Being There (1979, Hal Ashby)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Before anything else, what strikes the first-time viewer about Being There during the languid opening credits sequence is the aging of Peter Sellers, a graying but smiling visage that bears little resemblance to the fast-talking schmuck Quilty of Kubrick’s Lolita or the similarly aloof but seemingly so much more alive Hrundi Bakshi of The Party. Instead, there’s a resignation and loss in Sellers’ face as he powers through what may be his best non-Quilty performance; for those who count Sellers as among not just the best comedic performers but the best actors ever to appear in films, his heartfelt commitment to this role is obvious, living in an extremely complex part playing an extremely simple character. And he strikes every note perfectly, miraculously, capturing the melancholy of the proceeding two hours with each smile, each subtle expression. For among everything else the remarkable Being There is, it’s a film about death, the finality of it and our awareness of it. What Sellers didn’t know was that he wouldn’t live to see another birthday past the film’s December 1979 release, gone at merely 54. Within less than a decade, director Hal Ashby would join him. If the film was already a sad one, the years following its release made it almost unbearably so.

But with the passing of years, we can again see the delicacy, intelligence, and especially prescience of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel and story as filmed by the great Ashby. A mentally handicapped gardener named Chance (Sellers) is left adrift in Washington D.C. after his old boss, “the old man,” dies; it’s his first time in the outside world, everything of which he knows comes from his constant television consumption. A minor leg injury caused by a rich woman’s car leads him back to her enormous mansion, where her husband is ailing; during their initial introductions, she (Shirley MacLaine in one of her few excellent performances since the ’60s) mishears his name as “Chauncey Gardener.” Without saying much of anything aside from various gobbledygook about raising plants, Chance ends up winning the hearts of the wealthy couple, meeting the president (a delightfully cranky Jack Warden), and sending the national press into a fuss after he gets quoted in one of the prez’s speeches and appears on a late night talk show, still spouting the same nonsense that everyone takes as sage metaphorical brilliance! All the while, even while MacLaine begins to attempt to seduce him, he only seems to want to get back to his TV shows, never showing any emotions — even when “the old man” (Melvyn Douglas, a B-level player in the ’30s who does his best-ever work here) dies again. At the close, as Warden eulogizes his late friend, there are whispers that “Chauncey” is “the party’s only hope” to keep the Presidency. Meanwhile, Chance wanders the estate that’s now his and obliviously walks upon the water.

Like the religious figures alluded to by that final revelation, Sellers’ Chance is a blank slate to which the people around him apply their hopes, dreams, and prejudices, filling in the blanks to expose the farce of human nature. Ashby says something as well about class; seen as an oddly dressed vagrant, he’s surrounded by coldness and hatred wandering the depressed streets of D.C. When he accidentally makes his way into the inner circle of the well-to-do, he is cushioned and pampered — and in some sense, as cut off from any larger view of society as he was in the Old Man’s house. An already grieving wife and her husband at death’s door are no match for Chance’s almost supernatural powers of persuasion, a tool he employs by doing absolutely nothing, not even attempting to please them. The effect he ultimately has of mystifying and challenging everyone to see whatever they want is as frightening as any piece of political propaganda, and the ending — a masterful satiric touch — suggests a darker message yet about the nature of faith itself.

But then there is that ache, that sadness at the core of all of Ashby’s movies. The truth is that none of the people who appear to take Chance into their hearts ever truly accept him for who he is; they don’t dare look in the face of the notion either that he could be not a genius but a simple gardener, an idiot savant, nor do they even consider that such a person could take them in and make fools of them. By the time MacLaine’s Eve takes his TV-centric request “I like to watch” to mean that he wants to see her masturbate, you wonder if there’s any self-denial in play. Being There thrives on this sort of misunderstanding and discomfort — a world taken in by nothing, seemingly absent of judgment or critical thinking.

The question of character, though, is more complicated here than the polemical structure of the story would seemingly indicate. The grand experiment of the film is that it doesn’t attempt to be a straight satire in the vein of Dr. Strangelove; it retains the basic thesis and all of the peripheral points it would in that guise, but it displays none of the across-the-board ambivalence about the people that populate it so common to less poetic satirical critiques. We come to love Chance for the cheerful emptiness in his eyes, Eve for her open-hearted emotionalism and lonesome yearning for connection, her husband Benjamin for his hardened hope and grandfatherly sensitivity (an impression the film quietly critiques at his funeral, when a nasty quote attributed to him about welfare recipients is read adoringly by the President), and all others surrounding them despite all of their outlandish privilege, the President pulling up at the lavish Biltmore Estate in his enormous, urgent motorcade for a fifteen-minute visit. Being There criticizes these extremes without extending it to dismissal or even skepticism about the people so protected; the political subtext is plenty explicit — the urban squalor of Washington is approached in too much detail for it not to be — but so is the humanism in Ashby and Kosinski’s hearts.

