I feel a little funny about re-posting a piece from the satirical Babylon Bee, a kind of rightwing Onion. I hate the idea of chuckling at any kind of conservative humor, but the Khmer Rouge has become so toxic, so deranged, so over-the-waterfall that, in the words of Richard Gere’s “Mayonnaise” in An Officer and a Gentleman, “I got nowhere else to go.”
Peter Medak‘s The Ghost of Peter Sellers (currently streaming) is a fascinating documentary about the disastrous making of his own Ghost in the Noonday Sun, a 1973 Peter Sellers pirate comedy that turned out so badly it was never released theatrically.
It was, however, issued on VHS in ’85, and on a Region 2 DVD in 2016 — $7.98 to buy, $3.99 to ship.
The 36 year-old Medak, coming off the success d’estime of The Ruling Class (’72), agreed to direct Noonday Sun in order to work with Sellers, regarded worldwide as a comic genius who was worth his weight in gold. If, that is, the script was first-rate and everything else was in its proper place.
Alas, the Noonday script was allegedly shoddy and shooting at sea (off the coast of Cyprus) was sure to be technically difficult. But the torpedo that destroyed the movie (and which damaged Medak’s career) was the erratic, instinctual madness of his lead actor, who could be extremely skittish and difficult to work with.
Sellers often said that he couldn’t abide mediocrity. Apparently he inhaled a good whiff of the stuff (or so he believed) almost immediately upon arriving in Cyprus. And so he tried to escape by bringing hell.
The best disaster docs of this kind are George Hickenlooper, Fax Bahr and Eleanor Coppola‘s Hearts of Darkness (’91), Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe‘s Lost in La Mancha (’02), about the calamitous undoing of Terry Gilliam’s first attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and Les Blank‘s Burden of Dreams (’82), about the arduous making of Werner Herzog‘s Fitzcarraldo (also ’82).
The Ghost of Peter Sellers is just as good and as necessary as these three. You really do have to watch it.
I was going to write about Medak’s film earlier this week, but I was depressed about being late to the party. I could have seen it at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival but I didn’t. I could have obtained a press screener earlier than I did. Bummed, man. Couldn’t get it up. I finally got going today.
A week-old discussion with a colleague:
HE: “Sellers was obviously the lunatic villain in this bizarre saga. Yes, they shouldn’t have made the damn film. Yes, it was a bad idea with a script that allegedly blew chunks. The only thing that was ready was the money. But Sellers was a crazy man.”
Colleague: “Sellers was crazy at times, but I honestly don’t think it was his behavior that ruined the film. And if that’s the case, why is he the villain?”
HE: “A producer says in the doc, ‘We all knew Peter was crazy, but we didn’t know how crazy.’
“Sellers was miserable during the shoot, but he was the powerhouse. He knew the difference between a good script and a bad or weak one. He wanted to have fun and do The Goon Show with Spike Milligan. But he had to know that the whole thing had a basic dubiousness and fragility.
“Yes, Medak saw that also, but he trusted in Sellers’ genius. Which was absurd, of course — if it’s not on the page it isn’t worth doing. Sellers played the innocent when he met Medak later on. ‘It was you and me vs. them,’ he recalled. Medak replied, ‘No, Peter. It was you.’