The Ghost of Peter Sellers


A comic genius lost at sea.

(2018) Documentary (1091Peter Medak, Peter Sellers, Joe Dunne, Spike Milligan, Nora Farnes, Simon van der Burgh, Louis M. Heyward, Susan Wood, John Heyman, Liza Minelli, David Korda, Ruth Myers, Robin Dalton, Costas Evagorou, Murray Melvin, Costas Demetriou, Tony Greenberg, Dennis Fraser, Piers Haggard, Robert Wagner, Anthony Franciosa, Rita Franciosa. Directed by Peter Medak

 

We Americans love a winner. What movies do we go see? The box office champions. We figure if everyone else wants to see it, it must be good. Still, there is something fascinating about a colossal failure – it brings the rubberneck instinct in all of us.

The thing is, Ghost in the Noonday Sun is not even a legendary failure like Heaven’s Gate or Ishtar. Maybe it should have been – it had everything going for it. It’s director, Peter Medak, was fresh off The Ruling Class and was considered one of the brightest young directors in Hollywood. The star, Peter Sellers, was widely acknowledged as a comic genius and perhaps one of the greatest comic actors ever. His buddy from The Goon Show, Spike Milligan, had written a script for a pirate movie. The production would be based in Cyprus and the producers built a working pirate ship for the movie. What could go wrong? Pretty much everything.

They should have gotten the hint when the pirate ship was run into a dock and sank on the first day of production. “We were cursed from Day One,” intones producer, the late John Heyman. It was 1973 though; excess was not a problem. Hollywood was thriving, after all. But there were signs, according to Medak.

Sellers had personally recruited Medak to the project and for his part Medak jumped at the chance to work with a legitimate genius. However, just before production started, Sellers had split with girlfriend Liza Minelli and was, as Medak puts it, “catatonically depressed.” He hadn’t read the script but once he read it, he realized that the movie was a disaster waiting to happen and instantly became focused on getting out of doing it. He went to the lengths of faking a heart attack (he had a well-documented heart condition that would eventually kill him seven years later). Sellers fired producers right and left, only showed up to the set when he felt like it, and alienated virtually everyone. He tried to have Medak fired, had such a vitriolic row with co-star Anthony Franciosa that neither actor was willing to appear in the same frame together.

Medak eventually completed the film and when he went to the wrap party, nobody from his own film was there; only a couple of technicians from another film working on the island. The studio (Columbia) deemed it unreleasable when they got it and it stayed on the shelf until it got an unheralded home video release on VHS. It’s not hailed as a lost treasure, nor is it even remembered as a massive failure. It’s just…ignored. Still, it was enough to destroy Medak’s confidence in himself, and derail his career; he wouldn’t direct another film for five years and he would rarely get the opportunities to direct high-profile films ever again, even though he did some decent movies like The Krays and Romeo is Bleeding as well as being regularly employed in television – he was unable to control his star so no studio would take a chance on a big-budget film with him ever again. Now in his mid-80s (he was 80 when this was filmed), the pain is very much still there. He breaks down a couple of times during the movie and clearly has issues letting go, even though Sellers’ former agent Nora Farnes gently implores him to, while Heyman, showing remarkable perspective, reminds him “it’s only a movie.”

Whether this turned out to be the catharsis he clearly intended it to be, only Medak knows. For the rest of us, it’s a deep dive into how a big movie can descend into absolute chaos, particularly when a mercurial star has way too much control. Medak has over the years kept a good deal of mementos from the movie; production logs, letters from Heyman urging him to get control of the situation or he would be fired, still pictures, home movies and yes, footage from the ill-fated film itself.

It turns out to be a fascinating exercise, perhaps more so for Medak and cinematic buffs than for the general public but it is to a large extent the equivalent of watching a train wreck. I don’t think movie sets are run quite the same way anymore and while situations like this one could conceivably happen again, producers generally have insurance policies that cover this kind of thing. Back then, nobody got paid if the movie didn’t get made, so despite the surreal chaos, Medak soldiered on, knowing that the end result would be catastrophe. But sometimes, the best revenge is survival.

REASONS TO SEE: Bittersweet but fascinating. A cautionary tale of how one person can hijack an entire production.
REASONS TO AVOID: May have limited appeal beyond cinema buffs
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sellers would go on to win an Oscar for Being There. He died in 1980 at age 54.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews, Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lost in La Mancha
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
House of Hummingbird

The Pink Panther 2


The Pink Panther 2

Looks like Peter Sellers' memory is getting hosed again.

(2009) Comedy (MGM) Steve Martin, Jean Reno, John Cleese, Andy Garcia, Alfred Molina, Emily Mortimer, Lily Tomlin, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Yuki Matsuzaki, Jeremy Irons, Johnnie Hallyday. Directed by Harald Zwart

Some movies shouldn’t have been remade, and once remade, they should never have generated sequels. However, upon rare occasion, the sequel turns out better than the original remake. Not so much the original original. Oh, my brain hurts!

Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Martin) has been relegated to traffic duty by his nemesis, the stiff-necked Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Cleese, taking over from Kevin Kline who played the role in the reboot – Herbert Lom made the role famous in the sequels to the original that were made more than a decade than the original, but almost 30 years before the reboot…did I mention my brain hurts?). As with most things, he makes a hash of it, delivering chaos without really intending to. However, that’s all about to change. A skilled thief who calls himself “the Tornado” has stolen such artifacts as the Shroud of Turin, the Magna Carta and the sword of the Japanese Emperor. Notice he didn’t go after anything American of value ; our national symbol perhaps, one that sums up our identity more than any other. I’m speaking of course of the Vince Lombardi Trophy given to the winner of the Super Bowl each year. Then again, if someone were to steal that, they’d have a hundred million angry football fans clamoring to kick their ass.

Um, moving along, the French prime minister fears that the Pink Panther, the national symbol of France (but was originally the symbol of the fictional country of Lugash in the original and its sequels and I think the reboot too but I can’t remember very well anymore because my brain is really beginning to hurt now), will be next. He wants Jacques Clouseau on the case, joining a dream team of international detectives that have been assigned to apprehending the thief. They are Vincenzo Doncorleone (Garcia), an Italian lothario; Kenji (Matsuzaki), a Japanese computer whiz; Pepperidge (Molina), a Sherlock Holmes-like analyzer of clues and Sonia (Rai Bachchan), the world’s foremost authority on the Tornado and damned gorgeous to boot.

Along for the ride is Nicole (Mortimer), Clouseau’s long-suffering and clearly smitten with him secretary, and Ponton (Reno), Clouseau’s long-suffering and able assistant inspector. They’ll question a retired jewel thief (Irons) and visit the Pope when the Tornado steals the papal signet ring from his finger while he’s asleep. Along the way there’ll be pratfalls, mistaken identities, property damage and romantic interludes. A restaurant will burn down – twice, and Nicole, tired of waiting for Clouseau to make a move, allows herself to be romanced by Vincenzo, especially after Clouseau disgraces himself by dressing up like the pope, appearing on the balcony in St. Peter’s Square and then proceeding to fall out of the balcony, giving billions of Catholics angina. But you know how things go in this kind of movie; no matter how big a buffoon he is, only Clouseau can save the day – even if he gets his ass handed to him by a couple of karate kids, an angry old lady and Lily Tomlin, who may have been angry but isn’t the old lady I was thinking about. Oh, my brain is exploding!

The original Pink Panther series had Peter Sellars as Clouseau and rightly or wrongly, that role is associated with him as much as James Bond is with Sean Connery and Harry Potter with Daniel Radcliffe. Some roles just leave indelible marks on the careers of an actor.

Remaking movies with other actors in those roles may bring people out for curiosity’s sake, particularly when the originator of the role is long dead, but it rarely ends up well. Most film lovers spend the entire movie comparing the performances (and usually the new guy doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt) and the studios, for their part, rarely see fit to spend much money or time on a project which is, to them, an attempt to milk a cash cow one last time.

Strangely, though, as bad as the first reboot of the series was, this one is slightly better. Martin has settled in a bit more to the Clouseau role, and while he can do the physical comedy required of the role, he seems better suited to the verbal buffoonery that comes from Clouseau’s impenetrable accent.

There are some charming moments, however; a re-teaming of All of Me co-stars Martin and Tomlin, the latter as a very politically correct instructor on…um, political correctness, something which the bumbling Clouseau can’t begin to comprehend, using racial and sexual slurs at nearly every turnpoint but with a guileless charm that makes it more like a child saying it. In the hands of a less gifted comedian, you might wind up despising Clouseau.

Unfortunately, this is a comedy and you kind of expect a few laughs. There are a few, but only a few; much of the movie seems very ill-timed and rushed, and you get the feeling that there was more of a sense of getting everything in the can so that the all-star cast could move on to more worthy pursuits. There’s nothing here that’s edgy or outrageous; for the most part, the comedy is as inoffensive as that of Father of the Bride, a like-minded Martin comedy that is also much better than this.

WHY RENT THIS: Pretty much non-offensive comedy that while not laugh-out-loud funny isn’t uncomfortably unfunny either. Rai is very pleasant to look at and some of the physical comedy bits were well-staged.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This isn’t very bad but it isn’t very good either. The movie degenerates into downright silliness often enough to be irritating.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some innuendo and a little bit of mild violence but otherwise this is suitable for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in the franchise, either with Peter Sellers or without, that has had a number in the title.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Not a lot; there is a gag reel that might well be funnier than the movie, and a feature deconstructing some of the more physical comedy gags which was kind of interesting.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $76M on an unreported production budget; I doubt the budget was even $30M so I’d think this was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Signal