Title: Being There
Release Date: December 19, 1979
Director: Hal Ashby
Production Company: Lorimar Productions
This is a movie that I know I watched sometime back in the 1980s but had next to know recollection about what happens in it. In fact, I read the Jerzy Kosiński book it is based on in the 1990s and don’t remember that either! So it was essentially like coming to this movie anew.
Peter Sellers stars (in his last film released before his death) as a simple-minded gardener named Chance. I think if this movie was made at a later date they would probably identify him as being on the autism spectrum. His background is a bit of a mystery as he has lived his entire life on the grounds of a Washington, D.C. mansion and no one seems to know he exists beyond his benefactor and the maid, Louise (Ruth Attaway). With such little interaction with other people Chance spends his free time obsessively watching television. As an aside, this movie makes great use of clips from 1970s television shows and advertisements that comment on the action of the film.
When “the old man” dies, Chance is forced out on his own. Through a series of mishaps he becomes enmeshed in the lives of the wealthy and powerful Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas) and his younger wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine). Chance’s comments on gardening are mistaken as an optimistic philosophy on business and the economy. Ben, who is terminally ill, finds comfort in Chance’s companionship, while Eve falls in love with Ben. As a result of his connection with the Rands, Chance is able to meet the President (Jack Warden), appear on a TV talk show, and attend a state dinner with the Soviet ambassador (Richard Basehart).
The movie is a product of the cynical 70s with the power brokers of Washington all projecting their desires onto Chance. It also pokes fun at how easy it is for a well-dressed white man to “fail up.” But there’s also a sweetness to the movie, especially in the quick but real bond that forms between Chance and Ben. The movie succeeds on the impressive performance of Sellers who really immersed himself in the role, finding that he identified strongly with Chance. The movie is beautifully shot, with Sellers appearing in the foreground of the Capitol building and in the Rand’s mansion (filmed at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina) being particularly iconic. This is a movie worth remembering.