Directed by: Hal Ashby
Starring: Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden
Hal Ashby’s Being There may not be the filmmaker’s best film (I’d give that to his Harold and Maude), but this is undeniably one of the great films of the 1970s — and one that may well be even more relevant today than it was in 1979. It almost certainly showcases Peter Sellers’ greatest performance. Sellers plays a sweet and, well, simple-minded gardener named Chance, who has spent his entire life sheltered from the world inside the house and walled garden of a wealthy benefactor, whose relationship to Chance is never defined. (All we know is that Chance doesn’t think the man was his father.) When “the old man” (as Chance calls him) dies, leaving no mention of Chance in his will, let alone a provision — the hapless gardener is thrust into the real world of Washington, D.C. — and not the best part of it. He has nothing but his well-tailored (in 1928) hand-me-down wardrobe and a suitcase. His only — not exactly processed — knowledge of the world comes from TV. But fate smiles on Chance when he’s hit by the car of Eve (Shirley MacLaine), who’s the wife of the fabulously wealthy Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas). (So wealthy, in fact, that his house is played by Asheville’s own Biltmore Estate.)
Fearing Chance may be hurt, she takes him home — under the impression that his name is Chauncey Gardner — to be looked after by her dying husband’s resident doctor (Richard Dysart). Chance merely thinks this is an act of kindness — to the degree that he comprehends what’s happening at all — and is only capable of responding to questions with utter innocence and phrases he’s learned from watching TV. The result of all this is that everyone interprets his half-digested “sound bites” to suit themselves, and Chance — of Chauncey — is mistaken for a deep thinker. He also finds himself being listened to and taken seriously by everyone — including the president (Jack Warden). So Chance becomes a very important figure (though he doesn’t realize it). On the one hand, it’s a sly comedy with us as its target, but there’s more to it than that — including a mystical ending that by all rights shouldn’t work, but completely does. It is a very nearly perfect movie — its only flaw may be the inclusion of a gag reel under the ending credits, which doesn’t do any favors for the film’s mood.
This presentation is a little out of the ordinary, in that the film will be introduced by local writer Gareth Higgins, who will also read from his new book, Cinematic States. The book includes a chapter on this film.
The Asheville Film Society will screenBeing ThereTuesday, Nov. 12, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
In Brief: Being There is a remarkable film that seems to have fallen by the wayside in recent years. How this could have happened with a film that — among other things — houses Peter Sellers’ greatest acting performance is a mystery of some note. It’s a brilliant film about a simple-minded gardener (Sellers) who faces the real world for the first time when his employer dies. Everyone regards the gardener as deeply profound, deriving their own meanings from the sound bites he’s learned from watching TV. More than funny, it’s perceptive, sweet, sad and a little magical.