by Sam Juliano
“It’s for sure a white man’s world in America. Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss-aint. 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 th’ 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.”
It’s a one-joke movie sustained by a vulnerable premise. Yet Hal Ashby’s Being There against all odds employs amazing restraint and subtlety to pull off what could have been a tiresome exercise in satirical overkill. Aided by acting icon Peter Sellers playing against type as a mentally retarded gardener who is forced to leave the protection of a Washington town house, where he was employed by a wealthy patriarch referred to by the maid as “the old man,” Being There is pretty much unlike any film released before or since. Scripted by Jerzy Kosinski, the scathing satire takes aims at media obsession, how television shapes the public mind, and how frankness and the desire to please can lead to misrepresentation of staggering proportions. Sheltered since childhood, and exposed to endless hours of vapid staring at the boob tube, “Chance”, who speaks with a deadpan delivery is seen as a profound sage and philosopher by a media crazed society who read his simpleton pontifications with metaphorical glee. Kosinski continues to up the ante throughout the picture to the point where the final revelation, though utterly preposterous, shows the depth of the conceit in a world short-sighted by mechanized reactions that never leave the box of acceptability.
The film’s ruse is hardly discernible after the opening scenes. Chance, a middle-aged dimwit with a suppressed smile is seen blankly staring at television, riveted by the images. An African-American woman approaches him and informs him that he must leave the only home he knows after the passing of the elderly man who served as his protector and provider. Taking a bag that contains the only item he thinks he’ll need – a television remote – Chance leaves his manicured home and garden with its inherent safety and seclusion, venturing out in a decaying inner-city neighborhood populated by menacing black street gangs. Strolling down aan avenue of urban blight over the jazzy strains of Straus’s “Also Spoke Zarathustra” and dressed in a dapper, privately-tailored wardrobe, Chance is immediately acosted by a few thugs at knife point and promtly tries to tune them out by aiming his remote at them, incurring further threats and derision. With child-like cluelessness, he then approaches a black woman on the street and asks her for lunch, connecting her in his compromised state with caretaker Louise of his town house. The woman appears horrified and runs away.
As “chance” would have it, the gardener slightly injures his leg when a limousine backs up, and the wife of a billionaire political puppetmaster (played by Shirley McLaine) takes blame and convinces Chance to travel back with her to the palatial home she shares with her high-profile older husband, one with it’s own hospital room and medical team. While in the vehicle, “Eve” inquires about the name of her unexpected guest after urging him to have a drink she prepared. He coughs, causing “Chance the Gardener” to come off as the aristocratic sounding “Chauncey Gardiner.” The continuing themes of mistaken identity and being in the right place at the right time are evident in the initial meetings with Benjamin Rand, a dying industrialist whose influence extends to major input on White House policies. Rand finds meaning and metaphor in Chauncey’s childlike ramblings about garden care and seasonal changes, interpreting them as similes for economic growth and political confidence. Rand is smitten with Chauncey’s directness, and after the gardener tells him he was “thown out of his home” Rand again mistakes that as a parting of the ways from an expensive abode, and encourages Chauncey to take up residence in his mansion, allowing for late-night talks that greatly impress the older man, as his health deteriorates. Rand affectionately tells Chauncey: “One of the things I admire about you is your balance. You seem to be a truly peaceful man.” Rand arranges for a meeting with the President (Jack Warden) and he too is enormously impressed with the new border, appreciating his reserve, unassuming manner and homeliness. The President is startles to hear Chauncey declare with deadpan confidence: “As long as the roots are not severed, all will be well in the garden….there will be growth in the spring.” Misconstruing his statement for a metaphor about the current political climate, the President responds with “Well, that’s one of the most refreshing opinions I’ve heard in a long time.” That dialogue and the chief executive’s sold remarks make for one of the film’s most inspired ideas and interchanges:
President “Bobby”: Mr. Gardner, do you agree with Ben, or do you think that we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives?
Chance the Gardener: As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.
President “Bobby”: In the garden.
Chance the Gardener: Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.
President “Bobby”: Spring and summer.
Chance the Gardener: Yes.
President “Bobby”: Then fall and winter.
Chance the Gardener: Yes.
Benjamin Rand: 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 the Gardener: Yes! There will be growth in the spring!
Benjamin Rand: Hmm!
Chance the Gardener: Hmm!
President “Bobby”: Hm. Well, Mr. Gardner, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time.
[Benjamin Rand applauds]
President “Bobby”: I admire your good, solid sense. That’s precisely what we lack on Capitol Hill.
The very notion that such tomfoolery could readily be so enthusiastically embraced by those in the highest positions of government and finantial leadership tends tediously on the threshold of crossing the line of feasibility even in broad comedic strokes, but director Hal Ashby’s approach is presenting the film as a straight drama and letting the comedy come from situations where the characters truly believe what they are saying and never once question the authenticity of a character as irrifutably fraudulent as anyone out there, but one whose reserve belies an inner brilliance for those seemingly willing to believe anything, even by way of stark intellectual pretensions. Inevitably, Gardener appears on talk shows and enraptures the nation, with business executives proposing book deals. The way one, Ron Steigler, twists everything that Chauncey says to explain away frank illiteracy is hysterical:
Ron Steigler: Mr. Gardner, uh, my editors and I have been wondering if you would consider writing a book for us, something about your um, political philosophy, what do you say?
