Thoughts on Being There

"Being There" is a difficult movie for reviewers to review. Some mistake it as a simple comedy and wonder why there aren't more "jokes" or some think it is a "message movie" trying to deliver a sermon. Ebert called it "counfoundingly provocative". What they fail to understand is that this is not a movie about what could happen, it's about what is happening - things like the blind acceptance of celebrity, a general disinterest in the truth and the wild lengths people will go to in order to justify themselves.

The makers are not trying to "say" anything. They are reporters relaying what they see. This is what gives the movie its inner strength, or "weird conceit" as Ebert fathoms it. This film is a towering achievement of insight - and that is what makes it so provocative.



Roger Ebert Review:

4.0 stars out of 4

There's an exhilaration in seeing artists at the very top of their form: It almost doesn't matter what the form is, if they're pushing their limits and going for broke and it's working. We can sense their joy of achievement - and even more so if the project in question is a risky, off-the-wall idea that could just as easily have ended disastrously.

Hal Ashby's Being There is a movie that inspires those feelings. It begins with a cockamamie notion, it's basically one joke told for two hours, and it requires Peter Sellers to maintain an excruciatingly narrow tone of behavior in a role that has him onscreen almost constantly. It's a movie based on an idea, and all the conventional wisdom agrees that emotions, not ideas, are the best to make movies from. But Being There pulls off its long shot and is a confoundingly provocative movie.

Sellers plays a mentally retarded gardener who has lived and worked all of his life inside the walls of an elegant Washington town house. The house and its garden are in a decaying inner-city neighborhood, but what goes on outside is of no concern to Sellers: He tends his garden, he watches television, he is fed on schedule by the domestic staff, he is content.

Then one day the master of the house dies. The household is disbanded. Sellers, impeccably dressed in his employer's privately tailored wardrobe, wanders out into the city. He takes along the one possession he'll probably need: His remote-control TV channel switcher. He uses it almost immediately; surrounded by hostile street kids, he imperturbably tries to switch channels to make them go away. He hasn't figured out that, outside his garden, life isn't television.

And that is the movie's basic premise, lifted intact from a Jerzy Kosinski novel. The Sellers character knows almost nothing about real life, but he has watched countless hours of television and he can be pleasant, smile, shake hands, and comport himself; he learned from watching all those guests on talk shows. He knows nothing about anything, indeed, except gardening. But when he stumbles into Washington's political and social upper crust, his simple truisms from the garden ("Spring is a time for planting") are taken as audaciously simple metaphors. This guy's a Thoreau! In no time at all, he's the closest confidant of a dying billionaire industrialist (Melvyn Douglas) - and the industrialist is the closest confidant of the president.

This is, you can see, a one-joke premise. It has to be if the Sellers performance is to work. The whole movie has to be tailored to the narrow range within which Sellers' gardener can think, behave, speak, and make choices. The ways in which this movie could have gone out of control, could have been relentlessly boring on the one hand, or manic with its own audacity on the other, are endless. But the tone holds. That's one of the most exhilarating aspects of the joy you can sense, as Ashby pulls this off: Every scene needs the confidence to play the idea completely straight.

There are wonderful comic moments, but they're never pushed so far that they strain the story's premise. Some of them involve: a battle between the CIA and the FBI as to which agency destroyed the gardener's files; Shirley MacLaine unsuccessfully attempts to introduce Sellers to the concept of romance; Sellers as a talk-show guest himself (at last!), and Sellers as the hit of a Washington cocktail party. The movie also has an audacious closing shot that moves the film's whole metaphor into a brand-new philosophical arena.

What is Being There about? I've read reviews calling it an indictment of television. But that doesn't fit; Sellers wasn't warped by television, he was retarded to begin with, and has TV to thank for what abilities he has to move in society. Is it an indictment of society, for being so dumb as to accept the Sellers character as a great philosophical sage? Maybe, but that's not so fascinating either. I'm not really inclined to plumb this movie for its message, although I'm sure that'll be a favorite audience sport. I just admire it for having the guts to take this weird conceit and push it to its ultimate comic conclusion.

Review courtesy of Cinemania
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The New York Times Review

December 1979

Being There is a stately, beautifully acted satire with a premise that's funny but fragile. Chance, the hero of Jerzy Kosinski's novel and now his screenplay, is a slow-witted innocent who has spent all his adult life in seclusion, working as a gardener and watching television. These two pursuits, and only these two, have shaped his notion of the rest of the world. Being There explains, among other things, how illiteracy, ignorance and a sweet attitude can lead to riches, fame and a glamorous social career.

