Cheering Up Peter Sellers Wasn't as Easy as Chaplin Cheering Up Picasso

Guest blog: Every morning as Pablo lathered his face for shaving, he would trace with his finger in the billowing cream the enormous lips, the path of tears oozing out of each eye — the stigmata of the professional clown

 

Peter Sellers was sad a lot of the time, and I tried to make him smile. I felt I could make Peter feel better about himself. I had been trying to do this for Claude Picasso, too, because his father had been so cruel to him.

It never worked. I couldn’t rescue Peter, who wanted to be someone else.

Peter and Claude, to whom I was once engaged, reminded me of each other. I felt both suffered from depression and sought relief through laughter. Maybe we all do, but we can’t all create humor as Peter could. Claude also tried to be funny by imitating Charlie Chaplin in his movements — because his father had emulated Chaplin. Claude enjoyed making hand gestures like Chaplin, mimicking his performances in silent films.

As I portray in my new book, "Picasso's Ghost," Pablo had admired Chaplin and had identified in a symbolic way with circus performers in that they, too, were often solitary performers, like artists: the acrobats and tumblers he etched in the Saltimbanques series, or the matadors whose struggles he made his own and whose drama he seemed to carry over into almost every phase of his life and his art.

The clown, too, was one of the most tragic yet heroic figures in the circus. Claude would tell me that almost every morning as Pablo lathered his face for shaving, he would trace with his finger in the billowing cream the enormous caricatured lips, the suggestions of question marks over the eyebrows and the path of tears oozing out of each eye — the stigmata of the professional clown.

“Why do you do that, Papa?” Claude would ask as Pablo would begin to gesticulate and grimace with an intensity that showed this was not only a game but his attempt to imitate Chaplin.

“I loved being my father’s audience and watching him in front of the mirror as he talked to himself made up like a clown,” Claude said.

Like Claude listening to his father, I would sit in the kitchen of Peter's home and be his audience as he rehearsed his lines, using funny expressions for my teacup poodle, Tutu, and me. Unlike Claude, I did not laugh but remained quiet so as not to disturb Peter’s concentration.

Claude continued to talk about Pablo. “My father had been an avid fan of Chaplin during the silent film days, but when the talkies came along my father lost all interest in movies. When “Monsieur Verdoux” was announced, he could not contain his excitement. For my father, Chaplin’s art was the embodiment of the physical stylization of his ‘little man ‘role.’”

It has been written that Pablo cherished those scenes in “Verdoux” where Chaplin relied on mime to produce his effects. Those scenes, where Chaplin flipped through the pages of the telephone directory and over and over again counted money, were responsible for the way Picasso counted or miscounted money. The direct force of the film image seemed to duplicate the kind of shock that comes when one looks at a painting, Picasso said.

“It’s the same thing, to the extent that you work on the senses to convey your meaning,” Picasso is said to have noted about Chaplin. “Mime is the exact equivalent of the gesture in painting by which you transmit directly a state of mind — no description, no analysis, no words.”

Picasso had wanted to meet Chaplin because, he said, “He’s a man who like me has suffered a great deal at the hands of women.” Chaplin had serious relationships with 13 women.

I believed Sellers, who also had a complicated history with women, would have enjoyed talking to Picasso about this. And what about Norman Mailer, who decapitated women in his fiction, stabbed them in real life and had a total of six wives. How wonderful it would have been to have interviewed Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers and Norman Mailer about women!

Claude went on to tell me that in 1952, Pable finally did have the opportunity to meet Chaplin — after the French premiere of “Limelight.” They met in Pablo’s studio in the Rue des Grand Augustins, but Chaplin did not speak French and Pable did not speak English. Interpreters were hired, but they proved to be in the way.

Then Pablo had the idea to take Chaplin upstairs away from the crowd so that they could be alone and establish some kind of communication. “I took Chaplin upstairs to my painting studio and showed him the pictures I had been working on,” Pablo told his longtime mistress Françoise Gilot.

“When I finished, I gave him a bow and a flourish to let him know it was his turn. He understood at once. He went into the bathroom and gave me the most wonderful pantomime of a man washing and shaving, with every one of those little involuntary reflexes like blowing the soapsuds out of his nose and digging them out of his ears. When he had finished that routine, he picked up two toothbrushes and performed that marvelous dance with the rolls, from the New Year’s Eve dinner in ‘The Gold Rush.’”

But Pablo objected to the sentimentality of “Limelight.” “I don’t like that maudlin, sentimentalizing side of Chaplin,” he said, “That’s for shop girls, when Chaplin starts reaching for the heart strings. Maybe Chaplin impresses Chagall, but it doesn’t go down with me. It’s just bad literature.”

I wondered what Pablo would have thought of Peter Sellers’ performance in the classic “Being There.” So many people felt Peter deserved the Oscar for his performance in this award-winning film. Or would Pablo have found this tale about a humble gardener sentimental?

For Pablo, “Limelight” also had meaning in terms of the physical changes time had wrought in Chaplin and how these had modified the entire nature of his art.

“The real tragedy,” Pablo went on to tell Françoise, “lies in the fact that Chaplin can no longer assume the physical appearance of the clown because he’s no longer slender, no longer young and no longer has the face and expression of his ‘little man’ but that of a man who’s grown old. His body isn’t really him anymore. Time has conquered him and turned him into another person. And now he’s a lost soul — just another actor in search of his individuality. And he won’t be able to make anybody laugh."