Chance the Gardener: I can’t write.
Ron Steigler: Heh, heh, of course not, who can nowadays? Listen, I have trouble writing a postcard to my children. Look uhh, we can give you a six figure advance, I’ll provide you with the very best ghost-writer, proof-readers…
Chance the Gardener: I can’t read.
Ron Steigler: Of course you can’t! No one has the time! We, we glance at things, we watch television…
Chance the Gardener: I like to watch TV.
Ron Steigler: Oh, oh, oh sure you do. No one reads!
Practically at every turn Chauncey’s opaque simplicity is an overriding asset. “He was very cleaver, keeping it at a third grade level; that’s what they understand,” one character obsesses with clear admiration after watching a television appearance. All through this Eve has become exceedingly fond of Chauncey as well, and combined with Ben’s encouragement for her to persue a relationship with the annointed sage to serve as security and emotional well-being when the industrialist is gone, she seeks sexual fullfillment in one of the film’s most riotous set pieces in Chauncey’s bedroom. Of course the inevitable sexual misunderstanding ensues when Chauncey declares that “I like to watch.” He means he likes to watch television, but Eve misreads that as his wanting to watch her get aroused, and she gleefully complies. Eve squirms, groans and gropes on the floor reaching a climax while Chauncey parrots various scenes on the television, standing on his head during an exercise program. Incredibly this inconceivable charade gives Eve the most sexually stimulating encounter of her life and further bonds her with her retarded partner. At a Washington cocktail party even gays are turned on by Gardener, with another mistaken interchange on the “I like to watch” theme:
Dennis Watson: You know, I’ve never met anyone like you in Washington before.
Chance the Gardener: Yes, I’ve been here all my life.
Dennis Watson: Really? And uh, where have you been all my life?
Dennis Watson: Ah, tell me, Mr. Gardner… have you ever had sex with a man?
Chance the Gardener: No… I don’t think so.
Dennis Watson: We could go upstairs right now.
Chance the Gardener: Is there a TV upstairs? I like to watch.
Dennis Watson: You like to uh, watch?
Chance the Gardener: Yes.
Dennis Watson: You wait right here. I’ll go get Warren!
Other subplots in the film involve a clash between the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. as to who destroyed Chauncey’s files, and the matter of Rand’s close confidante Dr. Allenby (played by Richard Dysart) who eventually finds out the truth about Gardener, but balks at bringing this to his patient’s attention after he realizes how much Chauncey means to the dying man by way of inner peace as he nears death. Being There examines the issue of television’s impact on society on an opposite plane than Sidney Lumet’s Network and it’s “mad as hell” rants. Kosinski considers passivity and the intellectual vapidity of the experience, and how television is a vacile for the dumbing down of the culture and the media. Network of course is all about the idea of high ratings being far more important than the actual worth of the programming.
Peter Sellers, sedate and blank, delivers what may well be the best performance of his career, making every nuance and reflection count, and keeping the tone and modulation of the film in perfect unison with the sly and satiric dialogue that aims to put forth the ultimate conceit. Sellers’ naivete does sometimes clash with his eager propensity for media consumption, but this inconsistency actually enhances the fable-like quality of the film. Sellers won the New York and London Film Critics Award for Best Actor, and also captured a Golden Glove and an Academy Award nomination. This was yet another year where Oscar got it wrong, giving the statue to Dustin Hoffmann for Kramer vs. Kramer. Shirley McLaine as the oblivious younger wife of Rand pulls off the most difficult scene in the film, and is excllent throughout. Melvyn Douglas as the crusty political manipulator, won a well-deserved Academy Award as Chauncey’s friend and philosophical interpretor with a turn that segues into resignation and poignancy. As the gruff-talking chief executive Jack Warden exudes a willingness to accept any advice from all corners in a presidency obviously compromised by affiliated power brokers. In any case, director Ashby, an auteur who was was gifted in blending intense drama with off-kilter comedy in his 70’s films that broached the uncertain social climate of the time, extracted some superlative performances in the films that preceded Being There. These include Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in Shampoo (75), Jon Voight and Jane Fonda in Coming Home (79), and Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail (73).
In the end Kosinski’s caustic consideration of where the true authority lies in our flawed democracy is perhaps the most vital concern, and it’s all too relevent over thirty years later. When emptiness trumps complexity, it’s clear enough that we’ve reached the point of no return. Being There is a kind of cautionary tale, and it’s not afraid to beat a dead horse, yet it may well be the most original and uncompromising American comedy since The Producers in 1968. It’s an unqualified triumph for Sellers, Kosinski and Ashby, and it holds up beautifully. The outakes over the credits, when Sellers breaks down while trying to be serious are priceless.
How Being There made the Top 100: