Oscar Vault Monday – Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, 1964 (dir. Stanley Kubrick)

I love this film. It is one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen. It’s also one of the most clever satires ever filmed. Simply put, I think this film is brilliant. Along with Citizen Kane, this film not winning Best Picture is one of the biggest “what?!?” moments in Oscar’s past. Though, I will say the biggest travesty of 1964 is Peter Sellers not winning Best Actor. Rex Harrison is my least favorite aspect of My Fair Lady and the fact that he beat not only Sellers from this film, but Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton from Becket for Best Actor in 1964 just makes me so very angry. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was nominated for four Academy Awards, though it failed to win any: Best Actor Peter Sellers, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture. The other films up for Best Picture that year were Becket, Mary Poppins, Zorba The Greek and winner My Fair Lady.

I don’t really want to go into the whole Dr. Strangelove vs. Fail-Safe debate (I like the former better, for the record), but if you’re interested in reading about all the lawsuits, etc. you can do so here.

Peter Sellers tackles three different (though he was originally to play four, more on that later.) – and very distinct – characters in this film. The first character we meet is Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, an RAF officer who is serving as Executive Officer for United States Air Force Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden). We soon discover that Ripper is deranged and has put in motion what could end up being nuclear war between the United States and the U.S.S.R. I love Sellers in this role. His interactions with Sterling Hayden are so wonderful. A lot this performance is in Seller’s face, which is so brilliantly expressive. I also really love the very last scene with the character, when he doesn’t have enough change to call the White House on a pay phone. So, so brilliant.

The second character we get from Sellers is as President Merkin Muffley. Apparently Sellers based his midwestern accent on former Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson. I can’t decide which part of this performance I like more: when he’s talking with General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) trying to figure out how such a thing could ever happen or when he’s on the phone with the Soviet Premier. The phone call scene is so hilarious, but Sellers says all the lines completely straight, making them even funnier.

Lastly, we get Sellers as the titular Dr. Strangelove, a German scientist and advisor to the president who is wheelchair-bound and suffers from  alien hand syndrome (in this case, his hand keeps trying to make the Nazi salute). Sellers’ performance (and styling) was inspired by the mad scientist C. A. Rotwang from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The single black glove he wears throughout the film was actually Kubrick’s glove (that he wore to protect himself from hot lights on set); Sellers thought it looked menacing and reminded him of the one worn in Metropolis, so he appropriated it for his character.

George C. Scott is so hilarious as General Buck Turgidson. Mostly when you think of Scott, you think of him as a “serious” actor. Here we get another side of Scott and he is absolutely perfect in the role. It’s said Kubrick got Scott to be far more ridiculous than the actor wanted by making several “practice” takes, promising they would not make it into the final cut. It is these takes that make up much of Scott’s performance in the final cut of the film. Apparently, after seeing what made it into the film Scott said he would never work with Kubrick again. It’s a shame Kubrick had to get the performance with such duplicitous tactics, but clearly Kubrick’s instincts were better than Scott’s, because what did make it into the film is pure perfection.

Sterling Hayden, whose role as unhinged, cigar-smoking, rain water-drinking Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper sets the entire film in motion, is positively marvelous in this film. Like I said with Sellers’ role as Mandrake, it is Hayden’s performance that allows for Sellers’ performance. Everything Hayden does is so wildly over the top, allowing Sellers’ straight-man reactions to be equally hilarious.

The fourth role Sellers was supposed to play was that of Major T. J. “King” Kong, but after he broke his ankle and was unable to film scenes inside the cramped cockpit set it became necessary to replace him. John Wayne was offered the role, but turned it town. Which led to the casting of Slim Pickens, who was an established character actor in many a western. Much of the dialogue spoken by Pickens was ad-libbed by Sellers before he had to drop out of the role. Perhaps the most iconic scene in the film is that of Kong riding the bomb down to its final destination.

As great as it would have been to see Sellers in a fourth role, I just don’t see that scene being quite as great without Pickens.

Lastly, I wanted to talk about the sets, which were created by Ken Adam inside Shepperton Studios, London. I particularly love the War Room. It is such an amazing set and Kubrick’s use of different angles throughout the film capture how exquisite a set it really was. Just fantastic.

And because it is just so haunting, here’s a video of the ending.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on September 12, 2011, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. This is one of my all time favorite movies. Masterpiece I think. And Sellers shows himself to be the ultimate character actor here. Honestly – for a British actor to do a midwestern accent that perfectly is amazing at that time. Shoot he even looks like Stevenson. My Fair Lady is pretty. Harrison phones it in. In Becket they competed with each other. Maybe Strangelove was too edgy – I don’t know but of all the nominees I am pretty sure this is the Best Picture.

  1. Pingback: Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb | LATEST MOVIE NEWS

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