Geoffrey Rush has inhabited some huge characters in his career, from a mentally ill piano virtuoso to a literary sadist to a cadaverous pirate. But there is enough morphing by the actor in Home Box Office’s The Life and Death of Peter Sellers to populate six or seven features.
Make no mistake about it: This is Rush’s movie. There’s an Emmy- and Oscar-winning supporting cast — Charlize Theron, John Lithgow, Emily Watson, Stanley Tucci and Stephen Fry — but this is really a one-man show. Well, make that one-and-a-half.
Miriam Margolyes gives a strong performance in her limited screen time as Sellers’ mother, Peg, a chain-smoking social climber with the heart of a William Morris agent.
But the other players serve only to distract from Rush, who does more than just capture Sellers. He has a field day portraying the actor as Sellers’ most famous characters: The Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau, his suite of roles from Dr. Strangelove and his Academy Award-worthy turn as Chance the Gardener in Being There.
Viewers will be mesmerized by his impersonations, but unfortunately, apparently so were the filmmakers. Not only does Rush play Sellers, but at several crucial dramatic points, he also plays other people — male and female — in the comic’s life. The effect of Rush in drag, explaining Sellers’ interpretation of the actions of loved ones, rocks the viewer right out of the story. It’s truly a misfired conceit.
Despite the painful underuse of Theron (reduced to looking 1960s pixie-ish and trying to remember to sound Swedish) and Lithgow as a blowsy Blake Edwards, the film is still a compelling character study. Given the rich and conflicted private and professional life of Sellers, Rush could have probably played this to cardboard cutouts and come away with a compelling film. Sellers is portrayed as the sad clown (though hardly a stereotypical one), his moods ranging from self-loathing to self-delusion to fits of brutal arrogance.
He destroyed his first marriage when he became convinced that co-star Sophia Loren wanted to have an affair with him. He partnered with Edwards to make the financially successful and globally popular Pink Panther films, only to later publicly denigrate the director.
It’s a fascinating portrayal of a high-flying, yet poignant life. Watch for Rush on the list come Emmy time.
The Life and Death of Peter Sellers debuts on HBO on Dec. 5 at 9 ET/PT.