Peter Sellers is a void in the satirical Being There
Director: Hal Ashby
Cast: Peter Sellers (Chance, the gardener/Chauncey Gardiner), Shirley MacLaine (Eve Rand), Melvyn Douglas (Ben Rand), Richard Dysart (Dr Robert Allenby), Jack Warden (The President), Richard Basehart (Ambassador Vladimir Skrapinov), David Clennon (Thomas Franklin), Fran Brill (Sally Hayes), Ruth Attaway (Louise)
In movies honesty and simplicity often hide a deeper truth – a more pure view of the world, unaffected by cynicism. Being There takes these ideas and inverts them. What if we were so desperate to see a higher meaning in the words of the unaffected, that we kidded ourselves that even their blandest utterances carried deep meaning. It’s the central idea of Being There, proving again that a delusion only works when those affected are also those most invested in sustaining it.
Chance (Peter Sellers) is a child-like innocent. He works in the garden of “the old man” (implied to be his father). He has never in his life left the confines of his self-contained home. He can’t read, he can’t write. His meals are prepared for him by the old man’s staff. Apart from gardening his only other interest is television – and even that is a mute, hypnotic interest with Chance meekly watching anything screened in front of him. When the old man passes away, Chance (of whom there is no record at all) is asked to leave the house by the old man’s lawyers. He finds himself in a modern 1970s world, but still dressed (and with the manners) of a 1930s gentleman.
Accidentally hit by the chauffer driven car of Eve (Shirley MacLaine), the younger wife of wealthy businessman Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas), Chance (his name mistakenly overheard as Chancey Gardiner) finds himself in the home of Ben where his manners, dress and polite comments about gardening are interpreted as being deep, intellectual musings on society and the economy. In a few days Chance is advising the President (Jack Warden) and his opinion is being solicited by the media. Will anyone notice that Chance is a harmless but basically empty man?
Being There is not just a hilarious satire of the capacity of the rich and powerful to persuade themselves of things. It’s also a satire on the Capraesque notion of the innocent seeing a truth that the rest of us can’t see. It throws in more than enough social commentary on the edges as well – Chance is revered because he looks right: well-dressed, courtly manners, softly spoken, polite and above all white. The film gets a few pointed blows in on this that look more and more central to the film the older it gets. Seeing Chance’s earnest musings on gardening being interpreted as deeply meaningful economic commentary on the television, the woman who bought him up in the old man’s house – a black servant Louise – announces “It’s for sure a white man’s world in America. Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss-ant… Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you’ve gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want.”
And she’s right. Interpreted by the rich, white, entitled men of America as one of their own, it never occurs to them that Chance might be something else. And his statements carry such bland emptiness – precisely because Chance is merely stating genuine gardening tips – that it becomes easy to invest them with whatever depth they like, because they have no depth themselves. While in Capra, Chance would stumble upon some of the corruption at the top or make these people rethink their lives, here he drifts through, barely understanding what is happening around him, allowing these powerful men to interpret him as something that reassures them about their own lives.
In the 1970s the film was seen as a satire on the television generation. But watching it today – despite Chance’s mute, unengaged smile while watching TV – this isn’t about a mindless cabbage potato being seen as a sage. He’s a completely empty vessel that can have meanings poured into him – and then can all stick because not for a single second is Chance trying to get anything out of it. He would be as happy returned to the street as he is in the palaces of the mighty.
The film works due to the success of Peter Seller’s performance. Seller’s had pitched long and hard for the role: he had always believed himself a void beneath the mad-hat comic personas he had inhabited, and believed himself uniquely placed to understand the neutrality of Chance. That’s what he brings here. It takes true skill to play a character as blank as this one. Chance never responds to the situation he is in – and seems to have no understanding at all of the situation. He’s completely genuine and honest – exactly what gives his comments weight to people, because he is not even remotely trying to add any weight to them – and meekly accepts all the things that happen to him. He is honest on every question he is asked – that his only interests are gardening and TV – and sits quietly, smiling, until finally saying or doing things he has frequently copied from TV.
Seller’s restrains himself utterly in the role and eventually his very tame, sweet blankness makes him endearing. The performance would fall apart if even for a split second there was a tip of hat or wink to the camera. There’s none of that. Compare Chance to say Forrest Gump. Gump is the quintessential example of the cliché man who really understands the world better than all of us. Chance is the reality, a simple man, harmless but incapable of really engaging with the world. In Hal Ashby’s skilled and restrained hands this becomes crucial to the awe he is treated with by the rich. He’s a mystery we get no answers to and someone we know as little about at the end as we did at the start. But yet Sellers is mesmeric.
Melvyn Douglas’ provides a superb (Oscar-winning) performance as Ben Rand. How much does Rand really believe in Chance? He’s charismatic, determined and driven – but also nearing the end of his life. Does he want to believe in his faith in Chance, because it makes him feel better? Is Chance almost a sort of advance satire of movements like scientology – faiths that make rich people feel better about themselves, because it affirms their views and place in the hierarchy? It’s possible – and why not when they can craft an idea of Chance that is far superior to their nervy (and literally impotent) President (Jack Warden in a smart little turn).
Ashby at time overplays his hand a little. The final image – a benign Chance literally walking on water on the Rand estate lake – is famous, but its meaning is unclear. Does it imply that Chance is some form of second coming? Or does the naïve and clueless Chance simply walk across water because he doesn’t understand that he can’t? I feel the latter myself – the idea of him being a Jesus figure is so out of keeping with the film, I see it as a final physical representation of his own lack of knowledge about the world. Some hated the final flourish (visually wonderfully done as it is) – although not as much as the bizarre outtake of Sellers cracking up that plays over the credit (Sellers in particular loathed this, believing it shattered the magic of his performance and cost him an Oscar).
Being There isn’t perfect – it’s too long and Shirley MacLaine gets rather a thankless part as the wife who becomes infatuated with Chance (more could perhaps have been got out of her seeing the truth of Chance, rather than being as arrogantly deluded as the rest). Moments have dated less well than others. But it’s got a sharp idea at its heart – and its satire of the rich, Hollywood sentimentality and society feels sharper every day. Rather fittingly as well the film has an autumnal quality about it in Ashby’s coldly reserved shooting: Sellers and Douglas both died shortly after its release, the book’s author Jerzy Kosinski would be plagued after its release with accusations of plagiarism and Ashby’s (after a drug fuelled but successful 1970s) career would collapse almost immediately after its release. But it’s a smart, mysterious, witty and profound film that gains greater meaning with age.