Two free-spirited creative talents share today as a birthday. Arriving a year apart, each took their work seriously even as taste-makers at first didn’t, and each chafed at being boxed in by eruptive success and fame, triggering self-destructive lifestyle behaviors that caused them to die before the full measure of their cultural impact could be measured. One was dubbed “Pandora in Blue Jeans” for writing a scandalous work of fiction that blew the lid off small-town New England propriety, the other was proclaimed a comic genius to rival fellow Brit Charlie Chaplin; both had their issues with depression, mental instability and volatile family relationships. The writer was Manchester, New Hampshire-born Grace Metalious (1924-1964), and her first novel made publishing sales history in 1956, followed shortly thereafter by the lavish, all-star Cinemascope movie version of Peyton Place (1957, directed by Mark Robson). Production Code strictures restrained how much of Metalious’ sordid, dark vision of could be conveyed on screen, but the film’s provocative tone in dealing with the characters’ disrespectable secrets, counterpointed with elegant production values, was enough to guarantee box-office success, a flurry of Academy Award® nominations that included nods to co-stars Lana Turner, Hope Lange, Diane Varsi, Arthur Kennedy and Russ Tamblyn, and intense interest in what frank and revelatory follow-up work Metalious would turn out. Her subsequent books, Return to Peyton Place (1959, filmed in 1961 and also shepherded by the original’s producer Jerry Wald), The Tight White Collar (1961) and No Adam in Eden (1963), did not approach the success of her maiden effort, but the author professed a particular affection for The Tight White Collar before her death at age 39 of alcohol-related cirrhosis. The original novel has been reevaluated as a touchstone of mid-century feminist literature in the six decades since its arrival, and Metalious has been the subject of several critical studies and tributes by other authors. A 2013 New Hampshire Magazine article by George Kelly (accessible here: http://www.nhmagazine.com/March-2013/50-Shades-of-Grace/) offers an evocative overview of lady and legacy.
Our other birthday honoree Peter Sellers (1925-1980) spent a great deal of 1963 laying the groundwork for what would be his most extraordinarily impactful year in movie comedy annals. It started with Blake Edwards, who chose him to play the endearingly bumbling Inspector Clouseau (replacing the originally cast Peter Ustinov) in a breezy jewel-heist comedy called The Pink Panther. Afterward, for director Stanley Kubrick, came the acidly funny Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove, offering him a comedy trifecta of three distinct, equally funny and equally vital roles. At year’s end, he was back in business with Edwards, when the producing studio of the film adaptation of the stage farce A Shot in the Dark decided to convert the dry material into a second vehicle for the character of Clouseau. All three of these would make for a stellar 1964 for Sellers, as they were respectively released in the winter, spring and summer of that year to great success. Tucked in between Strangelove and Shot, however, was a delicate and charming Sellers comedy turn, ironically about a madcap genius artist with a manic lifestyle, for director George Roy Hill in the lower-key but deftly executed The World of Henry Orient (1964), in which he was far from the whole show, though still a marvelously drawn character. He played an avant-garde concert pianist and self-styled romantic lothario whose liaisons (with the great Paula Prentiss as a jittery would-be adulteress) all over New York City are regularly thwarted by two adoring young schoolgirl fans (Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker) who playfully shadow his metropolitan movements. In a piece on the film earlier this year, Critics at Large Website essayist Devin McKinney wrote: “The character of Henry Orient (based on pianist, actor and famously neurotic TV personality Oscar Levant, as witness the name) is puffed out considerably to accommodate the talents of Peter Sellers, whose first American movie this is. The fact that he’d never carried a picture, even in England, seems to have determined his U.S. debut as a secondary character who only seems to be at the center of things. ‘His scenes are cameos, virtually skits,’ writes Sellers biographer Roger Lewis, who sees in them ‘the first sign of [a] falsity’ that shaped the star’s performances after 1964, when international stardom meant he could no longer disappear within a multilayered role (cf. Lolita and Dr. Strangelove). The running gag is the girls’ repeated (inadvertent) sabotaging of Orient’s sexual moves on a skittish married woman (Paula Prentiss), and some of this farce is broader than necessary. But Sellers’s slapstick is trim and loose, and his voice wittily negotiates the illogical shifts between Orient’s native Brooklynese and an affected crypto-Slavic accent. For an actor soon to retreat behind veils of egotism and self-regard, he is a surprisingly gallant lover, never hogging camera or laughs from his female foils. Prentiss combines her long-boned elegance with a funny, gulping paranoia, and Sellers has perhaps his best scene romancing the razor-sharp [Angela] Lansbury [as one of the teenagers’ mothers], who smirks with appreciative lust at the seducer’s phony yet artful come-ons.” According to Sellers biographer Ed Sikov, the actor told a reporter visiting his trailer on the Manhattan set: “This role will do great things for my image.” But he would later concede, along with critics and audiences, that the film belongs, and always did belong, to the two well-cast youngsters. And his own life would go off the rails when – all in the first four months of that same stellar 1964 – after finishing A Shot in the Dark, tying the knot with Britt Ekland; wreaking marital and legal havoc when she left him in Los Angeles for Europe to film Guns at Batasi; and signing to do Kiss Me, Stupid in a volatile, ill-fated matchup with director Billy Wilder, Sellers popped one pill too many before enjoying relations with his bride and suffered the first in a series of heart attacks on April 5. Metalious had died one prolonged, alcoholic death that previous February; Sellers’s heart stopped eight times across two days in April, but he reached a level of stabilization that would allow the implantation of a pacemaker. He eventually recovered over the summer, but the clouds of depression and emotional instability would linger for 16 more years, even as he continued honing his unmatched skills for generating laughter. Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-rays of Peyton Place and The World of Henry Orient allow us to celebrate the gripping and entertaining art that can arise out of chaotic, difficult lives.