Tag: David Clennon

Being There (1979)

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.

Missing (1982)

Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek are on a quest for the Missing

Director: Costa-Gravas

Cast: Jack Lemmon (Edmund Horman), Sissy Spacey (Beth Horman), John Shea (Charles Horman), Melanie Mayron (Terry Simon), Charles Cioffi (Captain Ray Tower), David Clennon (Consul Phil Putnam), Richard Venture (US Ambassador), Jerry Hardin (Colonel Sean Patrick), Janice Rule (Kate Newman), Richard Bradford (Andrew Babcock)

Politically motivated American films are few and far between, especially ones that take such a starkly critical view of American foreign policy. So it’s a testament to the respect given to Greek director Costa-Gravas that his first American film is an angry denunciation of America’s attitude towards Latin and South America and a criticism of the cosy assumption of so many of its citizens that the very fact of their being American will open all doors and make them invulnerable to harm. 

Set in the immediate aftermath of Pinochet’s military coup in Chile in 1973 (although for various legal reasons Chile itself is never named), young American journalist and filmmaker Charles Horman (John Shea) goes missing. His wife Beth (Sissy Spacek) is left alone in the increasingly dangerous city, while his father Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) flies into the country. Ed assumes his government will swiftly work with him to solve the mystery, and that his son must have been wrapped up in some dodgy dealings to have gone missing. He is to be brutally disabused of both notions with a painful swiftness, as he finds he and his son are insignificant factors in America’s geopolitical interests.

Costa-Gravas’ film wisely avoids focusing too much on the details of Chilean politics, or the causes of the coup, or even really concentrating on the left-wing politics of many of the American citizens wrapped up in the coup. Instead it zeroes in on the human impact of loss and pain, and by focusing less on the politics of a coup but on the impact of it, it places the audience attention instead on the atrocities that military revolutions bring. Alongside this, Costa-Gravas places front-and-centre of the story not a firebrand liberal, or a left-wing polemicist, but a character who could not be more of a strait-laced conservative, a quintessential American who firmly believes his country is the greatest in the world and heads into a foreign land anticipating doors will be opened for him and his government is here to help. 

It’s vital for the film’s success that it’s the experience of Ed Horman that drives the film narrative. First appearing 25 minutes into the film, the rest of the narrative charts Ed’s growing shocked realisation that his government doesn’t give a damn about his son and, even worse, is more than happy to lie to his face about the level of their involvement. While Ed believes America to be the font of all goodness in the world, he is horrified to discover that it is at the centre of a far more shady world of realpolitik. And that his own complacent belief in the country, and unquestioning assumption that it can do no wrong, is part of what empowers its representatives to back murderous regimes. “If you hadn’t been personally involved in this unfortunate incident, you’d be sitting at home complacent and more or less oblivious to all of this” the Ambassador haughtily tells Ed, after the frantic father has angrily denounced America’s policies. And, from what we saw of Ed at the start, he’s right.

It’s a superb role of growing disillusionment and a stunned realisation that his own home-grown principles and believe in truth, justice and the American Way turn out to be just words. And Jack Lemmon is just about the perfect actor for it. This might be Lemmon’s finest performance, superb from start to finish, a perfect emobodiment of All-American principles that disintegrates into someone angry, bitter and disillusioned. But at its heart as well – and the films – is the very real grief of a father who has lost his son. Worse, a father who only feels he grows close to – and understanding of – his son after losing him. Lemmon’s performances mines every ounce of empathetic sympathy from the role, in a series of heartbreaking moments as Ed begins to realise just how much he has lost in a son he begins to feel he never gave a chance.

This very personal story is at the centre of the film, but Costa-Gravas never for one moment allows us to forget – or avert our eyes – from the horrors coups like this bring. By not naming Chile, it manages to make this the face of all brutal revolutions. As characters move through the streets, or squares, in controlled, carefully framed long-shots and takes we see all around, uncommented on by the camera, unfocused on by the director, the signs of brutality. Throughout the film the background action sees casual arrests, violence, assaults, book burnings, bodies being left in the street or thrown into trucks… All around ordinary people keep their heads down or run for terror. Curfews leave people trapped outside – Sissy Spacek (very impressive) as Beth is caught out and is forced to spend a night hiding in the porch of a hotel, while gun shots ring out around the city (a regular soundtrack for every scene).

The investigation into Charles’ disappearance is pushed forward not the embassy – which presents a series of acceptable faces of the new regime and a smiling reassurance that every thing is being done – but by harried and scared survivors and asylum seekers in European embassies, who tell snippets of the events they have seen, the deaths they have seen glimpses off, the horrors of detention centres. It’s finally dragged home to Ed and Beth as they are taken to an office block with every room containing executed corpses, some identified some not, the bodies piled on every floor of the building. 

In all this America – and shady military and industrial interests – are complicit, and the executions and deaths of citizens of this country (and a few Americans who unwisely mixed themselves up in it) are seen as acceptable collateral damage, the price of doing business to protect American financial interests. The Government is happy bed fellows with murderers and crooked officials, and the idea that the death of one American citizen is going to matter at all is nonsense. Costa-Gravas’ film has a firm point to make – but it makes it within the context of a very human and personal story. “They can’t hurt us, we’re Americans!” are Charlie’s final (on-screen) words: in this attitude he’s as naïve as his father, and he clearly believes just as much in the divine goodness and special status of his homeland. America has no special or outstanding moral character: it’s as mired in dirty world realities as anyone else. This rude awakening will cost the son his life and cause untold grief to his father as well as shattering all his cosy greatest generation idealism.