It has long been said that the most brilliant comedians inherently have personality disorders. That's probably not true in every case – Steve Martin, for example, has always seemed well-adjusted – but it definitely applied to Peter Sellers. The actor had a reputation for putting up facades, so that even those closest to him were hard-pressed to say that they really knew him. As director Peter Medak found out the hard way, if the star was unhappy, he could make life miserable for others. The documentary The Ghost of Peter Sellers finds the filmmaker performing a little cinematic therapy on himself.
In 1973, Medak signed on to direct a 17th century pirate comedy called Ghost in the Noonday Sun. Sellers was set to star and appeared happy with the screenplay by his old pal Spike Milligan. It should have been a slam dunk. Unfortunately, the actor came to the production in a less-than-enthusiastic state, having just broken up with girlfriend Liza Minnelli. For that and who knows what other reasons, Sellers quickly decided that he didn't want to be there. He argued with Medak, gave a listless performance, and even faked a heart attack so that he could get away from the set for a while. The director was outraged to see a picture of his lead actor in the newspaper, dining out with Princess Margaret, two days later.
Shooting on water proved stressful enough, but Sellers kept creating drama. He publicly stated that he'd lost faith in Medak. Later, he refused to shoot any scenes with co-star Tony Franciosa – a true inconvenience, given that their characters had several crucial sequences together. Ghost in the Noonday Sun was ultimately shelved by the studio. Extensive clips make that decision understandable. Between production problems and Sellers' disinterest, it appears to be an aggressively unfunny, big-budget mess that doesn't know what it wants to be and therefore succeeds at being nothing.
Medak attempts to make peace with the experience in The Ghost of Peter Sellers. He interviews others associated with the film, including producer John Heyman. They reminisce about the production, trying to laugh it off while simultaneously bonding over the stress it caused. Medak acknowledges being haunted by Ghost in the Noonday Sun for decades. In making this documentary, he works to get that out of his system.
Anyone with an interest in crazy, outrageous making-of stories will lap this film up. It very effectively conveys the madness that occurred. On-set footage and clips from the picture itself bring the story to life. You also get a glimpse into the mind of Sellers. The passive-aggressiveness with which he handled the situation is astonishing. If anything, The Ghost of Peter Sellers would have benefited from more information about the editing of the film and the backstage drama on why studio didn't release it.
This is Medak's story, though, and he sticks to the filming. Peter Sellers was one of the greatest comic actors the world has ever known. And, as this doc proves, he was fascinating even in his worst moments.
out of four
The Ghost of Peter Sellers is unrated, but contains adult language. The running time is 1 hour and 33 minutes.