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Ed Sikov continues on Roman Polanski

Ed Sikov continues on Roman Polanski, the jet set, and Hollywood comedy...

RV: How did you tee up the interview with Roman Polanski, and how did the interview take place? What were your impressions of him?

ES: I’d heard that Mr. Polanski was generally amenable to interviews, and I got his address in Paris from two different sources. He got back to me fairly quickly after I wrote him a letter, and his assistant arranged a phone interview. Hearing his voice coming into my head through the handset was wild – absolutely thrilling. I’m from a small town in Western Pennsylvania, and I’m very star-struck. It was hard to talk to Mr. Polanski because all I kept thinking was, “He made Chinatown! He made Chinatown!” He was clearly tired that day – he’d been stuck in traffic for over an hour before the interview – but he was still generous with his time. He’s brilliant and very articulate, and he still cares a lot about his friend Peter, which was nice to hear.

RV: The book gives a good feel for the jetset era of the late sixties, with
Peter Sellers, the Aga Khan, Princess Margaret, et al. In a way this sounds like the ultimate fantasy lifestyle, but on the other hand it’s kind of too much, even sickening. Do you think this would have been a pleasant lifestyle to lead? Did it do Sellers any harm?

ES: Sellers was a restless man who never really settled anyplace, so the jet set era suited him pretty well. He kept moving from house to house in the 1950s before he had to fly around the world for fun and filming and avoiding taxes in the 1960s, so in a way it was just a logical step for him to jet from place to place and live that glam lifestyle. I couldn’t have taken it myself; I need to be able to stay in one place and cook dinner at home most nights. But he loved it. I don’t think it hurt him, really.

RV: As you mention in your biography, Peter Sellers’ reputation has suffered a lot in recent years. Do you think he’s been unfairly treated? ES: Peter Sellers’ artistic reputation is greater than ever, I think, but too many people focus on his emotional difficulties at the expense of his talent. Yes, he’s been treated most unfairly. He was a difficult man, but he could also be a great guy to spend time with – funny, relaxed, entertaining. Roman Polanski, for instance, became quite defensive when I tried to ask him about Sellers’ depression. He was simply tired of the one-dimensional portrait that has been painted of his friend. That said, I think Sellers was very troubled, and I do think it was related to his extraordinary talent, particularly his ability to fully inhabit made-up creations like Strangelove or Quilty or Clouseau, a trait he attributed to his having no core personality of his own. Does genius necessarily bring with it deep personality flaws? I don’t know. I only have the flaws, not the genius.

RV: You’ve also written other books on comedy, particularly Hollywood
comedies. What is it in particular about Hollywood comedy that you like?

ES: Hollywood comedies at their best are both smart and alive, polished and immediate. I’m thinking of The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby and The Palm Beach Story – comedies of love and tension. I started thinking about film comedy in college when I first saw films like that, and Buster Keaton’s comedies, and Chaplin’s. Everybody loved Woody Allen in the 1970s, and I did, too, but Keaton was truly mind-blowing. (Talk about troubled geniuses.) At the same time, the formal study of comedy is problematic. You can analyze The General or Seven Chances til you’re blue in the face, but I defy anyone to explain thoroughly and accurately what actually makes them funny. You can read Henri Bergson’s essay on laughter, or Freud’s book on jokes, and they’re both valuable and fascinating, but in the final analysis you either get comedy or you don’t; you get what it means or you don’t. You can’t learn it. (Don’t tell my students at Haverford College that I said this. I still expect them to learn it.)
As for future projects, I think my next book is going to be about a dramatic actress. But for the sake of comedy I’m trying to work up an imitation of her on the side: (stressing every syllable) “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

RV: What are your favorite pieces of Sellers comedy?

ES: When Sellers as Quilty shows up at Humbert/James Mason’s house as the phony psychiatrist, Dr. Zempf, it’s purely hilarious – cruelly, blisteringly hilarious. He’s torturing Humbert, and he’s very good at it. That’s my favorite bit of Sellers comedy on film. But there’s a video clip of Sellers reciting the lyrics of “A Hard Day’s Night” in the voice and costume of Laurence Olivier doing Richard III, and that’s even funnier. Sellers turns a seemingly innocent song into a really dirty one, and it’s an absurd but perfect imitation of Olivier. It’s very hard to find, unfortunately. Only collectors have it.

RV: Did Peter Sellers do much reading and if so, what?

ES: I honestly don’t know. Terry Southern’s companion, Gail Gerber, insisted to me that Sellers was an avid reader, and I have no reason to doubt her. But she’s the only person who made that claim to me. I do know that he loved Terry Southern’s novels, particularly THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN.

RV: Do you think you’d have liked to have associated with Peter Sellers or would he be too much? If you could meet Peter Sellers what would you ask him or say to him?

ES: If I’d have been one of his close friends I think I would have enjoyed his company the way they all did. But as his biographer I’m glad not to have known him. I was glad not to know Billy Wilder, either (though I was lucky enough to meet him after ON SUNSET BOULEVARD was published). There was no personal history to get in the way, for better or worse. What would I say to Peter Sellers? I’d just like to tell him that I enjoyed spending time with him and that I meant no harm.