Chance, who is played with brilliant understatement by Peter Sellers, is immediately mistaken for Chauncey Gardiner, an aristocratic businessman (because he wears his former benefactor's elegant hand-me-down suits) and witty raconteur (because he laughs at other people's jokes). He is admired for his fluent knowledge of Russian; this comes from nodding knowingly at a Soviet diplomat at a party. Chance also advices the President, and appears on something like "The Tonight Show." He has been commenting on how the changing of the seasons means that all is well in the garden, and everyone mistakes this for a metaphor about economics.

Hal Ashby directs Being There at an unruffled, elegant pace, the better to let Mr. Seller's double-edged mannerisms make their full impression upon the audience. Mr. Sellers never strikes a false note, as he exhibits the kind of niavete that the film's other characters mistake for eccentricity. Not knowing polite conventions, he answers even perfunctory questions ("Will you be seated?") with hilariously excessive enthusiasm ("Yes! I will!"). Not knowing figures of speech, he begins standing like a stork when a doctor advises him to keep his weight off one foot. Not knowing the answers to certain questions, he simply doesn't answer them. This impresses his new friends as reticence of the cagiest kind.

The other fine actors in Being There - Melvyn Douglas as a poignantly ailing rich man, Shirley MacLaine as his sexy, sprightly wife, Jack Warden as a suspicious President and Richard Dysart as the sick man's quietly watchful doctor - conspire to accept Chance as a plausible figure, and thereby keep the story in motion. There is superb ensemble playing in Being There, particularly in scenes that bring Mr. Sellers and Mr. Douglas together. The timing is often so perfect that the film, at its very wittiest, strips conversation down to its barest maneuvers and stratagems.

******

The idea of Chance's miraculous succes in the world is a slender one, though, and Being There eventually takes it farther than it will go. Chance's adventures begin to have a familiar ring: the story doesn't so much progress as repeat itself after a while. And Mr. Ashby, who ruptures the film's exaggeratedly upper-crust mood with an early sequence of Chance in the ghetto, and with frequent doses of television noise, stays close to reality when the story most needs its air of the fantastic. The references to television begin delightfully, as when Mr. Ashby cuts from a jubilant mattress commercial to a man on his deathbed. But since the point of these snippets is made early on and then reiterated quite a lot, the film at times begins to drag.

There's also something precious about Mr. Ashby's elaborate, solemn, approach to even the most airy and delicate aspects of Chance's story. But for the most part, Being There, which opens today at the Coronet, moves handsomely, and ingeniously, to make a whimsical dream of a story come true.

******
"Being There" is rated PG. It contains a few sexual references and one relatively discreet masturbation sequence.
Janet Maslin

©Copyright 1979, The New York Times


Magill's Cinema Survey

Being There is a one joke movie based upon a fragile premise. Still, the understated delivery of the film, along with a restrained performance by the talented (and usually rambunctious) Peter Sellers, underlies the fact that Being There is a quiet but important fable about society.

The story line centers on a slow-witted gardener named Chance (Peter Sellers), who knows only gardening and what he sees on television, and what transpires when he is suddenly put out into the world. Because Chance speaks so simply and so directly, his words are mistaken for profundities; everything he says is mistaken for a metaphor by the medi-mad society. By film's end, Chance - who has become an adviser, of sorts, to one of the world's most wealthy men - is spoken of in glowing terms by men seeking a candidate for the presidency.

The often double-edged fable, scripted by Jerzy Kosinski and based on his 1971 novel, looks at a media obsessed society, and particularly at Chance, a man who has been literally drained by television. He is emotionless; he is unaware of his sexuality; his face forever an empty look.

Actually, during the first fifteen minutes of the film, the viewer has no idea what is happening. We meet the deadpan Chance as he is watching television. His pace is slow, and he appears fascinated by any imagery that appears on his screen. When a bustling black woman enters the room, apparently to ready Chance for some outing, she alludes to the fact that his life is about to change. But only when Chance leaves his protective room and his familiar gardens and ventures outside of the Washington, D.C., townhouse, where he has lived and apparently been employed, do we fully understand the impact. To the strains of a jazzy (Deodato) version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra," Chance makes his way onto the streets. It is, we sense, the first time he has been out in society. It is a rebirth - this simple-minded man has, it seems, spent most of his life in service to his employer, who has only recently died.

Obviously, the streets of Washington, D.C., are no place for a "newcomer." When he finds himself harassed by members of a black street gang, Chance reaches for an appropiate means of escape by trying to press a remote control button to tune the gang members out. Chance's encounters on the street are mostly humorous, underlining his conditioned mental state. For example, because he was apparently cared for at the townhouse by the black servant woman, when he becomes hungry he approaches a black woman on the street and asks for some lunch.

