MOCA’s “Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles” cites the theory that Weegee’s thickly accented voice was a model for that of Peter Sellers’ title character in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worring and Love the Bomb (1964). I have more interest in this issue than some, having written a book on cold-war logic and paranoia (Prisoner’s Dilemma). In that book I proposed mathematician John von Neumann as a likely model for Kubrick’s anti-hero. Von Neumann, who was something of a TV celebrity in the early 1950s, had a Hungarian accent and attended Atomic Energy Commission meetings in a wheelchair. He consulted for the RAND Corporation (the “BLAND Corporation” in the film) and was an uber-hawk, advocating an unprovoked nuclear strike against the Soviet Union.
Von Neumann isn’t the only plausible model for Strangelove, or even the most often mentioned. Edward Teller, Werner von Braun, and Herman Kahn are widely proposed. By the Nixon years, it was often asserted that presidential advisor Henry Kissinger was the “real” Dr. Strangelove. Both Kubrick and Sellers denied that: Kissinger just wasn’t that well known in 1964.
MOCA adds new pieces to the puzzle. Weegee and Kubrick were fellow photojournalists in 1940s New York. A couple of decades later, Kubrick invited Weegee to shoot stills for Dr. Strangelove. Motion picture stills had by then moved on to natural light. Kubrick explained that he wanted the shrill, flash effect of Weegee’s old crime photos. Weegee was also billed as a special effects consultant on Strangelove. The MOCA show includes some dreamlike f/x sequences he did for other, more forgettable films. These exploit the kaleidoscopic and “elastic lens” techniques he used for still photos. As far as I can tell, nothing of the kind finds its way into Dr. Strangelove. Weegee did photograph the famously excised pie fight. MOCA has a still of Weegee and camera slathered in custard.
The museum also provides audio of a BBC interview of Weegee by Peter Sellers. It’s charming throughout. However, the interview never addresses the origins of Seller’s characterization. There is a massive aural gulf between suavely British Sellers and lowbrow American Weegee. Weegee was born in Złoczów, then in Austria and now part of the Ukraine. It would be fair to say his recorded voice is a Central Casting version of a thick New York accent, mid 20th century. It’s certainly not Sellers’ stage-Teutonic Dr. Strangelove. My initial reaction to the Weegee-Strangelove theory was, no way. (At left, Weegee’s Devil With Atomic Bomb.)
But then I re-listened to clips of Sellers as Strangelove and wasn’t so sure. Though the voices are different, they swallow consonants in much the same way.
Decide for yourself. Click here for audio of Weegee’s voice (not the BBC interview, which doesn’t seem to be online). Click below for YouTube of Sellers-as-Strangelove.
UPDATE. Ed Sikov’s 2003 book, Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers, says,
“As though a satire about bombing all of humanity to death wasn’t gruesome enough, Kubrick brought in as technical consultant the photographer Weegee, who was known for having taken stark, emotionally charged photographs of an estimated five thousand murder scenes over the course of his grim career.… Officially, Weegee’s technical consultantions involved Dr. Strangelove’s periodically harsh, crime-scene—like black-and-white cinematography, but because he had an unusual accent—German overlaid with NewYork, all with a nasal, slightly strangled, back-of-the-throat quality—he inadvertently provided technical assistance for the film’s star as well.
“‘I vas psychic!’ Weegee told Peter on the set one day—a conversation Peter was taping for research purposes. ‘I vould go to a moidah before it vas committed!’ Peter’s vocal model for Strangelove was Weegee, whom Sellers pushed further into parody.”