#55) Being There (1979)
OR “Chance Fever”
Directed by Hal Ashby
Written by Jerzy Kosinski. Based on his novel.
Class of 2015
The Plot: Simple-minded gardener Chance (Peter Sellers) has lived in his boss’ estate his entire life and knows only two things: gardening and what he sees on TV. When the old man dies, Chance is sent out into the real world of Washington D.C. Through a series of circumstantial events he is befriended by elderly tycoon Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas) and his younger wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine). Chance’s simple statements about gardening are misconstrued as profound pieces of advice, which propels him into the inner circles of the political elite. This does not go unnoticed by the President (Jack Warden) and a small group of others who begin to investigate this mysterious man.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “a philosophically complex film that has remained fresh and relevant.” The work of Ashby, Kosinski, and particularly Sellers are singled out.
But Does It Really?: Oh yes. “Being There” is another one of those films where everything just works. It has a very simple charm to it and never betrays that simplicity. Due to the ever-changing political landscape I’m not quite sure if the satire packs quite the same punch, but it’s still quite enjoyable watching Chance get to where he ends up. “Being There” might not be the first film you’d think about including on the Registry, but once the title comes up you think “Of course”.
Everybody Gets One: Actors Richard Baseheart and David Clennon, plus James Noble, who was concurrently holding fake political office himself as the Governor on “Benson”.
Everybody Gets One (Via Archival TV Footage): ‘70s TV staples Paul Lynde, Ray Jay Johnson, Bob Barker, Fred Rogers, Jon “Bowzer” Bauman, and Mumbly the Dog all appear on TV in this film at some point.
Wow, That’s Dated: All that TV Chance watches, plus a fleeting reference to our nation’s bicentennial.
Seriously, Oscars?: Only Sellers and Douglas ended up getting nominated, leaving no room for the likes of MacLaine, Ashby, or Kosinski. Melvyn Douglas won Best Supporting Actor, partly due to his work in this and 1979’s “The Seduction of Joe Tynan”, and partly because like his character, he too was dying. And while Peter Sellers won much acclaim for his work here, he lost to fellow overdue veteran Dustin Hoffman for his more emotive performance in “Kramer vs. Kramer”.
- I am watching a movie about a man watching TV.
- In praise of Peter Sellers; “Strangelove” aside, this is his finest performance. Like Chance himself, you can read almost anything you want in the character. A difficult feat, but Sellers pulls it off without showing any of the inner work.
- It needs to be said that the ‘70s were an awful decade for television.
- This is the second best use of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” in a film.
- I do love films that include the term “honky”.
- Ladies and Gentlemen, Basketball Jones.
- Shirley MacLaine does not get enough credit for her work in this film. She has a very clear character arc that’s happening off-camera, so when she runs into these scenes with Chance with her emotions already at a 10, it’s hilarious.
- I have a lot of questions about Jack Warden’s presidency. What platform did he run on? Does he replace Jimmy Carter in our timeline? What fellow 70s character actor was his running mate? Did he wipe the floor with Gerald Ford during the debate?
- Does anyone else get the sense that Ben caught on to who Chance really is, but just didn’t say anything?
- Director Hal Ashby gives himself a Hitchcock cameo as some guy just hanging out at The Washington Post, like you do.
- Jerome Hellman plays the host of the talk show Chance appears on. This is his only acting appearance. He was mainly a producer, having just produced Ashby’s most recent film, “Coming Home”.
- What is Ben talking into towards the end? Is it the fanciest Speak & Spell ever?
- Yes, yes, there’s a scene where Shirley MacLaine masturbates. Move along, you pervs.
- The outtakes over the end credits are funny, but don’t belong in this film. It doesn’t give you time to sit and dwell on that last shot.
- Also what’s with some of these credits? “Boom Operator (and then some)”? Is there something you’d like to share with the rest of the class, Mr. Ashby?
- Sellers’ struggle to get this film made is pretty much the last third of “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers”.
- While profiling “Forrest Gump” for its 20 Most Overrated Movies list, Premiere Magazine quipped “’Being There’, done that.”
- Where some would say “rip-off”, “Arrested Development” says “homage”.
- Peter Sellers died seven months after the release of “Being There”, and seems to have taken the film’s spirit to heart.