Monday, March 26, 2012

Being There (1979)


          After spending much of the ’70s starring in schlocky comedies, British funnyman Peter Sellers doggedly pursued the lead role in this adaptation of Polish writer Jerzy Kosinski’s novel, recognizing a chance to deliver a subtle performance that would contrast his usual over-the-top silliness. The involvement of director Hal Ashby was an added incentive, since Ashby had scored with the offbeat comedies Harold and Maude (1971) and Shampoo (1975). Together, Ashby and Sellers present Kosinski’s social satire as a media-age fairy tale, to winning effect.
          When the story begins, Chance (Sellers) is the live-in gardener for a wealthy senior. Chance has never left his employer’s estate, and his main companion is television—Chance’s IQ is so low that he’s incapable of anything beyond bland remarks and mundane tasks. After his employer dies, lawyers inform a confused Chance that he must leave the estate, so he’s forced to explore the outside world for the first time in his life. Walking the streets of Washington, D.C., in a hand-be-down suit, Chance looks like a man of wealth and power though he’s actually a homeless simpleton.
           By the time night falls, Chance is bewildered and hungry, so he walks right into the path of a town car belonging to Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), the wife of an elderly but super-wealthy tycoon named Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas). Accepting an invitation to receive care from the Rand family physician (Richard Dysart), Chance becomes an unexpected but welcome houseguest.
           The comic premise of Being There is that modern Americans are so narcissistic they only hear what they want to hear. Thus, whenever Chance makes childlike comments about the only thing he knows, gardening, the Rands perceive him as a guru delivering wisdom through cryptic metaphors. Taking the contrivance to a wonderfully farcical extreme, the story reveals that Rand has the ear of the U.S. president (Jack Warden), and shows the president falling under Chance’s spell. The strange and surprising paths the narrative follows thereafter are better discovered than discussed, but suffice to say the filmmakers gracefully advance from an outlandish premise to a poetic ending.
          Being There is not without its flaws, since the movie is paced quite slowly and the tone is precious (lots of tasteful classical music played over painterly shots of the lavish Rand estate). The movie also walks a fine line by asking viewers to accept the absurd concept of Chance becoming an important national figure, and also asking viewers to empathize with Chance’s plight as a lost little boy. Is he a metaphor or a character?
          Notwithstanding these issues, Ashby creates a wonderful framework for the film’s rich performances. Dysart and David Clennon (as a litigator who suspects the truth about Chance) leaven oiliness with sincerity, while Warden energizes his scenes with amiable bluster. MacLaine is charming and funny as the woman who transposes her fantasies onto Chance, and Douglas earned an Academy Award for his sly turn as an aging tycoon with an eye on his legacy. As for Sellers, the impressive thing about his performance is how little he actually does onscreen; given the frenetic nature of his usual comedy acting, it’s wild to see him pull back completely.

Being There: RIGHT ON

2 comments:

freetoairphoenix said...

Funniest quote from the film: "..I like to watch.." you like to WATCH? *smiles* lol, I won't give too much away but this is the one quote I left remembering most from Being There- that and the folks who rescued him inspecting his very, very well made clothing that "they don't make this anymore" murmuring about the extremely good quality and rarity of his suit material and craftsmanship of the sewing-fascinating!

I disagree regarding your opinion of Chance's "low IQ" - he was NOT of a low intelligence at all, he was naive- and in fact is part of the entire plot.

The last scene which I won't give away is so touching and may bring tears to your eyes. Very sweet. After learning about Peter Sellers real life- what a dichotomy!

William Blake Hall said...

I'm not usually a fan of the whole "unused clips played during the ending credits" gimmick, but the clips here are magnificent. The credits are themselves unique and funny, openly confessing how sketchy a few characters truly were.