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Film Criticism by David O'Connell

Being There

February 5th 2009 03:33
By the time he turned his attention to Being There in 1979, director Hal Ashby had already been responsible for at least two great 70's films in Harold and Maude (1971) and The Last Detail (1973). With Being There he was fortunate enough to acquire the services of Peter Sellers for a role that would not only be his penultimate screen appearance but one which would reveal another side to a man often regarded as a difficult and erratic comic genius.

Adapted by Jerzy Kosinski from his own novel, itís the tale of a middle-aged man named Chance (Sellers). Possessing the simple mind of a child, he's never left the grounds of a wealthy employerís estate, tending to the gardens there with devotion his entire life. He canít read or write and has all his meals and needs met by a maid. He has one prominent fixation other than gardening: television, which he watches with a puerile sense of fascination, often absorbed by childrenís shows or imitating the movements of the people who appear on screen.

A rude awakening comes when his employer, "the old manĒ dies, forcing him onto the streets of Washington for the first time. As implausible as this sounds the following scenes - accompanied by a brassy funk version of Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra from 2001: a Space Odyssey Ė provide some genuine laughs as Chance encounters black hoodlums for the first time and tells a random stranger on the street that heís hungry before asking if she can get him some lunch!

When lightly struck by the driver of a wealthy woman, Eve (Shirley MacLaine), heís ushered to her house with its private doctor in attendance for fear of adverse publicity. Eveís husband is a dying, wealthy political mover and shaker, Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas) and before long Chance has ingratiated himself into the household and everyone in it. His silence is mistaken for wise meditation, his curious questioning for witty observation, his gardening advice for metaphorical allusions to the state of the world and its economy. Winning over Eve and Ben with the sense of purity and humbleness he projects, he provides only polite responses when spoken to.

Peter Sellers as Chance the Gardener

Through his new friends Chance meets a range of famous and powerful figures, including the President himself (Jack Warden), and his infamy grows, even as reporters and government officials scramble to uncover background information on this curiously insubstantial figure, but to no avail (due to being misheard as Chauncey Gardener when, in a coughing fit, first introducing himself as Chance the Gardener to Eve!).

Sellers is extraordinary as this child in a manís body; polite, inquisitive, he somehow glides through these encounters with people by projecting a persona through what he doesnít say. Itís a skillfully judged fine line on which Kosinski projects this manís endearingly sweet and gentle personality; Sellers, in a redefining role for him just a year before his death, creates inexplicable screen magic out of almost nothing and it leaves the impression of being his final masterstroke

Chance in unfamiliar territory

Increasing number of implausibilities aside - which do have a detrimental affect on the overall impact of the film Ė Being There will always be remembered for the work of its leading man, plagued so often by controversy and speculation off-screen. Here, in Chance, his genius shines through, even though there are times you want to strangle him in frustration - especially for his cluelessness in the face of Eve's amorous advances!

There's equally memorable support from a radiant MacLaine, who canít help falling hard for her charmingly benign new friend and confidente, and Douglas as the dying benefactor and man of true integrity (winning an Oscar for his performance). In parts bittersweet drama, social satire, and absurdist comedy, Being There may be hampered by slightly outdated and overly-ambitious ideas but it's still a delight and well worth revisiting to see Sellers bring Chance to life all over again

Chance mixing with the elite alongside Eve (Shirley MacLaine)


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6 Comments. [ Add A Comment ]

Comment by Teresa Ralton

February 5th 2009 04:53
When I saw Being There years ago, i thought it was hilarious. Peter Sellers does those inept caracters so well - my favourite is the Indian guy in The Party. It was quite a surprise to fnd out how cruel he was in real life. The Party is still a fabulous movie. I'd be interested to see how this one holds up.

Comment by David O'Connell

February 5th 2009 05:03
Hey Teresa, yes The Party is a classic! This is such a different performance from Sellers though, unlike anything else I've seen from him - a very non-physical, internal role in a way.

It stands up well, though the very last scene is a peculiar, almost unworldly one. When you see it again you'll know what I'm referring to - it's certainly open to debate as to what it means.

Comment by Bryn

February 5th 2009 07:43
I love this movie. Actually one of my favourite Sellers movies. I'm a huge fan of Kosinski. And Hal Ashby was a fine director, if perhaps a little drug-addled and paranoid.
I love the outtakes at movie's end - although on some prints of the film you don't get these - of Sellers trying to get the his lines right when he's at the hospital. Hilarious.

Comment by Janet Collins

February 5th 2009 11:33
Yes, this post makes me want to get it out and watch it again!

Comment by Chris Champion

February 5th 2009 23:22
Wonderful movie. Like Janet, now I want to go watch it again.

Comment by David O'Connell

February 6th 2009 03:55
Hey Bryn, yeah the version I saw has that very funny outtake as well with Chance trying to make it through a recitation of the threat from the black hood that he's supposed to pass on to Rafael!

It's funny the association Chance makes when he encounters the lone black hired hand at the mansion and asks him in all seriousness, "Do you know Rafael?"

Janet and Chris - hope you both get to see it again very soon!

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