Amazed by everything he is really seeing (as opposed to seeing it on the small screen), Chance is walking about very nearly in a daze. Through a mishap, he encounters Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), the beautiful wife of a powerful financier. It is Eve who, upon hearing him identified as Chance the Gerdener, misunderstands. Thinking him to be one Chauncey Gardiner, she insists that he come with her to her palatial home, where her doctor can see a leg injury. (Eve is hopeful there will not be legal ramifications, since she feels her car is to blame for the mishap.)

Dressed in a tailored, expensive-looking business suit (no doubt a hand-me-down from his employer), complete with a neat homburg, Chauncey takes his first ride in a car. It is the first in a string of misadventures for the apparently illiterate gardener. Upon meeting the powerful Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas), Chauncey quickly secures his interest and friendship. Rand is taken with Chauncey's direct approach, and mistakenly attaches profundities to Chauncey's ramblings about gardening.

When the Presidient (Jack Warden) meets with Rand, he, too, is affected by Rand's house guest. Surprised by Chauncey's quiet, unassuming manner (the gardener is not in awe of the world leader - he does not have the capability to be excited), the President is further caught off-guard by Chauncey's remarks about current conditions. "As long as the roots are not severed, all will be well in the garden ... there will be growth in the spring." Mistaking his words for a metaphor about the current political climate, the President remarks, "Well, that's one of the most refreshing opinions I've heard in a long time."

Chauncey goes on to attain a kind of Kissingerlike fame. Talk show hosts want him for guest spots as the populace suddenly grows interested in Chauncey's opinion. As interest in Chauncey grows, the President becomes increasingly uneasy; his sexual performance is even affected. At a Washington party, Chauncey, who has escorted a glowing Eve, is immediately besieged by opinion-makers. One anxious publisher offers Chauncey a "six-figure advance" if he will write a book; Chauncey, however, cannot read or write, and he tells the publisher so. Unruffled, the publisher is determined to work out some kind of deal.

It is, of course, Chauncey's frankness and his desire to please everyone that secures his following. As Benjamin Rand tells him, "One of the things I admire about you is your balance. You seem to be a truly peaceful man." In fact, Rand is so pleased with Chauncey that he encourages the relationship between Chauncey and Eve. Rand, who has been in ill health, is anxious to leave his wife with some purpose and happiness following his death, and he is hopeful that Chauncey can provide that.

Eve, who is enamored with Chauncey, also hopes for some sexual fulfillment with the prophetic visitor, but a sexual misunderstanding ensues when Chauncey tells her, "I like to watch." He means television, of course, but Eve, thinking he wants to watch her as she arouses herself, complies. It is a riotous sequence, with Eve groping and squirming about the floor while Chauncey mimics assorted scenes on the screen, even going so far as to do a head-stand during an exercise program. For Eve, the encounter is her most sexually stimulating ever.

By the film's close, Chauncey's passive state has soothed nearly all of those with whom he has come in touch. Though the Rand physician, Dr. Allenby (Richard Dysart), has come to learn that Chauncey is simply Chance the Gerdener, Eve looks upon him with serenity and the President fears him as a potential candidate. (When the President's staff is unable to locate information regarding Chauncey's background, the President enraged: "What do you mean he's got no background! I quoted him on national television today - he's a very well-known man!") It is during Benjamin Rand's funeral that the pallbearers begin to see Chauncey as a potential presidential candidate.

Hal Ashby, whose credits range from cult favorites such as Harold and Maude (1971) to the critically and commercial successful Coming Home (1978), has directed Being There with a deliberate slow pace. The slow pace further amplifies the dulled emotions of the deadpan Chauncey.

Peter Sellers, known for a variety of film roles, including his slapstick portrayals of the popular Inspector Clousaeu of the Pink Panther films, received a Best Actor Acadamy Award nomination for his work as Chauncey. Melvyn Douglas, at 79, received the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, for his work as Benjamin Rand. Shirley MacLaine, who, like Sellers, has often been accused of overacting, delivers a restrained performance as the enraptured Eve.

Although Being There is not the first film to examine television's impact deftly, its treatment of the theme is decidedly unique. In seeing television viwers as passive, empty victims, author Jerzy Kosinski's view is in marked contrast to the "mad as hell" audiences skillfully portrayed in Lumet's Network (1976).

Released in late 1979, Being There gained the support of most major critics, although many underlined the film's one-joke premise. Acclaimed for its subtle delivery in a year when special effects, especially in science fiction theme films, were everywhere, Being There was also applauded for its fine, sensitive performances.

Pat H. Broeske

©1986 by Frank N. Magill