For people who are not familiar with the brilliant comedic work of Peter Sellers, those of us who are familiar with it might suggest that they acquaint themselves with his work in such iconic films as Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (which garnered him his first of 2 Oscar nominations) or any of his performances as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau in his Pink Panther films or even his performance as the inimitable Dr. Ftitz Fassbender in What’s New Pussycat. Those are all fine performances and certainly worthy of your time. However, it was Sellers’ penultimate role as Chance the gardener in Hal Ashbey’s sublime Being There, which might be the best performance he ever gave, and garnered him his second Best Actor nomination. This is a film that is subtle in its brilliance, and make no mistake, it is brilliant. It does take a little bit of time to get going, but it is spending that time reeling the audience in. That’s a bit symbolic of the fact that Sellers tried unsuccessfully for nearly nine years to get the film made, and it was only after his success in the Pink Panther films that his career had been revived enough after a series of flops to get him enough clout to get the film produced. This was a labor of love not only for Sellers, but for many people involved in the making of the picture. This is an understated film with many understated moments that lead to big laughs and deep thoughts.
Why it’s essential.
I mentioned above that this is a brilliant film. Brilliant is a word that gets bandied about quite a bit, and can be used very subjectively, especially when it comes to talking about films. I believe that Being There is a brilliant film because it requires thought. You have to be able to think about this film as you’re watching it. Also, this film is loaded to the gills with social commentary, and even though it came out in 1979, it’s totally relevant to today’s political, racial and economic climates. As you will see by watching this film, the more that things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.
Not only is it a thoughtful film, but it’s also a very emotional film at the same time. This film deals with primal needs like love and compassion while also confronting us with the needs of the greedy and the powerful. When Chance is accidentally (by chance?) thrown into the world of the economic and political elite, it is his humanity and apparent compassion that draw the individuals to him. What they love about Chance is his humanity, and they misinterpret his simple points of view as a dynamic world view around which governmental economic policy should be based. The second half of the film is a hilarious comedy of errors as we watch everyone from the CIA and the FBI to the press and even foreign governments try to discover who he really is without ever questioning the advice he’s giving. And what’s so brilliant about it is that he isn’t even giving advice.
All Chance knows about is gardening. He spent his entire life working in the garden of an old man and was never allowed to set foot off the property. In every way, his mental capacity is that of a seven or eight year old boy. Some fifteen years later, Tom Hanks would do something similar with the character of Forrest Gump, and Chance was a total precursor to that character. Since all Chance can really speak of with any amount of knowledge is gardening, whenever anyone asks him any kind of important question, he always brings the conversation back to gardening and how you might handle a garden depending on the season of the year. All of these powerful people, right up to the president of the United States (Jack Warden) misunderstand him and believe that he’s speaking in metaphors. To these people, Chance, or Chauncey Gardner as they know him, is a brilliant man who isn’t afraid to speak his mind and tell people hard things.
Similarly to Network, which had come out the year before, and many other films of the 1970’s, Being There takes a very critical look at the television medium, and specifically television news. Director Hal Ashby and screenwriter Jerzi Kosinski (he based the screenplay on his own novel), showed a society that was already starting to have its individuals become preoccupied with the box. Watching Chance ignore Eve (Shirley MacLaine) as she throws herself at him so that he can watch whatever mundane show is on the television is not unlike standing in a line or riding on a train or being in almost any public space today as people largely ignore the world that’s around them to focus on whatever device they have in their hand at that moment. There are also moments in Being There when people representing television get an overinflated sense of self depending on how Chance answers their questions. For instance, after Chance appears on a television show to talk about the economic advice he gave to the president, several journalists ask him if he’d read the commentary about it in the newspapers. Chance never learned how to read, but only tells the reporters that he didn’t read the papers and only watches television. Since everyone thinks this man is so brilliant, a television news reporter proudly states in to her camera that Chauncey Gardner only gets his news from the television.
