“No accountant can audit life in our favor.”
Based on Jerzy Kosinski’s quirky novel, director, Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979) is, in retrospect, the last great Peter Seller’s comedy; a bizarre, often unsettling examination about innocence cast adrift in a sea of mere mortal corruption. The film opens and closes with a death, both life-altering experiences for Chance, the gardener (Sellers). To label either the book or film as ‘black comedy’ is too literal a simplification of where this story ultimately takes us; into a labyrinth of pseudo-Biblical reflections. Yet, the elemental similarities between Chance and Christ are not revealed to the audience until the penultimate moment where Chance, almost by ‘chance’, casually strolls across still waters overlooking the estate of his newly deceased wealthy benefactor; his own future as the unlikeliest of statesmen made secure by misdirection; the lamb having flim-flamed the wolves to regain both the power and the glory, even as the eulogizing President of the United States delivers a bone-chillingly astute declaration, “Life…is a state of mind.” Kosinski – who also wrote the screenplay – intertwines his tale with rather cryptic references to the Bible and the Freemasons, and, manages to convey a sense of some otherworldly force cleverly at work, even as the focus of our story seems all too grounded in the daily chaos of earthly mire.
It ought to be noted Being There is an extraordinarily understated affair; Sellers, cast as the pseudo-autistic savant of the piece for whom only his base work as a servant, with a green thumb and penchant for gardening, truly satisfies. Consider, what was Christ but a carpenter? Unlike Christ, Sellers’ Chance is something of a semi-tragic, if exceedingly lucky recluse, incapable of understanding the world beyond its limitations revealed on his B&W television set. Thoroughly unprepared for the cynical realities of Washington’s political class or the dystopian landscape riddled in human debris of every shape and kind, Chance is seemingly ill-equipped to be the leader of great men, a lover for any woman, or even a sincere friend to just one rich, old, dying man. Despite his shortcomings, he nevertheless rises to the occasion by accident – literally – after being struck down by a limousine. Like all truly incorruptible individuals, the promise of wealth and power here is rendered moot and inconsequential. Chance is a true man of the people; or rather, just the sort of ingenious and highly cryptic sharp-shooter Washington could use, though arguably never exploit. In hindsight, what is most gratifying about Being There is Sellers’ inveterate naiveté, so idiotically out of step with the status quo that it could only be heartfelt.
Released at the height of inner city degradation in the U.S., Being There is 130 minutes of profoundly parabolic reflection on the future of western society; or rather, an inverted retread of the old ‘lamb bites wolf’ scenario that a director like Frank Capra readily enjoyed mining in movies like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Unlike either of these aforementioned classics, our hero in Being There is neither traditionally heroic, nor perhaps even truly able to comprehend the sublime poignancy in having been handed the keys to the kingdom without ever offering more than single syllabic replies to any of the loaded questions proposed to him. Indeed, it is the Forrest Gump-esque quality to Sellers’ carefully modulated performance that remains so exquisitely charming. Oddly self-possessed, Sellers’ portrait of this socially retarded outsider, about to be handed the biggest ‘insider’ track of all time, embodies an uncanny directness, not entirely projected via Sellers himself, but rather, counterbalanced by the interpreted reactions and assumptions made about him by the remaining cast who toggle in their initially skeptical admiration from understandably perplexed curiosity to abject humility; then, at last, thorough acceptance of Chance’s ineptitude, reconstituted as genius. An underdog like Chance is good to have around even if his initial reactions to being cherry-picked as a prime candidate for the presidency of the United States is as bewildering as the penultimate ‘big reveal.’ No kidding, Chance the gardener is more than we know…or rather, might have suspected. The genius in Sellers’ performance is that it appears deceptively simple; Sellers adopting a chameleon’s skin, effortlessly to change right before our very eyes and suit others’ impressions of him. And yet, he can make most any obtuse situation appear not only plausible but as affectingly earnest with his razor-sharp sense of unpretentious farce.
Essentially, the picture belongs to Sellers immaculately tranquil and elegantly stridden portrait of ambiguous ticks as the instinctive dupe suddenly let loose on the unsuspecting ruling class. Allegorically, Sellers’ gardener adopts opaque tonal shades that cannot be easily explained away, much less discounted for their perceived wit and uber-sophistication. We see what the other characters in Being There see in Chance; Sellers allowing just enough of a well-wrought ‘in’ into his imaginative logic for the projection of all sorts of thoughts and ideas onto this blank slate, sincerely out to fool no one and thus, even more ironically, winding up fooling everyone in the end. However, we would be remiss in not acknowledging the contributions of Shirley MacLaine as the neurotically affectate, and much younger wife of an ailing Washington politico, who falls deeply, madly under Chance’s spell. Being There is, in fact, impeccably cast: Melyvn Douglas, in an Oscar-worthy and winning role as the withering hubby, enfeebled and bedridden, but whose blind faith in Chance launches his second start in life: also, Richard Dysart as the compassionate family doctor; Jack Warden, a truly befuddled and pontificating President whose newly unearthed anxiety renders him impotent with his wife (Alice Hirson). Even the bit parts are richly satisfying in Being There; Richard Basehart’s heartless Russian diplomat who warms to Chance’s sparse conversation, or Ruth Attaway’s beady-eyed and brittle black maid, outraged to discover the man whose shortcomings she has coddled for decades now stands at the threshold of true greatness.
