Review: Being There (1979)

Being There


Hal Ashby
Jerzy Kosinski (Based on his novel)
130 min.
Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Mevlyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Richard Dysart, Richard Baseheart, Dave Clennon
MPAA Rating

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At the heart of Being There, there seem to be two competing ideas, one literal, one figurative but both compelling.

Peter Sellers in a rare dramatic role, plays Chance, a simple-minded gardener for a wealthy man whose small, in-town estate provides the only nurturing environment for our protagonist. Having worked for decades in the tiny garden on the estate grounds, Chance has spent little time outside of it and when there, he prefers to live life vicariously through the myriad television program available on several sets around the house. After his employer’s death, he is thrust into the real world for the first time where he sees everything as a brand of television program into which he’s been thrust. Relying on concepts derived from the various programs he’s watched and his vast experience as a gardener, Chance meanders the city streets before, by literal accident, he’s brought into the home of a dying entrepreneur and presidential advisor who sees the simplicity of Chance’s words as a complex rhetorical allegory, leading him to present the inexperienced gardener to his friends and the president as some vast economic mind.

Chance, who is often referred to as Chauncey Gardiner because of a simple introductory misunderstanding, knows only what he’s seen on television and cannot possibly understand the complex vagaries of the world around him, yet he’s believed to be some measure of savior for a disgruntled electorate refreshed to find such common sense elicited by someone of presumed great intellect. Sellers performance, measured and precise, never borders on the pretentious. Subtle inflections learned from his tremendous experience as a comedian give his words an almost absurd quality. His wisdom voiced so effectively and so guilelessly make him a wonderful and relatable character.

Hal Ashby modified the originally intended ending of the film where Chance casually walks across the lawn of the estate tending to the winter-stripped trees to include a closing shot of Chance walking across the water of an unfrozen lake. The religious allegory here suggests that the words of a simple gardener, much like the words of a simple carpenter, speak volumes to those who seek its word, yet simultaneously suggest that perhaps what we’ve come to expect from religion may be less deep than we give it credit for. But that’s the nature of faith and why it speaks so well to the masses. Chance appeals because he seems so much like the rest of us. He speaks in simple phrases that stand in for our own beliefs whether valid or justified.

Yet, the film strikes more succinctly as a political satire. Here we have a simple man with a simple message appealing to the public in ways politicians have been unable. At a politicaly challenging time in U.S. history, the disillusionment with politics that began just before the resignation of Richard M. Nixon in 1974 thanks to the Watergate scandal was still palpable in 1979. Then president James Carter wasn’t able to speak effectively to the public on economic matters as the county reeled from skyrocketing gas prices and other issues. The people wanted something more evocative and compassionate. Something that explained things in a way they could understand without being misrepresented by those in power. Chance spoke well to the everyman frustrated with government.

What makes this film just as resonant today is our current mess of a political system. The public is becoming increasingly frustrated by a lack of trust and faith in its government. The parties are squabbling over ideology and failing to come together in a way that shows the U.S. citizens that they not only cannot be trusted but that they don’t understand the problems facing real people. Being There may never feel antiquated even if its setting and design do because the message will always be relevant.
Review Written
August 17, 2011

1 Comment

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  1. Absolutely brilliant and beautiful movie.

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