Peter Sellers is Dr. Strangelove

A week after watching the fabulous Doctor Strangelove (Kubrick, 1963)I was left with a number of fantastic thoughts in my head about the film.  Every shot had something interesting that I liked, every joke had some type of humor that I could understand and relate to, and there were even some surprisingly solid action sequences to keep my brain alert and focused.  What stood out to me the most, however, was an outstanding performance from Peter Sellers, something we briefly touched on in class last week but really (I think) needs to break the surface of conversation more than just once.

Seller’s performance wasn’t limited to one or two very impactful scenes, it was dispersed gradually over the course of the entire film as a sort of satirical glue that kept the mood light in the face of apparent seriousness.  Of course, he also wasn’t limited to just one character, as we saw him perform wonderfully as Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and as the iconic Dr. Strangelove himself.  What Sellers accomplished with all of these three characters was a perfect, diametrically opposed perspective from the perspective of the character he was conversing with at the time.  As Mandrake, Sellers plays a light-hearted spritely British captain who functions almost as a counter-point for the surly, cynical and insane Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden).  This opposing character structure is hugely instrumental in providing a balance that keeps the satirical mood in place the way it should be.  The reason General Ripper’s perspective seemed so ridiculous to us was because at every point that Ripper would make a dark, brooding comment on the clear and present danger of the Communists, Mandrake would react in such a way that reduced the paranoid negativity to a simple, perhaps even endearing grumpiness, and then he would proceed to try to make Ripper feel better by keeping a positive attitude.  In his role as President Muffley, Sellers would accomplish the same effect, though playing the opposite side this time.  This time Sellers would be providing the dark seriousness that Ripper provided, and it would be his character’s dark realism that General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) would provide a comical balance with, once again forging the satirical effect.  Finally, in his culminating role as Dr. Strangelove, Sellers becomes responsible for the absurdity that rounds the film off, playing a handicapped German Nazi doctor (or general or scientist or something I really don’t know) who fights back the urge to refer to himself, President Mandrake, as Adolf Hitler.

The amount of responsibility that Sellers had in this movie was pretty unbelievable, especially considering how incredibly the movie turned out.  I guess the point that I want to make is that In the midst of numerous discussions about auteurship and the role of the director in the vision of the film, what makes any film great is big-time execution from big-time actors.  I give Stanley Kubrick a 10/10 for casting Sellers in this multifaceted role, because I’m really not sure that the film would have been as good without him, and while Kubrick scores an A+ as Dr. Strangelove’s Brigadier General, Sellers gets an A++ as the film’s Sergeant.  Every stage of the film is dependent on a classy performance from Sellers; every major hard-hitting satirical moment revolves around him as its nucleus. Really just phenomenal.

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