Being there is everything,
To look and listen silently,
Even if you may not understand or feel the need to ponder.
Whether poor or richest king,
No good came from an absentee,
And though the wise may disagree, mere presence makes the heart grow fonder.
MPAA Rating: PG (PG-13 would be better)
Some actors trade in great early roles for lackluster later ones, but Peter Sellers went out on a high note in his last film released during his lifetime, Being There. A heavy mix of absurdist comedy and social drama, Being There seems to foreshadow Forrest Gump fifteen years later in placing an apparent moron in ever more unlikely and beneficial positions, even meeting the President. Whereas Forrest, though, was self-aware and achieved his status through action in addition to luck, Sellers as Chance the gardener goes literally from rags to riches through a series of ridiculous yet effective coincidences.
Kept in seclusion within a large townhouse, Chance knows nothing about the world except gardening and what he sees on television. He’s been cared for his entire life and is as helpless as he is oblivious. The reasons for his isolation and care by the wealthy “old man” are never made clear, but Chance is an afterthought when his benefactor dies. Thrust into the wilds of Washington, D.C., one would expect him to be either beaten up by punks as a weirdo or ignored to the point of death. (He can’t even prepare his own meals.) Yet against all probability, he ends up the guest of aging businessman Ben Rand (Oscar winner Melvyn Douglas), who sees unexpected wisdom in Chance’s clueless silences and vague gardening tips. With his passive demeanor and assumed sophistication, Chance captures the attention of the nation and of Rand’s wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine).
While the Oscar went to Douglas for his thoughtful performance as a dying millionaire, this is Sellers’ film. His presence is uncanny in its earnest simplicity. He smiles, he nods, he provides basic responses, and he remains entirely unmoved by his effect on others. While people are praising him or reminiscing to him or throwing themselves passionately at him, he stays placid and blank. Of course, this is where much of the humor comes from. Probably the funniest scene is a series of outtakes that play over the end credits, in which not even Sellers could utter his droll lines with a straight face. (He supposedly blamed this scene for his failure to win Best Actor, but I think Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer deserved to edge him out.) Indeed, Douglas and MacLaine turn in excellent performances as well, the latter offering a semi-explicit sex scene that is both awkward and hilarious. The film also stands out for its location shooting at the lavish Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, which I recognized from my own visit to the grand property.
Being There becomes something a bit deeper in its final scenes, in which Chance begins to take on almost messianic qualities. With this, the filmmakers seem to be encouraging debate over the meaning of it all. Is it that the most important people achieve their status by their mere presence rather than their actions? Is it that simplicity and gentle innocence are so refreshing that they can get you further in life than the opposite? Shakespeare’s Macbeth said that life “is a tale told by an idiot,” so is Being There implying that only a complete idiot can effectively traverse it? Does the film mean to expose the inanity of business and power by comparing politics with nonsense? Yes to one or all, the film remains ripe for whatever interpretation you please. Films with this kind of ambiguity are rare and rarely as good as Being There.
Best line: (Chance, who is naturally misunderstood) “I like to watch.”
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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