Friday, January 12, 2007

The Mouse That Shagged Me: Mike Myers v. Peter Sellers

Meg Ryan plays several different personas in Joe vs. the Volcano, yet she’s never compared to Dr. Strangelove. The similarities between Myers and Sellers run much deeper than playing multiple characters in their movies, of course, their traditions steeped in a rich heritage of intelligent satire, with backgrounds as actors, not merely funnymen.

It may seem presumptuous to draw comparisons between an Academy Award-nominated (and British Academy winner) whose career spanned thirty years and an actor who has less than a dozen films to his credit. But, their hits-to-misses ratios are proportional and, more importantly, they share a similar quality to the best of their work.

Myers, the son of an actress and an encyclopedia salesman, readily admits to Sellers’ influence. His favorite memories of childhood include watching Sellers’ movies with his father. The hip irreverence that infuses even Myers’ earliest characters from his days at Second City and Saturday Night Live bear the stamp of Sellers’ smart characterizations all over them.

Like Sellers, Myers doesn’t condemn or judge the characters he plays, but embraces their humanity. In the 1969 film, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, Harold Fine is a conservative attorney who, unhappy with his life, decides to let his freak flag fly and join the Youth Movement. Harold is portrayed by Sellers with the utmost respect for both the nebbish and the hippie he became. Similarly, Wayne Campbell is not mocked by Myers’ portrayal, but celebrated. Wayne is surprisingly intelligent, an inventive and ambitious rocker dude, running a cable access show from his parents’ basement in Aurora, Illinois, not just the village idiot.

Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling French supersleuth, is Sellers’ most popular persona, appearing in six installments of The Pink Panther films, parodies of cloak-and-dagger mysteries. Austin Powers draws from many wells -- James Bond, The Avengers, Maxwell Smart, In Like Flint -- but surely, my yellow friend, Clouseau’s influence is felt throughout Myers’ homage to the shagadelic Sixties.

Sellers made sixty-five films in thirty-one years, many of them forgettable, many of them classics, most of them farces or satires or both. Sellers could adeptly play straight roles as well, but audiences were generally unwilling to accept him in anything other than comic parts. Myers has only made eleven films in ten years, three of which have not been released yet. (They are expected later this year.) Two of his movies were sequels, one was the dismissed So, I Married An Axe Murderer. Last year, he attempted a non-comic role, Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell in 54. Like Sellers, audiences didn’t buy Myers playing it straight.

Mostly Sellers could do no wrong. And when he did it right, it was way right. The Ladykillers, The Millionairess, The Mouse That Roared, The World of Henry Orient, Being There, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, The Pink Panther and, perhaps his best performance(s) in Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love The Bomb. Even with the successful Wayne’s World and Austin Powers movies, Myers has yet to prove his mettle. It would be great to see him in something in the vein of a Strangelove or Being There, to see if his fan base could accept Myers in a sophisticated world without catch phrases.

Until then, party on, Wayne and check out The Magic Christian to remind yourself that long before the Farellys and South Park, there was delightfully subversive potty humor.

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