"Life is a state of mind."
Peter Sellers lobbied for years to get the lead in "Being There." From the late sixties to the mid seventies, his career had stalled, resuscitated only by the revival of the "Pink Panther" series. When he finally landed the part in "Being There," he hoped it would be his lasting contribution to cinema after years of playing lightweight roles. He was right. With all due respect to Clouseau fans, of which I am one, along with his roles in "Dr. Strangelove," his portrayal of Chance the gardener in "Being There" was probably the best thing he ever did. It's a pleasure to welcome this film back in a pair of 30th Anniversary editions, one on DVD and the one reviewed here on Blu-ray.
Never underestimate the power of good fortune. Mark Twain understood the principle when he penned the short story "Luck" over a hundred years ago, as did Nathaniel Hawthorne in "Feathertop" before that. In both stories, people judge others not by their accomplishments but by their appearance and by their being in the right place at the right time. With Twain a military general rises to his position by blundering into victories; with Hawthorne a witch brings an empty-headed scarecrow to life as a handsome, well-attired young man, whom people mistake for a person of wealth and position. Which brings us to "Being There," the 1979 comic fable by Jerzy Kosinski, directed by Hal Ashby ("Harold and Maude," "The Last Detail," "Shampoo," "Coming Home"), with music by Johnny Mandel. Like the movie's famous predecessors, it follows the exploits of a man of humble means mistaken for one of enormous authority. The film's subtitle in the promos was "A Story of Chance," and so it is. Would that we were all so lucky.
"Being There" has for many years been special to me personally. For one thing, it's a serious comedy classic that enormously impressed me the first time I saw it in a theater and one that continues to impress me today. For another, it was the last great film Peter Sellers made after giving us a lifetime of notable accomplishments like "The Ladykillers," "The Mouse That Roared," "Lolita," "Dr. Strangelove," and, of course, the "Pink Panther" movies. It's a shame he had to end his career with the appalling "Fu Manchu" debacle, but "Being There," his second-to-last film, more than compensates. And for yet another thing, "Being There" was the first prerecorded videotape I ever owned, a gift from the Wife-O-Meter, along with a brand-spanking new Sony Betamax, circa 1981.
Sellers stars as a simpleminded gardener named (what else?) Chance, an idiot savant of gardening, a little boy in an adult body. He has worked in the same house in Washington, D.C., for the same man his entire life, never leaving the confines of the home's walls or gardens. He has no relatives and no background beyond his existence as a gardener, the only thing he ever remembers doing. He is middle aged, distinguished in appearance, always elegantly dressed in his master's best suits. Being a simpleton, Chance is devoid of much understanding of the goings on around him, and devoid of much feeling, too. Above all, he enjoys watching television. In his tiny filament of a brain, TV is his only reality, yet he is wholly indiscriminate in what he watches. He is unable to do so much as read or write.
Imagine his dilemma when the old man dies, leaving him penniless, alone, and virtually helpless in the world for the first time in his life, with no one to look after him and nowhere to go. Lawyers for the old man's estate throw him out on his ear. Dressed in his finest clothes, Chance wanders the streets of Washington aimlessly for a while until, as luck would have it, he gets lightly bumped by a car. Not just any car. A limousine belonging to Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), the wife of the richest and most powerful man in the country, Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas, winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor Oscar in the role). Eve insists that Chance come home with her and let the Rands' personal physician (Richard Dysart) tend to his injury. Mystified by it all, Chance does so. When she asks him his name, he tries to mutter "Chance, the gardener," but it comes out sounding like "Chauncey Gardener." And so begins one of the shrewdest, funniest, and most touching sociopolitical satires in movie history.
From this point in the story, everything Chance does or says people misinterpret to mean something else. He unintentionally ingratiates himself to the Rands, who find him refreshingly honest and invite him to stay in their fabulous mansion indefinitely. No one questions him but takes him at face value. Chance looks good. His bewildered silence people repeatedly mistake for quiet intellect, and they think his idiotic smiles are nods of knowing approval. People put words in his mouth, and they think he has a wonderful sense of humor when he asks inane questions like why the elevator is such a small room and whether it has a television. Before long, Rand invites Chance to meet the President of the United States (Jack Warden), where everyone misconstrues Chance's advice about gardening as learned metaphoric wisdom about the state of the country's economy. He becomes the talk of the town and the intimate of the high and mighty, even appearing on TV talk shows where he becomes a media icon, and the entire nation comes to love his unadorned philosophy.
Sellers puts in what may be the most effectively understated performance he ever committed to the screen. He never raises or lowers his voice beyond a monotone (Sellers said he patterned his voice inflections after Stan Laurel), he never makes a gesture of hand, face, or body beyond the slightest increment of movement, yet he conveys a world of meaning with every nuance. He is able to make all of those around him draw their own conclusions about him, and in the film they are all wrong. The Russian ambassador (Richard Basehart) thinks him brilliant, at an embassy party the rumor floats that he speaks eight languages, the CIA and FBI can find no trace of him in their files, leading them to believe that he must have enormously influential connections, and Eve falls in love with him. "He's such a kind and sensitive man."
"Being There" is a film that begins slowly and becomes funnier by the minute as it gets ever more absurd. By the end, to the people around him, Chance can walk on water.
Trivia: The Academy nominated Sellers for an Oscar for Best Actor, which some people said he lost because of the outtakes shown during the closing credits. Sellers thought they spoiled the tone of the movie. I agree.
The image quality in this newly remastered Blu-ray edition looks clean and clear after three decades, with no obvious age marks, scratches, fades, or lines. Warner Bros. went out of their way to capture the 1.85:1-ratio picture as well as possible, using a VC-1 encode and a dual-layer BD50. However, the image remains fairly soft and pale most of the time. Director Ashby appears to have shot many if not most of the indoor scenes using natural light, or he tried to emulate natural light, which doesn't provide a very bright or vivid image. Nor has the picture the sharpest delineation, with colors sometimes on the dim and dusky side. When Ashby is shooting outdoors, the colors and definition come into their own. Therefore, the disc's video quality is basically true to life, yet it is not such that will impress many fans of high-definition Blu-ray.
We get the English audio track in both Dolby TrueHD 1.0 and Dolby Digital monaural, neither of which is anything special. The TrueHD adds a slight degree of clarity and weight to the sound, but it does little for the dynamics or frequency extremes. Still, the all-important midrange is smooth, rich, and truthful, and for a dialogue-driven story such as this one, that's all that really matters.
The 30th Anniversary Blu-ray and DVD releases contain a small but notable collection of extras. First among them is a 2008 featurette, "Memories from Being There," a fifteen-minute set of reminiscences with filmmaker and actress Illeana Douglas, the granddaughter of the film's co-star, Melvyn Douglas. After that are two recently discovered scenes, totaling around two minutes, followed by a two-minute alternate ending that is far less memorable than the one the director chose to use, and then a six-minute gag reel.
The extras conclude with a generous thirty-six scene selections but no bookmarks; a full-screen theatrical trailer; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"Being There" is not a comedy that will thrill everyone; it isn't deep, dark, or sidesplitting, just placid and poignant. The movie's satire is perhaps more topical today than ever, and it remains a gentle reminder of Man's eternal gullibility, our susceptibility to be taken in by appearances. We believe what we want to believe. We make people into what we want them to be. The movie ends in one of the most remarkable scenes in cinema. There is apparently nothing Chance is incapable of doing.