I have a bizarre fascination with the bad movies of Peter Sellers, of which there are many.
I love Peter Sellers, but before his untimely death at just 54 in 1980, he wasted his protean talent in an awful, awful lot of trash. The chameleon was an actor who was reborn in each role in startling ways, from French detectives to Hindu partygoers to Christ-like savant politician. “The Pink Panther” series, “Being There,” “Dr. Strangelove” – the man starred in a lot of classic movies.
But of the somewhere around 50 movies he starred in, many are clumsy, dated and a bit offensive by modern standards. He didn’t have a great eye for picking his projects, many of which scream “paycheck!” Yet I’m still drawn to Sellers in them, who holds the cinematic light like a candle in the dark through even the most slapdash of productions.
I’ve been making my way as a kind of punishing completist chore through the most obscure of Sellers’ oeuvre, movies that are barely remembered today. Sellers was a difficult, demon-haunted man, whose talent was crippled by bad health and serious psychological issues (there’s the famous quote “There is no me. I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed,” which more than anything sums up the man).
Many of Sellers’ best bad movies are those only-in-the-‘60s crazed drug dreams of cinema, like “The Magic Christian” with Ringo Starr as Sellers’ son, or “What’s New, Pussycat?,” the definitive swinging ‘60s all-star lunatic comedy.
In the 1970s Sellers’ movies got weirder and worse, tipping from good-bad to bad-bad. There’s “Soft Beds, Hard Battles,” a weirdly inept WWII comedy about a brothel, featuring Sellers in six roles, including Adolf Hitler. “Where Does It Hurt?” is a justly-forgotten lame, sloppy 1972 “comedy” about a corrupt hospital that drags for 85 endless minutes, only lifted when Sellers’ malevolent hospital administrator stalks through the scenery.
And I am absolutely dying to see the new documentary “The Ghost of Peter Sellers,” an entire film about the apocalyptic making of one of his flops, the pirate film “Ghost In The Noonday Sun.”
“Being There” climaxed his career with an Oscar nomination, but it wasn’t Sellers’ last gasp – that was “The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu,” one of the strangest Hollywood movies of all time, with Sellers playing both “yellow peril” villain Fu and his nemesis Nayland Smith in another cobbled-together, rambling mess of a movie that ends with an Elvis impersonation. That one is good-bad-good-bad-bad on a whole new level.
I wish he’d done a dozen more “Being Theres” instead of ten “There’s A Girl In My Soups” but sometimes you find gems in the dross, like “The Blockhouse,” an almost forgotten serious drama about D-Day which is one of Sellers’ best, least remembered movies.
There’s a kernel of something golden in even his worst movies. His Fu Manchu is objectively a racist joke played far too long, but there’s a strange sadness Sellers summons up between the lame puns in his portrayal of an immortal villain.
When they say something is “strictly for the fans,” I often think of Peter Sellers’ bad movies. They really are only for obsessed fans like me, who can watch a gifted, protean actor bring a little sparkle of talent to B-movie comedies that didn’t deserve him.