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Being There (1979)

December 8th, 2005 · No Comments

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A simple-minded gardener named Chance (Peter Sellers giving the performance of a career) has had no contact with the outside world other than what he watches on TV. When his employer dies, Chance is forced into the street, with his tidy clothes, umbrella and TV remote, which he quickly learns does not work on real people.

Luckily, Chance enters the lives of a dying industrialist (Melvyn Douglas), his wife (Shirley MacLaine) and eventually, the President of the United States (Jack Warden), making an impact on them by unconsciously reflecting whatever it is they need to see in another human being.

Director Hal Ashby reached the apex of a brilliant decade that included Harold and Maude, Shampoo and Coming Home. Jerzy Kosinski adapted his whimsical novel to screen, with uncredited work done by Robert C. Jones.

Being There has been universally well reviewed, but I feel that to enjoy the film is to ignore how far fetched parts of it are. It made no sense to me that Chance’s employer wouldn’t have made arrangements for the simpleton in the garden to be cared for in the event of his death. Also, Chance being permitted to sit in on a meeting between his industrialist friend and the president seems highly improbable as well. Minor quibbles perhaps, but without them, the story would cease to be.

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A lot of the movie irked me from there. The idiot box is a central character in the movie and there are incessant cut-ins to 1970s era children’s programming, game shows and commercials. Cheech & Chong’s Basketball Jones cartoon is given so much screen time that I was disappointed we had to get back to the whimsical Peter Sellers movie.

As a faerie tale, the film does work some magic. Instead of plunging the story into ridiculous broad comedy, the filmmakers keep the setting intimate and the focus squarely on Peter Sellers, who is mesmerizing from start to finish. One of the film’s best scenes involves Sellers tip toeing into the real world for the first time. We initially assume Chance lives on a vast estate of some sort, but – as a disco version of Sprach Zarathustra plays – the camera pulls back to reveal Chance’s home is a townhouse in the heart of a D.C. ghetto.

The real charm of the film comes in its final scene, a last minute inspiration of Ashby’s, in which Chance walks across the surface of a lake, bored or oblivious to the political discussions going on at the funeral behind him. The ending has generated some vocal discussion among film fans as to “what it all means.” Was Chance a supernatural being? Are there hidden stepping stones in the lake? To me, the magical realism in the ending is about life being a state of mind, but I could be wrong.

Melvyn Douglas won a Supporting Actor Oscar for his work, but Peter Sellers was shut out in the last of two Academy Awards nods he received in his career. He died three years later. In even more bad news, Kosinski was accused in some circles of plagiarizing his book. Subsequent efforts over the course of the decade to produce a suitable follow-up were unsuccessful, and he committed suicide in 1991.


Tags: Ambiguous ending

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