...the last great film Peter Sellers made after giving us a lifetime of notable accomplishments.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Never underestimate the power of sheer luck. 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 tales, people are judged not by their accomplishments but by their look 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 an empty-headed scarecrow is brought to life as a handsome and well-attired young man and mistaken as a person of wealth and position.

Which brings us to "Being There," the 1979 comic fable written by Jerzy Kosinski, based on his novel, and directed by Hal Ashby. Like its two famous predecessors, the movie follows the exploits of a man of humble means misconceived as one of enormous authority. The film is subtitled in the promos "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 series. 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 video tape I ever owned, a gift from my wife along with a brand spanking new Sony Betamax, circa 1981. The tape is only just now being bumped from my collection.

Sellers stars as a simpleminded gardener named Chance, an idiot savant of gardening, really. He has worked in the same house in Washington, DC, 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 looking, 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 brain, TV is his only reality, yet he is wholly indiscriminate in what he watches. He is unable to do as 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, he wanders the streets of Washington aimlessly for a while until, fortune 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). Eve insists 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 and most touching sociopolitical satires in movie history.

From this point in the story, everything Chance does or says is misinterpreted 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 is repeatedly mistaken for quiet intellect, and his idiotic smiles are taken as nods of knowing approval. Words are put in his mouth, and people 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, Chance is invited to meet the President of the United States (Jack Warden), where his advice about gardening is misconstrued 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, who was rightly nominated here for an Academy Award, puts in what may be the most effectively understated performance ever committed to the screen. He never raises or lowers his voice beyond a monotone, 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 he must have enormously influential connections, and Eve falls in love with him! "He's such a kind and sensitive man." It's a film that begins slowly, and then becomes more absurd and all the funnier by the minute.

The image quality after two decades remains fairly good in a smooth, soft, and reasonably clean transfer. The original print was obviously in fine condition when lovingly converted to the digital domain. The 1.85:1 ratio enhanced widescreen picture hasn't the sharpest delineation, and colors can sometimes be on the dusky side, but it remains basically true to life throughout.

The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack is nothing special, but it also remains truthful, with excellent range, especially at the high end.

Insofar as special features are concerned, however, there are not many. Warners include a few cast profiles, a list of awards (Melvyn Douglas won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role), a generous thirty-six scene selections, and a widescreen theatrical trailer. English and French are the spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese the subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
"Being There" is not a comedy that will thrill everyone; it isn't deep, dark, or sidesplitting, just placid and poignant. Its satire is not particularly topical, but a gentle ribbing of Man's eternal gullibility and his susceptibility to be taken in by appearances. We believe what we want to believe. The movie ends in one of the most memorable scenes in cinema. There is apparently nothing Chance is incapable of doing. To quote the film, "Life is a state of mind."


Film Value