Like all truly great comedies, Being There refuses to pander for its laughs; instead, separating the cream from the jest by concentrating on the less obvious foibles that enter into lives best lived without too much explanation provided, other than what is almost too, too easily implied as our own misdirection, superficially misunderstood at a glance and manipulated into believing the incredible, apparently, without even trying. Our story begins with the death of Chance’s elderly employer. A gardener residing in the ‘old man’s’ cramped townhouse, Chance’s entire life experiences are anchored to his perceptions of daily programming on television. He knows nothing of the world beyond these walls and thinks even less about what he sees on TV. His only confidant, house maid Louise (Ruth Attaway) willingly abandons Chance after the old man dies in his sleep, while attorney for the estate, Jeffrey (Ernest McClure) promptly informs Chance he is to vacate the premises by noon the following day or face a very prompt forced eviction. Rather than fight the bureaucracy, as though he would know how, Chance bravely ventures beyond the walls of the only home he has ever known, only to realize the world outside is foreboding, full of danger and grave mischief. Unable to quantify what he sees, Chance founders in his interaction with other people; that is, until he catches sight of his own image projected onto a large format storefront television screen. Stepping back from the curb, he accidentally wedges his leg against the chauffeur-driven automobile of Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine).
Judging solely by his clothes, and presuming him a gentleman – one whose leg she has nearly broken – Eve offers to drive Chance to a nearby hospital to avoid a lawsuit. However, Eve thinks better of her opening proposal and instead invites Chance to her home; a sprawling estate where her very sick husband, Benjamin (Melvyn Douglas) is being cared for by a private physician; Dr. Robert Allenby (Richard Dysart). From here, misinformation steadily becomes the order of the day with Benjamin taking an instant liking to Chance whom he rechristens Chauncey Gardiner while misinterpreting all of Chance’s garden references as being witty metaphors about the state of the U.S. economy. After an informal meeting with the President of the United States (Jack Warden), Benjamin launches plans for an economic summit and task force he sincerely hopes Chance will consider chairing. Meanwhile, the President uses one of Chance’s garden references in a televised speech, casting an immediate and very direct spotlight of public scrutiny on Chance. Who is he? Where did he come from? How is he involved in government affairs? To answer these questions, the media interviews Chance on a ‘Tonight Show’ styled talk show, then hounds his every move. Unaware of his inflated importance, Chance maintains a calm sense of bearing – yet again, misperceived by the press as being cagy and cool, playing his cards close to his chest.
Benjamin senses a special bond developing between Eve and Chance. Knowing his death is inevitable, Benjamin gives his blessing to a romance between Eve and Chance; a circumstance fraught with comedy as Chance ostensibly does not know, or even understand, what sex is. For example: Chance’s inference to Eve that “he likes to watch” – meaning television - is misperceived by Eve as a kinky summons for her to masturbate in his presence. In the mean time the President’s top aids are powerless to uncover any records or personal history on this mysterious man of the hour leading to yet another misperception: Chance has had his entire life history expunged by both the CIA and FBI. At a state dinner, Chance wows the Russian Ambassador, Vladimir Skrapinov (Richard Basehart) with his efficiently brief comments. Now, more rumors abound he is, in fact, a world diplomat on a secret mission. Up till now, the story has been about Chance – a character no one knows anything about. But the final scenes bear more fruitful analysis.
Benjamin succumbs to his illness and dies in the presence of Dr. Allenby and Chance without ever completing his final thought – “Tell Eve…” Chance, having shown no emotion when his former employer expired, seems genuinely touched by this loss. As Benjamin’s Board of Directors quietly assess the future of Rand Enterprises best managed by Chance, Chance wanders off from the funeral procession and, in his final moments of solitary reflection, casually strolls across a lake near the mansion as the President proclaims in his eulogy that “life is a state of mind.” In essence, Chance is a blank slate upon which those who come in contact with him write their own narratives as part of his personal history. He migrates in the public’s estimation from lowly gardener to A-list wily politico – transformed by lies and innuendo, buoyed by the sheer misguided confidence of rumors he has no control over, and hitherto the point, possesses neither the wherewithal nor the intelligence to dispel, confirm or prevent from evolving and reshaping his reputation and his stature.
