|Yes, even a half-wit can change the shape of a nation.|
Hard to believe, huh?
Being There (1979)
Dir. Hal Ashby
Nvl. Jerzy Kosinski
Scr. Kosinski, Robert C. Jones (sadly uncredited)
Starring: Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, David Clennon,
Fran Brill, Richard Dysart, Jack Warden, Richard Basehart, Ruth Attaway
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Chance (Peter Sellers) is a gardener. He's lived his entire life behind the walls of a rich old man's urban fortress, a beautiful townhouse in a once-tony but now blighted, decrepit Washington, D.C. neighbourhood.
Living one's life in the same place is one thing, literally living one's life in the same place is quite another. You see, Chance has never left the house. Ever! All he knows about the outside world comes from watching television.
"I like to watch," Chance says at one point in Hal Ashby's exquisitely perfect Being There. He says this to Eve (Shirley MacLaine), the young wife of an aging, ailing tycoon of business, Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas). Eve thinks Chance "likes to watch" women masturbating, so she obliges him happily. But like everyone, she misunderstands the gentle, soft-spoken, simple-minded, middle-aged gardener. He "likes to watch" TV.
Well, of course he does. Who doesn't? (My poison of choice is "Judge Judy", but that's another story.) But the fact remains, Chance really knows very little about anything, except, that is, gardening. Oh, he does know all about that. He's a veritable Rhodes Scholar of tending to plants and could, no doubt, give many a botanist a run for their money. When the aforementioned benefactor in the townhouse dies, Chance is ordered to leave the home and for the first time in his life, he's forced to confront the real world. It's in this brave new universe that the slow-witted horticulturist gives everyone a run for their money.
Being There is a great film. It's as great a film as its source material, the book by Jerzy ("The Painted Bird") Kosinski, is a great novel. Both are satirical as all get-out. After all, Ashby and Kosinski and company have deliberately chosen to render the tale of a half-wit who becomes an overnight media sensation when a car accident lands him as a guest in the home of Ben Rand and his pretty wifey. Chance's elegant attire and exquisite manners, thanks to his mysterious late benefactor, certainly don't betray him. He's also, by virtue of his mild mental challenges, someone who speaks in slow, considered ways in order to communicate.
That he knows everything in the world about gardening also holds him in good stead. Whenever he responds to a question or comment, all he can usually do is respond in horticultural metaphors. For example, one of the most hilarious scenes in the movie has Chance being introduced to the President of the United States (Jack Warden) in Ben Rand's study. Chance sits quietly as Rand and the Prez yammer on about economic policy. At one point, the President asks Chance if he agrees with Rand's view on the state of the country.
"As long as the roots are not severed, all is well," says Chance. "And all will be well in the garden... in the garden, growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again." The President mulls this over, quite seriously. Rand chimes in with: "I think what our insightful young friend is saying is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, but we're upset by the seasons of our economy." Chance excitedly responds: "Yes! There will be growth in the spring!"
This conversation with a half-wit inspires the President to formulate his economic policy and even quote Chance in a State of the Union address to the entire nation.
The simple gardener becomes the buzz and toast of Washington, D.C. One night he's invited on a TV talk show broadcast to millions of people. When Louise (Ruth Attaway), the former maid at the townhouse, watches Chance with a whole passel of fellow African-American septuagenarians in the common room of the old folks home she lives in, she delivers one of the greatest satirical monologues in movie history:
"It's for sure a white man's world in America. Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a pissant. And I'll say right now, he never learned to read and write. No, sir. Had no brains at all. Was stuffed with rice pudding between the ears. Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you've gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want."
To say Being There is prescient might be an understatement. Even more astonishing is that this movie is almost 40-years-old and has not dated in any way, shape or form.
Yes, it's a satire, but it's a very gentle satire. Thanks to Ashby's direction and the deeply moving performance of Peter Sellers, the film is laced with melancholy and even touches of sentiment. As the film savagely exposes truths about America, Being There not only makes you laugh, but in several moments, especially during the profoundly heartbreaking conclusion, it's impossible not to shed a tear or two. Even more amazingly, the movie lifts you to heavenly heights. It makes you soar while you weep.
That's genuine greatness!
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars
I NEVER watch added value items on home entertainment until after I see the movie and write about it. (So yeah, I'm writing this AFTER I finished watching the movie and writing the review above. What I can say, however, is that this is a great Blu-Ray and provides a wealth of material that truly enhance one's pleasure and appreciation of this movie. Most notable is the background on poor Robert C. Jones who was screwed out of a writing credit in an asshole move by Kosinski. So much of what's great about the picture comes from Jones's participation in the creative process. The other delightful feature is the unexpurgated blooper reel of a scene Peter Sellers was never able to properly complete because the absurdity of the lines and situation proved to be so hilarious that he couldn't help from breaking down in fits of laughter.
This truly has to be seen to be believed.
Being There on the Criterion Collection includes a new, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray, a new documentary on the making of the film, excerpts from a 1980 American Film Institute seminar with director Hal Ashby, Jerzy Kosinski in a 1979 appearance on "The Dick Cavett Show", appearances from 1980 by Peter Sellers on "NBC’s Today" and "The Don Lane Show", a promo reel featuring Sellers and Ashby, the trailer and TV spots, a deleted scene, outtakes, and alternate ending and an essay by critic Mark Harris.