Peter Sellers's Brownface Party 

click to enlarge party.jpg

The Party (1968)
Directed by Blake Edwards
Sunday, September 2, at BAM, part of its American Gagsters series

It starts with purity: Blake Edwards’s The Party proposes the quickest route to Hollywood success is being a complete blowhard. The hapless Indian extra Hrundi V. Bakshi (Peter Sellers, in brownface) is the opposite, a hopeless blunderer on the set of a Zulu-sized colonial epic whose naivete costs the production its most expensive shot: leaning on a blasting box to re-tie his sandal, Bakshi unwittingly dynamites a 19th-century colonial fort before the cameras are rolling. Back at General Federal Studios, the big man, Mr. Clutterbuck (J. Edward McKinley), gets a call, and Hrundi is blacklisted—only, Clutterbuck accidentally writes Hrundi’s name on the guest list for his wife’s summer soiree instead.

Once there, Hrundi accidentally kicks his shoe onto a plate of hors d'oeuvres; accidentally turns on a loudspeaker system and repeats the phrase “birdie num num” throughout the mansion; accidentally fires an air rifle at a Western movie star; accidentally lodges a Cornish hen's breast in a woman’s beehive wig; accidentally turns on the sprinklers; accidentally floods the bathroom; accidentally opens up the floor to expose the swimming pool underneath—and so on. He is neither duplicitous nor a buffoon; the gags arrive in a steady trickle of bad luck and excruciating miscommunication, and anyone who has ever marveled at their own non-genius as they tried to salvage a bad situation and invariably made it worse will wince with sympathy. His mere presence is a game-changer, inspiring the jowlly execs to puff harder on their cigars, the waiters to drink faster, the women to anxiously eyeball the exit signs. He is, in a word, alien.

The waifish French ingenue Michele (Claudine Longet) finds it pretty charming, actually; Hrundi asks her, “Do you speak Hindustani?” The girl replies “No,” with a touch of embarrassment; Hrundi grins and says, “Well, you are not missing anything.” But consider the scene less than 20 minutes later where, waiting for the bathroom, in a long single take, he tries the same line on an older, drunker, uglier woman; she, too, replies in the negative—only this time, Hrundi stares into the distance wistfully. This solitary outsiderness has a pretty obvious lineage in the films of Chaplin and Tati, but it saves The Party from out-and-out bigotry. The audience’s loyalty to Hrundi is unquestioned. At the peak of his powers, Sellers had a connatural talent for giving his characters negative interior space, and at day’s end, Hrundi is, essentially, a very lonely guy in thrall to the cruel, uncaring world of studio filmmaking. Every small failure is underscored by the omnipresent froth of champagne-light piano doodling by Henry Mancini.

At one point, our hero and a slimy producer type are competing for Michele’s affections; the guy calls Hrundi “You meshuggenah!” and Hrundi fires back: “I am not your sugar.” The gags start at the base, but the underlying ideas can be remarkably complex, with more than a hint of neo-Sturges indignation to Edwards’s self-lacerating portrait of showbiz culture. (The director sorely needed a hit, and chanced working with Sellers again; despite the fact that the two weren’t on speaking terms, both men believed, correctly, that The Party could be the star’s magnum opus.) Edwards was growing more comfortable with wide, static frames and insinuating pans; at its best moments, the movie approximates the stupendously slow, boxy, time-and-space-flattening denouements of The Leopard, Playtime, even 2001. The party only reaches its apotheosis at the demolition of Hollywood "etiquette," unshackled by expectations of dialogue or conventional narrative.


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