Round 4 Pick 8 February 22 Lisa
“Being There” (1979)
Director: Hal Ashby
Writer: Jerzy Kosinski and Robert C. Jones (book adaptation)
Settings: Washington, D.C. and the Biltmore Mansion in Asheville, N.C.
Awards: 14 wins and 15 nominations
Cast: Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Ruth Attaway, Richard Dysart, Henry Dawkins, Richard Basehart, David Clennon, Fran Brill, Denise DuBarry, Oteil Burbridge, Ravenell Keller III, and many others.
I’ve been avoiding using imdb for these reviews, but in this one I find the trivia on it compelling enough to want to share. “It took Peter Sellers nearly nine years to get this movie made by a studio, mainly because by the 1970s Sellers’ career had hit rock bottom and no studio in Hollywood would work with him. After the revival (and success) of the Pink Panther movies, Lorimar Pictures finally greenlit the project. After the novel’s release and the subsequent purchase of rights to the book, Peter Sellers successfully lobbied for the lead role by sending a telegram to author Jerzy Kosinski with the message, ‘Gardener available for work.’ It was during casting and after the success of the later Pink Panther movies that Sellers became the only choice for the lead role.”
“Peter Sellers was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor. Some said the reason Sellers lost was because of the outtakes at the very end of the movie as the credits are rolling. Sellers himself later said the outtakes ‘broke the spell’ of the movie. Despite Peter Sellers’ repeated requests, the producers would not remove the outtakes from the version they submitted to Cannes.” I include this one because when I watched it the other night I watched the outtakes and I agree with Sellers, they do break the spell. If I were you – I know I’m not – but for your own unsullied appreciation of the film, I would wait for a day or more to watch the outtakes/end credits.
The story begins with Chance, the gardener (played by Sellers,) sitting in a room of a stately manor in fine garb watching television. The housekeeper (played by Attaway,) in formal uniform, comes in and announces that “the old man” has passed away. Although to the housekeeper it’s just a job and she has somewhere to go, for Chance it is another matter. Chance has been at the manor for as long as he can remember and not once has he left it or the meticulously manicured walled garden in the back of the home since he arrived. People come and tell him he has to leave as there is no record of his existence. A total innocent with a very simple mind, he packs a suitcase and steps out into the world. Thus begins the great adventure of Chance, the gardener.
In a series of chance incidents – just like real life – he finds himself in the company of some of the most powerful men in the nation.
“Being There” is an exercise in looking at the ludicrosity (is that a word?) of the power structures that rule all. Your mind will try to reconcile how this simple-minded gardener is the voice the world is intent on listening to. World leaders and billionaires look for power tips and the ladies are mesmerized by what they see as his sexiness. What may be most incredulous is how oblivious Chance is to it all. Despite the world around him changing, he remains the same.
The film works on the premise of literal vs. metaphor. Chance is a literal-minded individual where those around him take his comments as metaphors. How he and they communicate with it is where the slicing humor comes in. How Chance speaks is also important. He speaks slowly, with perfect enunciation, which gives importance to what he says.
The two other main roles are Benjamin (played by Douglas) and Eve (played by MacLaine) Rand, billionaires who live in a magnificent castle-looking mansion (i.e. The Biltmore Mansion in Asheville, NC.) Benjamin is quite old and suffers from a horrible disease (aplastic anemia) that doesn’t give him long to live. Eve is his much younger, loving wife. Benjamin is a shark in the business world and rules even as Dr. Allenby (played by Dysart) and the assembled medical team in the self-contained hospital within the mansion minister to him. Benjamin is a star-maker who is on a nickname basis with the POTUS (played well by Warden.)
The mansion should be listed as a character. The magnificence of the place cannot be exaggerated. Giant rooms with giant roaring fireplaces, heavy polished wooden doorways, posh furnishings, a couple dozen staff, all in uniform, taking care of the place, fancy cars, all of it running like a humming machine.
Another character is the television, who is Chance’s best friend. He’s with his buddy whenever possible and is fixated on him when he is. With creative genius, the scenes on the TV often mirror real life in the moment.
Back to the acting. Douglas as the dying man is riveting. The conversations between he and Chance should be transcribed and placed in a slim volume like a poetry chapbook. Chance spouts his simple statements which seem to act as a catalyst for the dying man’s final reminisces about what he’s learned over his long life. MacLaine is the stunning, charmingly naive wife who is also a cog in the machine. She sees Chance as an object of adoration.
Just about everyone who interacts with Chance sees him as a guru of sorts; there are a few who see him as he is; and there are a few who can be convinced one way or another.
Director, Hal Ashby, did an excellent job with this movie. Ashby has directed a series of good films, including, “Harold and Maude,” “The Last Detail,” “Shampoo,” “Bound for Glory,” and “Coming Home.” Likewise cinematographer Caleb Deschanel has a first-class list of films he’s done. The soundtrack is mostly classical with a few curve balls thrown in for humorous effect.
A final word about the humor: it’s understated and brilliant.
What did I learn from this film? Perspective is shaped by one’s intentions, and perspective is everything.
What did I like about, “Being There”? Everything. What did I dislike? Nothing.
On rating scale of 1-10: 10
top poster link: https://www.originalfilmart.com/products/being-there-lc5
Youtube trailer: https://youtu.be/vm_jKW1OUKw