That wouldn’t be possible if the performances weren’t uniformly excellent. MacLaine has always been a great actress, but after an establishment of persona in the early ’60s she seldom burst out with a risky part; Terms of Endearment is one exception, but Eve is arguably her greatest creation outside of Fran Kubelik in The Apartment. Falling in love with a deadpan Peter Sellers, crying for a dying husband, and masturbating overexcitedly in the same movie is a big task for even an accomplished actress, and she handles it fearlessly. Meanwhile, as her class-conscious, bigheaded but knowingly and gravely ill husband, Melvyn Douglas shatters his old Hollywood persona as the stereotypical goofball who famously brought down the staid Greta Garbo in Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka. Douglas won his second Oscar for this, quite deservedly; his character is as masterfully played as it is written, nailing the ambiguity of a man with a hatefully business-minded perspective on the world who we can’t help but come to love for both his kindly attitude toward his much younger wife and for the final inevitability of death that even the most successful capitalist can’t conquer; he can afford doctors in his house full-time, but he can’t use his money to live forever, and the strange dignity of death is the sole aspect of life that finally unites us all, large and small, wise and dumb, upper-class and lower.

Thirty years after the release of Being There, his last successful project, Hal Ashby is only now being given a proper auteurist reappraisal. The best way to garner a look at the true Ashby style is still to screen his second-best film, The Last Detail starring Jack Nicholson, as most of his other projects subvert those stylistics in some crucial way — Harold and Maude through an injection of boundless, practiced quirkiness, and Being There with a sense of admirably restrained sarcasm. Though the film shares little with Dr. Strangelove aside from Sellers’ presence, it does play out its many mortifying comedic setpieces in a similarly expansive fashion, heavy on master shots and very still cameras nonchalantly capturing quietly mobile insanity. More typical of the director is the constant background presence of the real world, the one that gives Chance so much to impact, so much potential damage to inflict. The exquisite use of the lovely Biltmore Estate, resourcefully shot by Ashby and his fine cameraman Caleb Deschanel (best known these days for shooting The Passion of the Christ and being Zooey and Emily Deschanel’s father), gives further ironically traditionalist backdrop for the eccentricity of Chance. It’s not an insult to say Being There is Ashby’s slickest film (though Coming Home is very close), because that aspect suits the story so immaculately. The criticism of its length is offbase; without its careful pacing, it couldn’t have the proper effect. A pity that after this, Ashby virtually retired from making interesting films, his reputation shot by the time he died — a sad and unexpected decline for one of the top American filmmakers of the ’70s.

Some credit for Being There‘s success, as an exercise in both melancholy and lampoon, belongs to editor Don Zimmerman, unfortunately never to work on nearly as fine a film as this and reduced by the ’90s to editing Jim Carrey movies, more recently nonsense like Marmaduke. The integration throughout the film of kitschy television clips representing Chance’s absorption in the tube is frequently hilarious, occasionally poignant, and at least once absolutely masterful: the juxtaposition of the initial approach to Biltmore with the sights and sounds of Basketball Jones is as surreal a piece of magic as can be seen in a modern Hollywood film. The clips themselves were chosen by Dianne Schroeder, a still photographer who, like Zimmerman, deserves more credit for her part in Being There‘s brilliance than she gets.

Though it remains popular and Chauncey Gardener is still brought up as context in news articles from time to time, Being There has unfortunately not been given the constant presence in the cultural consciousness it really warrants, especially when compared to things like Network and Strangelove that get constant points for their retained relevance. Though all three films are deserved classics, Being There arguably belongs the least of the three to its era and has managed to remain universal, as evidenced by the number of uncredited remakes it’s inspired. No less a master than Woody Allen would four years later repeat the basic notion of a human blank slate in the special-effects extravaganza Zelig; the two films would both be plundered unfairly by the sticky-sweet Oscar-bait project Forrest Gump in 1994, which plays the story out with absolutely none of Kosinski’s edge and irony or Ashby’s genuine warmth, all sledgehammer whimsy and hollow cultural self-congratulation — a celebration rather than condemnation of the darkness in society’s collective faith in nothing.

The greatest impression is finally left by Peter Sellers; how odd that Benjamin’s funeral at the finale really signals the twilight of his own career. Sellers spent the last decade of his life trying to convince someone to make this movie. Only the success of the artistically dubious revival Pink Panther movies persuaded someone to bankroll the project. In this sense, the film for all its outward attitude toward American life is an act of love; that love exudes from Sellers’ eyes in a way invisible in all of his other accomplished roles. Quilty in Lolita is his masterpiece, the three Strangelove roles his greatest showcase, Inspector Clouseau his most immaculate comedic creation, but it is Chance in Being There for which he will be most fondly remembered, because it is so visibly heartfelt a performance. He cared deeply about this movie. That’s why when it premiered at Cannes with the hysterical but perhaps tonally off-putting outtakes sequence over the credits (Sellers is unable to finish a read of a line ultimately cut from the film, and none of the other actors can keep it together either), he was furious and privately complained that it may have cost him the Oscar, a final disappointment in his sometimes bitter existence. But the outtakes are really evidence of another great love the film richly documents, that of Ashby for his lead actor. All you feel now when you see those sequences of Sellers losing his American accent and breaking up is the respect and warm adulation, the gratefulness Ashby must have felt for what Sellers gave him. It’s a final, lovely gift from both of them. It doesn’t “break the spell,” as Sellers alleged, of the walk on water and the elegiac final line — “Life is a state of mind” — because nothing, frankly, could break that spell.

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