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Being There (1979)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“Getting there is half the fun; being there is all of it!” 

Peter Sellers was a comic genius. This is apparent from his very early work, through his “hey day” with the Pink Panther films, up to this film which was one of the last he made. In Being There, Sellers is part of an excellent ensemble cast which is masterfully directed by Hal Ashby (Harold & Maude). Unlike many of his most popular films, in this movie Sellers plays only one role, but that role is the central character around which everything in the story turns. He was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal in this film.

The movie begins showing a figure sleeping quietly in a bedroom with the sun starting to shine in gently through a window. A television in the room comes on showing a symphony playing a musical piece (the soundtrack is good, but not central to the film). The sleeping man wakes and turns on a lamp, brushes his hair, cycles some of his room’s potted plants into and out of the window’s sunlight, all the while attending closely to the television. Later, he waters some plants in an outdoor garden while watching another television in that area. He later dusts off an old car, returns to his bedroom and starts channel flipping on his TV.

The maid Louise (Ruth Attaway) enters telling Chance (the gardener played by Peter Sellers) that the “old man” is dead. Chance continues to watch his television as though nothing has happened. Louise temporarily loses her temper at Chance’s apparent unconcern, while he watches Sesame Street and Capt. Kangaroo, but she recalls that Chance is a very simple man and her expectations should fit that. Louise offers to fix him breakfast. Chance says he is very hungry.

Later he goes to the room where the “old man” is lying dead in his bed. Chance turns on the television there and begins to watch. As she is leaving Louise comes upon Chance while he is working in the yard/garden. She tells him he will need someone. Chance doesn’t seem to understand. He continues to do things as he has always done them, in a very simple and uncomplicated fashion tending to his garden and watching television.

Thomas Franklin (David Clennon) and Sally Hayes (Fran Brill) of the law office handling the deceased old man’s estate arrive at the house expecting it to be unoccupied. Instead of a romantic interlude, they find Chance still there. There is no record of him in any of the legal documents, but it seems obvious that Chance has spent his entire life since a boy at the house. Mr. Franklin tells him that he must leave. Chance doesn’t seem to grasp what they are saying. However, later he has a bag packed. Dressed in some very nice but antique clothing he leaves the old man’s house.

The interior of the old man’s house, its yard and garden have weathered the ravages of modern life far better than the surrounding Washington DC neighborhood in which Chance now finds himself walking. While traveling out of the slum into a more business oriented area he has a few encounters with people, through which he sails with remarkable ease. As he is watching himself on a closed circuit television/camera set-up in a store window, a chauffeured vehicle backs into his leg.

The owner of the car, Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine) offers to take him home to see Dr. Robert Allenby (Richard Dysart) who is attending her ailing husband: Benjamin Rand  (Melvyn Douglas, Oscar - Best Supporting Actor for this performance) at their home. As they are driving she offers him a drink. He is thirsty and accepts the offer. She asks him his name. Chance is surprised and overcome by the alcoholic beverage Eve has given him. While coughing he tries to say “Chance the gardener,” but Eve believes he said his name is Chauncey Gardiner. She asks if he is related to some people she knows named Gardiner. He says “no.”

When they arrive at the Rand home it appears to be a true mansion (The Biltmore in North Carolina was used). The doctor attends to "Chauncey" finding that he should be alright if he gives his leg a rest and stays off it for a while. Eve invites Chauncey to dinner and he accepts. At dinner he makes a good impression on the Rands, especially Ben, who invite him to stay longer. He does. Before long Chauncey meets another personal friend of Ben Rand: the President (Jack Warden). With his simple language and talk of gardening Chauncey makes an impression on both men.

Being There is political satire. Like Dr Strangelove and The Mouse That Roared it targets the American government. However, there is no bomb in it, and none of the major characters have anything other than benign or peaceful intentions. The situations, political and otherwise, propel events and make this film both funny and insightful. In many ways it is a very anti-political movie. It seems unlikely that anyone in our modern world could live as Chance did for so long. However, in today’s political world the man with no past has no scandal. If you are skeptical about politics and the media, I believe you will find Being There skewers both very effectively and provides plenty of amusement while doing so.

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