Being There – 1979
Getting there is half the fun; being there is all of it!
Peter Sellers – Chance – Chauncey Gardiner
Shirley MacLaine – Eve Rand
Melvyn Douglas – Benjamin Turnbull Rand
Jack Warden – President ‘Bobby’
Richard A. Dysart – Dr. Robert Allenby
Richard Basehart – Vladimir Skrapinov
Ruth Attaway – Louise
David Clennon – Thomas Franklin
Fran Brill – Sally Hayes
Denise DuBarry – Johanna, girl with Franklin
Oteil Burbridge – Lolo
Ravenell Keller III – Abraz
Review by Bill Slocum
A Winter’s Tale,
Okay, let’s face it. In the real world, Chance the Gardener would not have lasted very long walking around in the heart of D.C. looking for some kind black lady to make him lunch. Even if he made it past the street gangs, he would have been figured out as a simpleton in a millisecond by rich billionaire Ben Rand, if not by his doctor or butler. Chance’s words about caring for the garden of the American economy would not have made it past the first commercial break of “The Gary Burns Show.” The contrived nature of “Being There” works only when you see it as a fable rather than as cinema verite. But then, then it works with an almost perfect splendour.
The only way to begin an appreciation of this film is with Peter Sellers. He had an amazing film career, amazing in that he created such a comic gold standard (the best of the sound era, I think it can be safely said) without having very many great or even very good films to his credit. Sellers was funny, and he was gifted, but only rarely did it come together in a way that radiated the magic he was capable of. Here, in what literally turned out to be the last months of his life, and in obviously frail health, he turned in a performance that stands with the dozen greatest screen performances ever. He plays a slow-witted character who is completely dead to the nuances of life around him, and by being so, brings life to those who are otherwise left to wither at the vine.
He revives the spirits of aging plutocrat Melvyn Douglas, and “uncoils” Shirley MacLaine, but sadly, feels none of those stirrings for himself. He is truly God’s fool in that the grace he brings is completely outside himself, and as we look into his placid, friendly, unknowing face, we feel a sadness that’s hard to describe. Maybe it has to do with the short life Sellers had left to him when this film was made. But this film would pack much the same punch if Sellers was with us still. He never plays it for pathos, just for laughs, but what we are left with is more than a bit of both.
What else is it about “Being There” that makes it special? I think it comes down to tone. The tone of the seventies film is not that of a laugh-out-loud comedy. It tries to be funny, and succeeds, in ways that standard dramas do not. Hal Ashby manages a feat of control here that’s almost fearsome. He maintains the sad, minor-key aura (a silent-movie score) that lends the film its strength and sinew. You can hear it in the music, the way the lilting classic strains of piano and harp joins with the cold white chill that comes through the windowpanes in casting an almost sepulchral feeling to the proceedings, yet it never feels deadly or morbid. We are always made aware of the life around us.
Another thing: this seventies film really is funny. It only works when you suspend disbelief and realize you are not watching “All The President’s Men,” but when you do, the film takes on a real humor. The tone is never jovial, but it has laughs, snickers, and a pervasive geniality that inspires all the more when you realize how much of the movie is about death and loss.
Of all the credits, one deserving special attention is that of Dianne Schroeder, who apparently found all the then-contemporary TV bits to weave into the narrative. Throughout this seventies film, we are treated to a Greek chorus of ephemeric commercials and news clips that all neatly dovetail to the action in the story, nowhere more so then early on, when Chance gets the news of the Old Man’s passing as some unnamed character consoles Sesame Street’s Big Bird with the lilting, tender jingle “Sugar And Spice.” And how about that seduction scene played out while Mr. Rogers discusses “friendship” with Mr. McFeeley? “Basketball Jones” almost brings a sob to one’s throat as we watch Chance’s entrance to the Rand Estate. Cheech and Chong’s finest screen moment, undoubtedly.
Ultimately, it all comes back to Sellers. What a triumph. That last image of him on the pond is indelible. Maybe sticking in those blooper bits at the end cost him the Oscar to Dustin Hoffman in “Kramer Vs. Kramer” (that and all the divorced fathers who were voting members in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1980), but it is such a tribute to his level of genius, and his sense of fun, to have that as a wrapper for what was a career we will never see the likes of again. I’ll take it over an Oscar; hell, Sellers has been dead more than 20 years, his winning or not winning an Oscar stopped being important decades ago, but his chortling failure at passing on Raphael’s message will remain something to be enjoyed long after you and I join Peter and Melvyn in that “big room upstairs.”