This is the third installment in the Turn Me On, Dead Man series of posts on movies with psychedelic themes. This time around the focus is on the 1968 film I Love You, Alice B. Toklas starring Peter Sellers and directed by Hy Averback. Spoiler alert: as always, the following discussion contains spoilers.
In I Love You, Alice B. Toklas Peter Sellers plays the character of Harold Fine, a lawyer preoccupied with maintaining “respectability”. Just as he is about to get married to his clingy fiance (Joyce Van Fleet), he becomes enamored with Nancy (Leigh Taylor-Young), a hippie flower child. Taking a page from Alice B. Toklas‘s cookbook, Nancy feeds Harold cannabis brownies, which have a transformative effect on his life. Harold decides to drop out, fully embracing the hippie lifestyle (which this movie presents as free love, mooching, disregarding hygiene, and endlessly repeating empty phrases) and searching for meaning with the aid of a guru. Ultimately Harold decides that the hippie lifestyle is not what he wants but he can’t go back to his old life, either. Though the movie presents only superficial caricatures of hippies (and of middle-class Jews, for that matter), Peter Sellers is great fun to watch. He was a master of roles like Harold Fine, and it’s hard not to feel his panic when he runs off at the end of the movie (“There’s gotta be something beautiful out there! I know it!”)
I Love You Alice B. Toklas isn’t trying to make any sort of serious statement, so it isn’t fair to criticize the movie for not having those sorts of ambitions. Still, it would have been interesting if the movie had taken itself just a little more seriously in presenting a man’s search for meaning, and Peter Sellers would have been uniquely able to pull this off. For one thing, Peter Sellers was right in the middle of the explosion of creative ideas occurring in Britain in the 1960s. He developed friendships with some of the Beatles, appearing with Ringo in the film The Magic Christian. John had a particular respect for Peter Sellers. He had been a fan of The Goon Show, and Peter Sellers was his favorite Goon. The Beatles chose Richard Lester to direct their first film, A Hard Day’s Night, in part because of a short film he directed in 1960 called The Running Jumping Standing Still Film, which, according to the film’s credits, was “devised” by Peter Sellers.
One thing that struck me as I watched this short film again is its connections to other great British shows to follow–Richard Lester directing A Hard Day’s Night, Leo McKern later appearing in Help! and The Prisoner, the absurdist humor of Monty Python’s Flying Circus–and all devised by Peter Sellers.
In addition, Peter Sellers was on his own spiritual quest, described by George Harrison in the following clip. He tells of how Peter Sellers became a hippie in the late 1960s and hung out with George and Ravi Shankar. We also hear a little from Peter Sellers himself.
Peter Sellers had a near-death experience in 1964 as a result of a heart attack. He saw the white light and wanted to go toward it. A hand reached out to him but he was revived before he could reach it. He reported that he knew that beyond the light was real love and he was disappointed when he was revived. The experience convinced him that he had lived past lives and he no longer feared death. In the long run, however, the experience didn’t resolve his spiritual questions, and he struggled with depression throughout his life. I think what all this is pointing to is that Peter Sellers really was a version of the character he played in I Love You Alice B. Toklas–frustrated, locked into a life he didn’t really believe in, but searching for something deeper he couldn’t define. It sounds like he may have had glimpses of it, but never really found it to his satisfaction.
One interesting thing about Peter Sellers is that it appears he maintained a certain distance with everyone, even with friends. Check out this video of when Peter Sellers dropped by the studio to chat with the Beatles during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions.
Even though they no doubt all had respect for one another, this interchange feels uncomfortable, with Peter Sellers assuming a character–almost like his hippie self in I Love You Alice B. Toklas. According to Get Back: The Unauthorized Chronicle of the Beatles’ Let It Be Disaster by Doug Sulpy and Ray Schweighardt, this YouTube clip only catches the last part of Peter Sellers’s visit, and the whole encounter was awkward. Peter Sellers, who remains standing during the entire visit, couldn’t understand why the Beatles were sitting around doing nothing. The part of the visit captured on that YouTube video is the point at which Peter Sellers “gleefully plays along” with the drug humor. Given how uncomfortable that segment feels, the exchange prior to that must have been really awkward. Perhaps it was their age difference (Peter Sellers would have been 43 at the time), but for whatever reason, Peter Sellers built walls around himself. According to Ringo, “The amazing thing with Peter was that, though we would work all day and go out and have dinner that night–and we would usually leave him laughing hysterically, because he was hilarious–the next morning we would say ‘Hi Pete!’ and we’d have to start again. There was no continuation. You had to make the friendship start again from nine o’clock every morning. We’d all be laughing at six o’clock at night, but the next morning it would be ‘Hi Pete!’ then ‘Oh God!’–we’d have to knock down the wall again to say ‘hello’. Sometimes we’d be asked to leave the set, because Peter Sellers was being Peter Sellers.” (The Beatles Anthology, p. 328) So perhaps the idea of letting the audience see a true picture of Peter Sellers’s spiritual longings would not have been possible in any case.