Thursday, 22 October 2015

No.81. Peter Sellers: I LOVE YOU ALICE B TOKLAS (1968)


After the success of THE PARTY, Peter Sellers continued in the groovy head-space of the late 60s in his next film. I LOVE YOU ALICE B TOKLAS was co- written by Paul Mazursky (who would go on to explore counter-culture free love with the film BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE which I’ll be reviewing here) and Larry Tucker and was directed by Hy Averback whose background was in TV comedy. It’s a fun vehicle that allows Sellers to become drenched in the hippie zeitgeist and balance it with an unusually ‘ordinary’ characterisation he pulls off for the first half of the film.
We open with a bearded guru in robes, who foreshadows the plot by urging his devotees to go out into the world and free the good people of their encumbrances: “Psychedelicize their impoverished dreams…”

Sellers plays Harold Fine, a square, conventional city lawyer (channelling an excellently specific NY accent) with the requisite overbearing Jewish mother and an equally pushy fiancĂ©, Joyce (Joyce Van Patten) who accuses him of not being serious about their vaguely-intended wedding: “You’re afraid to move, Harold”, she whines. Harold is bored, but not so much that he will take any risks to break out of his doldrums. All this is about to change when a car accident supplies him with a temporary car from his local garage, a smog-belching ex taxi-cab painted in psychedelic swirls. Reluctantly, he takes it and this becomes a magnet for series of life-transforming incidents.

Required to find his brother Herbie (David Arkin) to take him to a family friend’s funeral, Harold takes him and his girlfriend Nancy (Leigh Taylor-Young, a perfect Haight-Ashbury blonde free-spirit). Herbie insists on dressing in the Native American clothes of a Hopi Indian, which appals Harold as he will not convey respect turning up looking like Tonto. To make matters worse, due to a hearse-driver’s strike (did you know they had a union?), Harold causes even more shame by being forced to take the casket in his totally unsuitable Mystery Machine.

By night-time, after an all-day search leading to the eventual cemetery, Harold lets Nancy stay at his apartment. By way of thanks for his painstakingly chivalrous hospitality, she leaves him a gift of some brownies she made, neglecting to mention they include an entire bottle of hash – made to a recipe by the titular Alice B Toklas. There follows an amusing scene where Harold and his in-laws enjoy the whole plateful, complete with wide-eyed enthusiasm, uncontrolled laughter at non-sequiturs and orgiastic trippy sound effects of succulent consumption.

Somewhere deep down, Nancy has expanded Harold’s consciousness and this trigger causes him to jilt his bride at the altar and take up with the ‘younger model’. This is the funniest part of the film as Sellers morphs from a repressed suit into a long-haired, bandanna and beads cross between an early ‘70s John Lennon and a studious Bjorn Borg. He embraces the modish speech and values of the younger generation and the guru full-throttle, initially unconscious of the absurd image he creates. He and Nancy passionately neck in their car, Harold urging her to “Kiss my Ankh!”, before two cops come and question him. Harold attempts to convert them away from working for the man with no success.

It isn’t long however before he realises that the hippie ethos is no more a comfortable lifestyle for him than the rat race he escaped from. His jealousy over Nancy’s free loving without limits rears up as cold hypocrisy: “I wanna be free, but I wanna be free with you alone”. He struggles also with the lack of privacy in turning his apartment into an open house for free-loading freaks with whom he has nothing really in common. His desperate cry of “I’m so hip it hurts!” is a lost man trying to convince himself he is ‘with-it’. When a new supply of brownies kick-starts a joyous house-party, he sits brooding alone in the corner - ironically echoing Dustin Hoffman’s removal from the ‘scene’ of his parents’ brainwashing of him into an opposite model of  suburban conformity.
A second attempt at a wedding compels Harold away once more with cold feet at the decisive moment – but this time when questioned as he runs away, his only thought for the future is: “ I don’t know and I don’t care!”…

I LOVE YOU ALICE B TOKLAS examines the conflict well between the attraction of turning on, tuning in and dropping out versus the pull of safe, known security. It also starkly exposes the generation gap of the ‘60s between parents and youngsters in the widening chasm of their differing attitudes toward the rules of society.  Funnily enough, in this stage of his career, I’ve always felt Sellers was re-energising himself with a new youthful aspect. He went from a premature middle-age stoutness in the Ealing years (see him in THE LADYKILLERS) into a sleek, trendy man of his time through the late ‘60s into the 70s almost as if he was reversing his body-clock. International success in this period suited him - and yet he allows Harold to look all of his real age of forty-two as the full weight of the culture clash descends on him near the end of the film. It’s poignant and profound.

Mid-life crisis and the sweet agony of trying to recapture a shifting youth landscape that one no longer understands is a rich seam to explore on-screen, especially when set in the turbulent Sergeant Pepper era, which can only increase the contrast. Films such as 1973’s BREEZY which I’ll  later captured this. The exception is TV’s MAD MEN where John Slattery’s Roger managed to still be the epitome of cool in the ‘60s even when smoking a doobie and espousing the new values of his children’s peers.

Fans of Peter Sellers who’ve not seen ALICE B TOKLAS may be intrigued to watch him admirably tackle a character who in his buttoned-down, caterpillar state has none of the vivid disguise and voice externals of Inspector Clouseau or the wonderful cold-war fruitcakes in DR STRANGELOVE.  Harold is introverted, controlled and a reactor, not the focus-pulling comic instigator that Sellers mastered. Dig it…

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