Peter Medak (and The Ghost of Peter Sellers)

March 15 is the National Day of Hungary.

This post comes about as result of my recent viewing of Peter Medak’s The Ghost of Peter Sellers, Medak’s 2018 exercise in self-flagellation about the fact that he’d been unable to wrangle the famously ungovernable Peter Sellers during production of the still-unreleased comedy Ghost in the Noonday Sun (1974), an event which the director has apparently never been able to move past, and which he blames for a stalled career, which (and this is my point in blogging about it), objectively, hasn’t been all that stalled.

The fact is, Medak has had a very interesting career. I had already known most of his movies, without (and this is a crucial point, however) knowing about the man who directed them. Medak is like the Hungarian equivalent of Roman Polanski or Milos Forman — an Eastern European Jew who’d endured both the Holocaust and life in the Communist bloc. At the outset of his career, Medak seemed poised, like those two other directors just named, for a charmed and major career, a name above the title kind of guy. Instead, after a promising beginning, a cursed production set him back, and instead he went on to a merely respectable career as a jobbing director. But I tell you his body of work is nothing to be sneezed at.

Medak’s first feature was Negatives (1968), a film in which a couple played by Peter McEnery and Glenda Jackson get their rocks off by dressing up as Dr. Crippen and his lover Ethel le Neve, while a third friend (Diane Cilento) takes pictures. It seems to mix Jean Genet style sexual role playing with thriller aspects more in line with films like Peeping Tom (1960) and Blow-Up (1966). Then came two black comedies in 1972: his screen adaptation of Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg with Alan Bates and Janet Suzman, followed by The Ruling Class, a scenery chewing vehicle for Peter O’Toole as a schizophrenic Earl who believes that he is Jesus Christ. I liked Medak’s The Third Girl on the Left, his 1973 tv movie about an aging burlesque dancer so much that I blogged about it here.

Then came Ghost in the Noonday Sun, a zany pirate comedy with Sellers and his old Goon Show cohort Spike Milligan as well as Tony Franciosa, Peter Boyle, et al. It was a movie that had the unusual problem of being fully financed (due to Sellers’ involvement) but a half-baked script, and (it must be said) a then-inexperienced director. Medak’s biggest lapse in judgment came from attempting to shoot on a boat (in this case a replica of an 18th cenbtury sailing ship) on the open water. Such a process nearly brought no less than Steven Spielberg to his knees on Jaws. A shooting situation like this is frought with challenges ranging from a constantly rocking, shifting set and uncertain weather, to extreme discomfort for the actors. To this day, most directors would instantly say “fake it” and proceed to do so, rather than attempt to shoot on a moving sailing vessel. Let this film be a a cautionary tale.

But the worst problem of all was Sellers. This production occurred during a lull in his career. There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970) had been a moderate hit, but Sellers’ last unambiguously smash year had been 1968. His comeback wouldn’t begin until The Return of the Pink Panther (1974). So at this time he was prickly and demanding, and worse he had just broken up with Liza Minnelli (or rather she with him). Minnelli was enjoying the peak of her career with Cabaret (1973), and so Sellers was massively despondent. He wanted the shoot to end once he experienced the working conditions, and did everything he could to shut it down, up to and including faking a heart attack. But the production had to continue so as not to lose the money of the investors. It was finally completed after a fashion, but Columbia was not satisfied and it has never been released to this day, which seems insane to me, especially in light of this documentary now! Let the people see this movie!

At any rate, Medak blamed himself though truth be told he had neither the juice nor the personality to wrestle Peter Sellers to the ground. Even Blake Edwards threw up his hands at that task more than once. So it was beyond Medak’s ability to control, whatever the case. After about three years he clawed his way back with a TV movie based on D.H. Lawrence’s short story The Rocking Horse Winner in early 1977 starring Kenneth More.

Next he regained his stomach for crazy comedy, directing Monty Python’s Graham Chapman in The Odd Job (1978), which I find especially interesting given that Chapman made Yellowbeard soon after that — a movie that has more than a little in common with Ghost in the Noonday Sun. Medak also directed Zorro the Gay Blade in 1981, George Hamilton’s natural (if homophobic) spoofing follow up to Love at First Bite.

A specialty of Medak’s has been horror. And I LOVE the comedy/horror connection: The Changeling (1980), The Babysitter (1980), Cry for the Strangers (1982), The Hunchback (1997), Species II (1998), Anne Rice’s Feast of all Saints (2001, a tv mini series), Dating Game Killer (2017), and episodes of Space: 1999, the (revived) Twilight Zone, Masters of Horror and Hannibal. Of his other movies his 1990 true crime bio-pic The Krays is the one I know best. He also directed the films The Men’s Club (1986), Let Him Have It (1991), Romeo is Bleeding (1993), Pontiac Moon (1994) , a tv version of David Copperfield (2000), and Lifetime’s Sex and Lies in Sin City (2008) about the mysterious death of casino heir Ted Binion, played by Mathew Modine. Medak also directed numerous episodes of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre, as well as episodes of The Wire, Carnivale, House, and Breaking Bad.

It’s all high profile work most aspiring directors would kill to get. But in light of the events of 1974, one imagines he asks himself…did he have a Rosemary’s Baby or a One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest in him? It’ll always be academic.