Being There (1979)
Being There (1979)

Genre: Dramatic Comedy Running Time: 2 hrs. 10 min.

Release Date: December 21st, 1979 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Hal Ashby Actors: Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Richard Dysart, Richard Basehart, Ruth Attaway, Denise DuBarry

 


 

“T

he old man is dead.” Chance (Peter Sellers) the gardener doesn’t seem bothered by the news, instead commenting on the possibility of snow. Louise (Ruth Attaway) the maid is distraught, but she soon realizes that Chance is unfazed by morbid surprises – or news of any kind, really. He’s diverted by his small television set, cutting back and forth between an orchestra playing classical music, cartoons, black-and-white movies, news, commercials, “Sesame Street,” and more, sometimes mimicking the various actions of the characters on the screen. But he’s also dutiful, tending to the roses and dusting the car, even while the owner (and his employer), Mr. Jennings, lies motionless, deceased in the bedroom.

Chance is immediately fascinating, notable for his oddness and his calmness. There’s something off about the middle-aged man, but his gentleness and aloofness are charmingly disarming. When lawyers handling the estate arrive at the house, they’re surprised to see that Chance is still on the premises, claiming to live there and patiently awaiting lunch. “Are you related to the deceased?” inquire the agents, concerned about any claims the gardener might make. “I’ve never been allowed outside of the house.”

Predating “Forrest Gump” and “Rain Man” but utilizing a comparable vibe (along with that of every fish-out-of-water adventure, from “Some Like It Hot” to “Big”), the sympathetic nature of the protagonist is undeniable. With terribly little knowledge about this simpleton possessing but a sole moniker, viewers can’t help but to be engaged; there’s a wholesomeness emanating from his unassailable placidity. His forthcoming journey is brimming with possibilities. In its potential for comedy, however, it’s also a bit exasperating, considering that Chance can’t care for himself – nor fend for himself on the unforgiving streets of Washington, D.C.

Fortunately, the music is upbeat and Chance’s demeanor is unshakably inquisitive and pleasant. It’s also not long before the nimble-minded man is involved in a minor car accident with Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), a decent woman with whom Chance can find momentary respite from his wandering and his sudden homelessness. Contributing to his culture shock is the fact that Eve and her husband Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas) are exceptionally wealthy, bringing a perspective that is strangely willing to interpret Chance’s subpar intelligence as the eccentricity of the elite.

“I’ve never seen anything like this on television.” Into this delightful scenario comes all sorts of double meanings, misinterpretations, and instances of verbal confusion, channeling comedies of manners from the ’30s and ‘40s, as well as the humorous mashups of the rich and poor, and examples of the overly privileged being societally isolated (like “Arthur” or even “My Man Godfrey” and “It Happened One Night”). Chance’s innocence, quietness, and unassuming presence remain refreshing, lending insight into a mind free of the typical complexities that come with vice and conflict and drama (the “admirable balance” of a “truly peaceful man”).

Just like Chance’s casual, unhurried movements, “Being There” progresses with a certain slowness, but it’s difficult to be displeased with any sequence in which Sellers is onscreen. It’s one of his most memorable turns, among a lengthy filmography of staggering performances. This rare role is ceaselessly watchable; a wholesome, funny, frank, sedative soul with the power to positively influence everyone around him – and one whom others can’t quite figure out, failing (or almost refusing) to identify his limited mental capabilities for what they are. Optimism just can’t elude the unworldly. “You don’t play games with words.”

Also at work is the theme of mortality, filtered through the eyes and emotions of Chance’s naïveté. As it presides, sometimes subtly in the background, Chance goes through a series of comic misadventures, from a meeting with the President of the United States to an appearance on a popular TV program to a dinner with the Russian ambassador, routinely reenforcing his brilliance rather than exposing his brainlessness. But like many of the movies in which characters take on – or are given – a great guise (including “Tootsie,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and “Dave”), there’s an underlying apprehension as viewers inevitably worry about when the big ruse will finally fall – perhaps even blowing up in a catastrophic fashion. And that nagging sense of a looming death is likewise a tragedy too tough to forget. Yet the humor continues to surface, regularly generating laugh-out-loud bewilderment and crushing awkwardness – a powerful contrast to the profundity of Chance’s plain, authentic, and ostensibly unintentional commentary on life and the things that really matter.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10