Being There (1979): Peter Sellers’s Final Great Performance

Original_movie_poster_for_Being_There

“Being There” was the final film of Peter Sellers’s career before he died…and in my opinion the best of his work I have seen. You may know him from the “Pink Panther” series but he’s done other work too, largely comedic. The guy was a giant of his art. This film is also my Grandfather’s other favorite film, so it was a pleasure to joke around with him about the jokes in the movie after.

“Being There” was directed by Hal Ashby, and written by Jerzi Kosinski who also wrote the book the screenplay was based on, though for the screenplay Robert C. Jones contributed. The producer was Andrew Braunsberg.

The premise Chance the Gardener (Peter Sellers) was taken in by a rich man when he was a baby and grew up tending the garden, which became his life. He was never all that bright and was unable to read to right and wasn’t put in the old man’s will so when the old man dies he is forced out into the world where accidents bring him into Washington D.C. power politics where everyone takes his specific literal knowledge to be metaphor of great insight. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Premise – A man with an IQ of 56 who only knows gardening but speaks formally because he grew on television being mistaken for a genius because he appears to be rich and white. It’s a genius satire both on the big business world and the political world even though it does exaggerate…which is the nature of comedy.

Eve Rand – Shirley MacLaine is fantastic in this role! She brings passion and also awareness to it as she finds herself falling in love with Chauncey and her husband Ben knows he’s dying so wants them to get together. She has a funny approach to things since she does everything very held in high societylike in public but lets loose whenever she is alone with Chauncey. One of the best characters in the movie.

Chance the Gardener / Chauncey Gardiner – We first meet Chance after his patron has died and the maid Louise moves on. He has never gone outside the grounds and is only forced out because he was never listed in the will. This leads to him bringing his remote with him and trying to turn off threatening situations and seeking television to watch because it is only he knows. This leads to the rich Rand’s picking him up after their car hit’s his leg and their Doctors take care of him. He quickly gets taken in by the family and is mistaken as Chauncey Gardiner because that was what his name sounded like when he was coughing after trying liquor for the first time. From here he becomes powerful as his words on gardening are taken as metaphor for the economy or whatever the people listening to him want it to mean. He can’t lie so it is all on the people and them imprinting their points of view onto him. This is brought to it’s extreme when they speak of making him president since he has no baggage and is loved by all. Sellers nails this role and his very polite expressions he adopted from television and having to mimik whatever is on television goes a long way to creating rich comedy.

The Soundtrack – Johnny Mandel created a great soundtrack for this film. It has a sad piano piece to it which makes how Chance must feel most of the time apparent as well as how lost he accidentally makes others like the President feel. If people want hope he gives them hope, if they feel fear he gives them that and the soundtrack captures that perfectly.

Quotability – The jokes are so good, largely because of Peter Sellers that a lot of what I loved about the humor of it came after thinking about the movie. From Chance’s formal “Yes” and expressions to him trying to live the life he had in the home of the old man on the streets and how he eventually does so in the Rand home. “I understand.” Is his answer to everything even if he doesn’t understand at all, his calling the President, “Bobby” was brilliant too.

Satire – This film satires peoples’ egos and Washington D.C. culture, politics as well as that of the super rich in such a way that it can’t help but seen as intelligent. Chancy is the fool revealing the Emperors with no clothes since the Fool is wearing no clothes himself.

Okay: The Minor Characters – The president, Mr. Rand, the Lawyers…they aren’t bad they aren’t as memorable as the others. They are largely victims of how they see and interpret the words of Chance but are still great.

The Cons: Too Long At Times – Sometimes it is too long and feels like it drags, especially early on and on some of the scenes between the great jokes. This was my biggest issue in an otherwise really good film.

This is a film I’d highly recommend and the best Sellers film I’ve watched. The man is a master of voice and body humor. This film gave me a far great appreciation for him and the legacy in art and humor he left behind. If you like comedy, chances are you will enjoy this movie greatly. It is one of my Grandfather’s favorite films and one of mine as well after watching it.

Final Score: 8.8 / 10. A really good comedy.

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