Reeling Backward: Being There (1979)
Peter Sellers' last great performance came in this gently satiric look at the dawning mass media culture from the book by Jerzy Kosiński.
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“Being There” was for Peter Sellers like Michael Jordan’s game-winning shot in the 1998 NBA championship: everyone remembers it as his triumphant final moment in the sun, conveniently forgetting the actual, regrettable coda. (The Wizards, MJ?) In Sellers’ case, this was starring in “The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu,” a turn he himself dubbed embarrassing, before passing away suddenly in 1980 at the young age of 54.
(The less said about 1983’s “Trail of the Pink Panther,” composed entirely of outtakes from Sellers’ previous turns as the wayward Inspector Clouseau, the better.)
Sellers was one of those rare screen actors who seemed to belong to no thespian tradition but his own. Richard Widmark compared him to Charlie Chaplin, and indeed Sellers combined elements of juvenile comedy and moving pathos in his most memorable roles. And, like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, he seemed to communicate most deeply when he wasn’t talking.
I long ago read the book by Polish-born author Jerzy Kosiński, and although I don’t recall the details with a lot of specificity, it’s easy to see that it’s a fairly straightforward adaptation by director Hal Ashby (“Shampoo”), with some additional satirical commentary on the dawning age of mass media.
Sellers plays Chance, the gardener for “the old man,” his employer and benefactor, and has lived in the same secluded house in Washington D.C. all his life. Simpleminded and unable even to read or write, Chance’s entire life is defined by tending to the man’s garden and watching television.
When the old man dies, Chance is suddenly turned out into the real world, a figure stuck out of time wearing expensive tailored suits from the 1920s and ‘30s, wandering around the crime-ridden hellscape of 1970s D.C.
He is injured after being backed into by the limo of a wealthy woman, is treated and cared for at her husband’s palatial estate, mostly to avoid a potential lawsuit. The woman, Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), mishears him giving his name as “Chance, the gardener,” turning it into “Chauncey Gardiner.”
Speaking of unlikely turns, her husband Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas, who won an Oscar for his role), is a powerful billionaire, chairman of a shadowy committee that helps steer the U.S. government and economy, and personal friend and confidante to the current president (Jack Warden). He takes an instant liking to Chauncey, looking at his nice clothes and fine manner and thinking him a businessman brought low by bad luck and onerous government interference.
When the POTUS arrives to seek out advice from Rand, he is taken by Chauncey’s simple, deliberate way of speaking, misconstruing his thoughts on gardening as an optimistic allegory for the current economic/political malaise, reflecting the actual Jimmy Carter era: “If the roots are not severed, all is well.”
The president quotes Chauncey’s words in a speech, and he becomes an overnight media sensation, as journalists try to sniff out his (nonexistent) background, TV shows invite him on and politicians, both foreign and domestic, weigh in on what role he has to play in the grand geopolitical drama.
Meanwhile, both Benjamin and Eve find themselves smitten by Chauncey, with the oligarch, who has been slowly dying of a bone marrow disease, even encouraging a romance between his wife and new friend, hoping that she will have companionship and care after he is gone.
The running joke, of course, is that Chauncey is a total dolt and everyone projects onto him whatever it is they want to see.
The story of a seemingly unimportant man who turns up in pivotal moments of history is a fairly common fictional theme, as seen in Woody Allen’s “Zelig” a few years later and even in “Forrest Gump.”
“Being There” is filled with snippets of television, real and made-up, throughout the film, which act to show Chauncey’s mindset and comment upon society’s obsession with the medium.
For example, Chauncey appears to be entirely asexual, not responding to Eve’s initial attempts at seduction. Typically, she misinterprets this as his being “strong” for not allowing her to commit adultery. On her second try, though, Chauncey mimics the passionate kissing currently taking place on his screen, abruptly stopping when the scene ends.
When a confounded Eve asks what he likes, Chauncey plainly responds, “I like to watch,” meaning watching TV is his entire world. She thinks this means his voyeurism extends to his sexual habits, so she throws herself on the floor and masturbates for him — even though Chauncey, a fickle channel-switcher, is now copying a yoga program.
Chauncey uses this same line when the recipient of a homosexual advance at a fancy consulate party, and the man offers to go find a partner to dally with for his viewing pleasure. (Though it’s left unclear if this actually took place.)
Brian DePalma would use this same line of dialogue, “I like to watch,” a few years later in “Body Double,” which explores some of the same themes but from an explicitly sexual framing.
There’s a whole lot of Marshall McLuhan in “Being There,” with the film’s theme of “Life is a state of mind” being a New Age-y cousin to “the medium is the message.” The subtext is that we’ve become so focused on how something plays in mass media that it obscures the actual worth, or lack thereof, of its essence.
Hence, a complete naif like Chauncey, who understands the world as a child does, is taken to be a man of great depth and wisdom. The laugh’s on us.
I think what keeps what is essentially a one-joke movie from becoming tiresome stretched across 140 minutes is Sellers’ stellar, subtle performance. He plays Chauncey very flat and calm, almost like someone on the autism spectrum, but with an innate sense of decency and kindliness. He is often mistook because he tends to agree with people and repeat what they say back to them. His lack of embarrassment or guile is seen as a dry sense of humor.
Sellers still manages to endow this strange little man with a deep sense of soul, a benevolent but tragic figure who has been cut of from humanity all his life, both literally and figuratively. It makes you wonder the origins of Chance; my guess from the book and movie is that he was the old man’s son, hidden away to avoid scandal owing to his mental state and/or birth circumstances.
About the final scene, which I don’t recall being in the book: Chauncey wanders away from Rand’s funeral, where his pallbearers, all members of the secretive committee, discuss him as the perfect presidential candidate, because he comes across well on television and has no past to trip him up. He tends to a small palm tree next to a pond that has had a limb from a larger tree fall on it, then nonchalantly strides across the surface of the water.
As if to leave no confusion, he pauses and sinks his umbrella into the waters up to the handle, showing that it’s not just a puddle-deep mirage.
I admit I was a bit put off by this last shot. Is it suggesting that Chauncey was actually some Jesus-like figure, sent by God or other omniscient power to test humanity’s mettle? If so, the suggestion of magical powers tends to undercut both the story’s satire and Chauncey’s humanity.
He may be simpleminded, but Chauncey is still capable of emotion, though he often finds himself unable to properly express it.
I hate to say it, but the ending feels like something concocted as a kicker ending for a Hollywood movie rather than the natural progression of the tale. Though, since Kosiński adapted the screenplay himself, one wonders if it was his own idea or something he was pressured to do. This bit of fancy carried over to the marketing of the film, including the poster depicting Chauncey levitating in the air.
Still, just as we tend to mentally write off Peter Sellers’ last two films, I can overlook this tiny sour note at the end of the pleasing symphony that is “Being There.”