The audience is as guilty – if not more so – in their blind speculations, chiefly because the screenplay expertly delays, then relays the lies as truth – unverified, though nevertheless wholeheartedly believed, if never to be properly vetted and/or analyzed. Even as a select group of elder statesmen, as pallbearers, lay Benjamin in his ‘seeing eyed’ tomb, they confer and willingly admit to one another knowing absolutely nothing about the man they are as eager to appoint to the highest office in the land, on nothing more concrete than the basis in proof of each other’s say so. Viewed from this particular vantage, the audience is allowed a brief disassociation from their status quo. We see Chance for the lost, childlike and mentally challenged individual he is, overwhelmingly fortunate, on one hand, to have stumbled upon these grotesquely enterprising cutthroats for whom he has mistaken ambition as kindness, yet on the other, in all likelihood, doomed to be manipulated by them in the end…unless, as the finale suggests – Chance, the gardener is, in fact, the second coming of Christ on earth.
Have we all been duped by the mortal facsimile of flesh and bone? Hmmm… Director, Ashby and writer, Kosinski lead us down the primrose of misdirection, their penultimate reveal more of a head-scratcher than affirmation of the Almighty incarnate. The act of walking on water is certainly culled from Biblical texts, yet ever more unsettling and foreign, begging the question: have we been indulging in farce with a figure of fun, or are we bearing genuine witness to Christ’s return on earth? As with the finale to Stanley Kubrick’s mesmerizing sci-fi masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) no definitive explanation herein is forthcoming. Henceforth, endless discussion is likely to endure for as long as the film itself remains regarded, revisited and fondly remembered as Peter Sellers’ last great film. “Life”, like art imitating it, is definitely “a state of mind.”
Well, this certainly is a surprise. I have to admit when Criterion announced a reissue of Being There on Blu-ray I cringed; not because of the acquisition, but rather because I firmly believe in nine cases out of ten money ought to be spent elsewhere rescuing deep catalog releases yet to have had their debut in 1080p. Not the case with Being There. The original Warner Home Video release left much to be desired; an image slightly cropped on all sides and colors heavily leaning toward warm pink tones; flesh very reddish and film grain rather heavy without looking indigenous to its source. And truthfully, I was not prepared for this reissue to sport any improvements, except by way of extra features in the same way Criterion’s reissue of Sony’s deluxe Dr. Strangelove (1964) merely covered some already well-trodden ground to pointless effect. But here again, with Being There, the improvements are many and noticeable and, more to the point, welcome. Criterion’s reissue is arguably the definitive edition of this movie and ought not be missed.
Advertised as ‘new and restored in 4K under supervision from cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel’, the very first notable difference is color. Gone is the aforementioned reddish/pink tint to everything. Flesh in particular adopts are more realistic tint, but reds that appeared overly saturated before have now been brought back in line, allowing the whole spectrum to be appropriately represented. Better still, the weaker than anticipated contrast that plagued the original Blu-ray release has been traded up for a dramatic refinement; not boosting, but accurately balanced to draw subtle tonal differences, particularly in the moodily lit darker interiors. Third, the grain structure now appears tightly to reflect actual film grain or a reasonable facsimile; no clumpy anomalies and/or distortions. In 1080p, uprezed on my 4K TV this one is a winner through and through and so obviously a vast improvement on the old disc. We lose the ole Warner 2.0 TrueHD stereo that accompanied their Blu-ray release. For the record, WHV also included the original mono option. Criterion has stuck with mono only, delivered as uncompressed PCM. Since Being There is primarily a dialogue-driven movie we can almost forgive the oversight, except Johnny Mandel’s sparse score sounded a lot better in 2.0.
Extras get a big boost. Warner’s Blu had a scant 15-minute featurette with Illeana Douglas meandering all over the place about her memories of, and praise for, Peter Sellers; plus, barely 2 additional minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes; also, 6 minutes of a gag reel. Boring! Criterion has gone the distance here, producing a comprehensive 48 min. retrospective on the making of the movie, chalked full of interviews from Andrew Braunsberg, screenwriter, Robert C. Jones, cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel, and editor, Don Zimmerman. We also get a 33 minute audio-only excerpt from Hal Ashby giving a lecture in 1980 at the American Film Institute and 20-minutes of author, Jerzy Kosinksi in his 1979 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. Best of all, perhaps, are two vintage Peter Sellers interviews, the first, from 1980 on NBC’s Today, the second on The Don Lane Show, cumulatively totaling just a little over 20 minutes. Finally, we get a promo reel for the picture featuring Ashby and Sellers, and a booklet essay by noted critic, Mark Harris. Bottom line: even if you already own Being There on Blu-ray, you really need to upgrade to Criterion’s reissue. It is the way the movie was meant to be seen and Criterion’s extras ensure you are not left wanting for more on the last word about the movie. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)