came out long before Hairspray), Harold and Maude, The Last Detail and Coming Home.  The film Being There stars Peter Sellers.  Now, I’ve never been a Sellers fan, to be honest.  I kinda winced at all the Pink Panther films.  I guess I was too young to be old enough to be young enough again.


Before Being There, perhaps Peter Sellers’ most famous iconic comic role was that of no less than three distinct characters in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  Screenplay co-written by Kurbrick, Peter George and Terry Southern, who was a force of Sixties counter-culture subversive comedy and dramatic biting satire.  His legacy includes Barbarella, The Loved One, and Easy Rider.  I mean, Jesus.  In Strangelove, Sellers portrayed three parts.  That of Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President of the United States Merkin Muffley and the eponymous Dr. Strangelove himself.  All three characters were completely indistinguishable.  Amazing performances all from one man.


As Chauncey Gardiner, Peter Sellers gives – in not just my opinion – the greatest onscreen comedy performance of all known time and space.  To declare it a subtle performance is missing the point.  It’s beyond subtle.  An amazing fish out of water story, Sellers gets so deep inside his own head, the character of the dimwitted dolt turned media and political power enhances the plot of the mouse that roared to the point of the scariest place satire can go.  Possibility. That it could really happen in real life.


Well before the obfuscation of the Trump/Spicer kaleidoscopic alternate reality, there was Being There.  A political satire so cogent and accurate, it challenges the viewer to distinguish between the arms of the invisible government and media.  The smoke filled board room of power is skewered with deft handling of power play and naiveté.  Sellers plays it right down the middle.  Right where it counts.


This was Peter Sellers’ final role and what a charm it is.  Kosinski’s screenplay based on his eponymous book, directed by the great Hal Ashby, with stellar supportive roles by Shirley MacLaine and Melvin Douglas, and the great Jack Warden, Being There is a movie farce which will forever charm me from the evils of reality and remind me that no matter where you go, there’s always an alternate reality.  And that movie conceit lived itself out in reality.  The Academy gave Seller’s the Best Actor award, the Oscar, posthumously.  Proving that great artists, like great art, live on.      All will be well in the garden.

For The Hollywood Dog, this is Steven Alan Green 4/12/17


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