Ultimately what is so great about this film is the misdirection, and the fact that the audience is in on it. We get to watch these supposed elites bumble and trip over themselves trying to meet and get sage advice from someone that we know is a fool. For me, that’s what puts this film ahead of a film like Forrest Gump. In the latter film, the other characters are in on the joke, and Forrest succeeds in spite of that due to being in the right place at the right time (the fishing boat during the storm) or miraculously having the right skill (running fast, ping pong). He even ultimately gets Jenny back in his life. Being There is different. We as the audience are allowed to know that Chance is a fool, but the characters in the story are not. Many of them can see that something as awry, but no one can place their finger on what’s wrong with the exception of one character. It’s the other characters in the film who unwittingly hoist success on Chance. As a main character, he has no character arc. He doesn’t grow or change at all. However, the gentleness of his spirit softens the hardened souls around him and brings out humanity where there previously had been none. In this story the hero brings about change in others.
The perfect example of that is Dr. Robert Allenby (Richard Dysart). After Chance is kicked out of the deceased man’s house, he aimlessly wanders the streets of Washington, D.C. After seeing himself on a television display in a store, he steps off the sidewalk to get a better look at himself, but gets caught between two cars. The chauffeur comes out to see if he’s ok, and the passenger in the car, Eve Rand, insists that they take Chance to her home. Her husband, Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas in an Oscar-winning performance) has been ill for some time and there is a doctor there who can see to his leg. Chance agrees, and gets in the car. Eve gives him a drink, but having never tasted alcohol before, Chance starts coughing as she asks his name. He’s trying to say Chance the gardener, but she hears Chauncey Gardner, and that’s what he’s known by for the rest of the film.
That is until Dr. Allenby figures out who he is. Allenby doesn’t trust Chance. He wants to know who he is, and through conversations with Chance, he gets the name of the lawyer who kicked him out of the old man’s house. Over the course of the story, it is only Allenby who discovers that Chance is really a nobody. And yet, everyone else has become quite fond of him. Eve has actually fallen in love with him, and Benjamin considers him a friend and a confidant. The thing to know about Ben is that when we meet him, he’s 100% capitalist. He’s a small-government/big business Republican who is out for himself and no one else. Near the end of the film, as he lies dying in bed, Allenby comes in to tell him the truth about Chance. Before he can, Benjamin tells Allenby that there’s something about Chauncey that he trusts. He makes him feel good, and that since Chauncey has been around the thought of dying has been much easier. It goes unspoken that Chauncey’s presence has brought Benjamin peace, and Dr Allenby says nothing to disturb it. It’s as beautiful an emotional moment that I’ve ever seen in a film. After Benjamin passes, Allenby refers to Chance by his real name, acknowledging that he knows, but he now appreciates the humanity that he’s brought into their world.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the acting in this film. I did mention above that Peter Sellers was nominated for Best Actor, and only Dustin Hoffman giving one of his signature performances for Kramer Vs. Kramer prevented him from winning it. I used the word understated before, and that’s what Sellers acting is in this. If you watch the other films that I mentioned earlier that Sellers starred in, as well as most all of his other films, you’ll see an actor who is quite often over the top. He is loud and boisterous and will do almost anything for a laugh. His performances of Inspector Clouseau and the title character in Dr. Strangelove are perfect examples of that. However, as Chance, Sellers gave us a performance in which most of the laughs came from subtle lines and subtle actions. There are a few over the top moments, such as the scene in which he does yoga on the bed as Eve masturbates, but even that scene is comparatively reigned in. Again, this is a movie you need to think about, and the best laughs in the film are thoughtful moments where the audience has to connect the dots in order to get the joke. Sellers understated performance is the crown jewel of this very thoughtful film.
Finally, there is the last shot in the film. I’m not going to say what it is, but it might be one of the most interpretive shots to ever end any film. It’s the type of shot that sparks discussion because it can be interpreted in as many ways as there are people who watch it.
This is a film that came out in the late 1970’s, a very pessimistic time in our country’s history. In many ways this film reflects that pessimism, but also adds a hint of whimsy. As pall bearers of Ben’s coffin plan to nominate Chance as the next president, we’re given a fairly fatalistic view of the power structure of the country, and a pessimistic view of the possibility of any real solutions. But then we see Chance, mending a pine tree sapling. We see Chance showing the humanity that he brought to this world, and then we see him do something impossible. I like to think that he’s showing us that no problem is so great that we can’t overcome it simply by treating each other like human beings, with kindness and respect and nurturing. That message in an of itself makes this film essential viewing.