- Movie Rating -

Being There (1979)

| February 8, 1980

I read a piece recently praising Peter Sellers’ performance in Being There as a matter of his range.  I don’t think that’s it.  For Sellers, Being There wasn’t an issue of his range but the chance to play a character we had never seen before. Seller’s list of credits proves that he was a great, versatile performer but nothing we had ever seen in his entire career could have prepared us for Chance the gardener. It is always great to see an actor at the top of his game and for Sellers this farewell performance is a pleasure.

He plays Chance, a gardener who has lived all his life within the confines of a townhouse in Washington D.C. We learn next to nothing about his past other than the fact that he has lived his entire life inside the place being raised by an old man whose connection with him is never explained. The only other occupant of the house is Louise (Ruth Attaway), an elderly housekeeper who doesn’t think much of him. Chance lives within a very confined mental space. He is simple-minded and not cluttered with a lot of notions but rather is occupied only with the things he needs to get through his day. He knows where he goes to sleep, where he goes to the bathroom and he knows the fundamentals of his garden. He also has a near-obsession with television which he constantly imitates. Television has become his addiction and his window to the outside world.

Chance is a very curious character, he speaks in a very flat, genial tone (Sellers borrowed it from Stan Laurel) wears a pleasant smile on his face and dresses in nice suits which are hand-me-downs given to him by the old man. When the old man dies and leaves no provisions for Chance, the lawyers inform him that he must vacate immediately. Stepping out into the world for the very first time, wearing a nice suit and carrying and umbrella and an alligator bag he displays the effects of a wealthy man. Yet, he is a stranger in a strange land, walking through a tough D.C. ghetto past burning barrels, wrecked cars, liquor stores and porn theaters he has no idea what he has encountered. I smile at director Hal Ashby’s decision to accompany Chance’s first steps into the world with a funk remix of “Also Sprach Zarathustra”.

He is also unarmed mentally. When he encounters a group of tough streetkids he pulls out his remote control and tries to change the channel but is surprised when it doesn’t work. Later he is baffled by the projection television in a store window in which he sees himself. It is at that moment that he is tapped in the leg by a moving limousine. The woman in the back is Mrs. Eve Rand who insists on taking him to a hospital and then decides to take him to her mansion (she is nice to him because she is afraid that, based on his clothes, he will sue her). Giving him a drink and not realizing that this is his first experience with alcohol, she asks his name and during a coughing fit she mistakes Chance the Gardner as Chauncey Gardner, a perfect name for a man who looks the way he does.

He is especially endearing to Eve’s husband Benjamin (Supporting Actor winner Melvyn Douglas) a billionaire who is dying of a blood disease that generally effects younger people. Benjamin is not the stereotypical grouchy old cuss, in fact he is a nice man who seems at peace with his rapidly approaching rendezvous with the hereafter. He takes to this man who speaks with only a limited vocabulary but reading between the lines of what he thinks Chance means, he seems to Ben to be a brilliant man.

That is the central joke of Being There. Chance speaks in very limited parameters. He only says what he knows and only understands what he says. When he speaks, those around him assume that he is talking about something else. They read between the lines as when Chance is questioned by a television news reporter and is asked what newspaper he reads. “I don’t read, I watch TV.” Of course, not knowing that this man cannot read or write, the news reporter picks that up to mean that he prefers television news to what is written in the papers. There is another moment when Ben introduces Chance to the President of the United States (Jack Warden) and at dinner Chance begins blabbering about the details of tending to a garden. The President, not knowing that Chance really is talking about gardening assumes this is a metaphor for the roots of American democracy:

The President: Mr. Gardner, do you agree with Ben, or do you think that we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives?
Chance: As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.
The President: In the garden.
Chance: Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.
The President: Spring and summer.
Chance: Yes.
The President: Then fall and winter.
Chance: Yes.
Benjamin: I think what our insightful young friend is saying is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, but we’re upset by the seasons of our economy.
Chance: Yes! There will be growth in the spring!
Benjamin: Hmm!
Chance: Hmm!
The President: Hmmm. Well, Mr. Gardner, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time.
The President: I admire your good, solid sense. That’s precisely what we lack on Capitol Hill.

Soon Chance is meeting not only with the President but with the Russian Ambassador and heads of state and by the end, is being discussed as a presidential candidate.

The greatness of Sellers performance is that he never allows Chance to grow. Except for his circumstances, he remains more or less the same person at the end of the film that was when we first met him. His body remains erect, his speech pattern very pleasant and dull. His clothing, which we later learn dates back the 20s, is perfectly neat. The presence of Chance suggests a person who is more than he really is. Everyone in the film makes assumptions about him based on what he says, how he looks and what he does. It is a brilliant balancing act of misdirection and misunderstanding. He is a blank slate and everyone projects what they want upon him. The movie has a theme on how we perceive things, how we paint symbolism onto things that sometimes don’t merit them.

There is a theme on the fact that nearly all of the white people love and respect him but there is also a strange theme running through Being There dealing with Chance’s connection with African-Americans. We meet Louise, the housekeeper who is shocked that he would rather watch television than grieve for the old man. There’s a potentially offensive moment when he is watching the Bette Davis movie Jezebel during a scene in which a stereotypical black coach driver tips and hat and repeats “Yazzam” and Chance repeats his motion later when he says goodbye to Louise. She seems to have been the only black person he has ever known and he assumes that the functions that she performed for him will be performed by another black woman that he meets on the street (she runs away). He walks through the black section of D.C. and runs into some tough kids who give him a message for someone named Raphael. Later when Chance is tended to by a black doctor, he tries to give him the message. When Chance is meeting with heads of state, Louise later sees him on television and is dismayed that this simpleton is moving up in the world through people who misunderstand him.

Being There can be interpreted in a million different ways but one thing I can never pin down is the film’s final moment. Why exactly does Chance walk on water? It the film suggesting that he is a Christ-like figure. We could assume that the pond is shallow but that illusion is broken when he puts his umbrella into the water all the way up to the handle. Why this shot? What does it mean. I am at a loss for an answer.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1979) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized