The emergence of a celebrity is not based on depth or his/her knowledge, it is mostly based on visibility and accessibility, a smile, a figure. It is based on appearing as a person of importance. people judge others not by their accomplishments but by their appearance and by their being in the right place at the right time. Which brings us to "Being There," the 1979 comic fable by Jerzy Kosinski, directed by Hal Ashby.
"BEING THERE" is a stately, beautifully acted satire, which explains, among other things, how illiteracy, ignorance and a sweet attitude can lead to riches, fame and a glamorous social career. And if you’ve never seen the film and think you know everything there is to know about Peter Sellers, then “Being There” will show you the actor as you’ve never seen him before. Peter Sellers' career-capping performance in 'Being There'--released only a year before his death--carried a poetic significance for his career.
PlotChance (Sellers) is a middle-aged man best described as “simple.” He’s seemingly spent his entire life living with and tending to the garden of a very rich man. Chance's life is shattered when the patron of the mansion passes away and the house is sold, forcing Chance out into the harsh world he's never experienced.
Through a fortunate accident, Chance finds himself welcomed into the household of another dying tycoon (Melvyn Douglas), with a younger wife (Shirley MacLaine) and some serious political views. But, he is not a laborer here; Chance, is immediately mistaken for Chauncey Gardiner, an aristocratic businessman. The confused inhabitants of the estate misinterpret the simple horticultural remarks as economic wisdom.
The tycoon and financial whiz takes a liking to the natural speaking of Chance and introduces him to the President and appears on something like "The Tonight Show." He comments to the president on how the 'changing of the seasons means that all is well in the garden,' and everyone mistakes this for a metaphor about economics.
AnalysisJerzy Kosinski adapted his novel into this film as if Peter Sellers had been born to it. He never raises or lowers his voice beyond a monotone, he never makes a gesture of hand, face, or body beyond the slightest increment of movement, yet he conveys a world of meaning with every nuance. He is able to make all of those around him draw their own conclusions about him, and in the film they are all wrong. Peter Sellers reportedly spent the greater part of the ‘70s trying to get the film made, believing Chance to be the ideal role for him to play.
The other fine actors in "Being There"—Melvyn Douglas as a poignantly ailing rich man, Shirley MacLaine as his sprightly wife, Jack Warden as a suspicious President —conspire to accept Chance as a plausible figure, and thereby keep the story in motion. There's also something precious about director Ashby's elaborate, solemn, approach to even the most airy and delicate aspects of Chance's story. And Mr. Ashby, breaks 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.
Being There stands apart by inviting multiple interpretation: while one could take the film as a parable of the simplicity of peace and a portrait of an illiterate, mentally challenged man, it's full of satire about how we see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear, the tendency to believe and numbing effect of modern media, and the appeal of easy answers to complex problems. Chance's instant success renders the leader of the free world literally impotent, and the suggestion, at film's end, that Chance could one day be President is at least as horrifying in its implications.
The movie's satire is perhaps more topical today than ever. Although 33 years old, Being There is a vital statement on our TV reality, on how we develop our heroes, and on how power perpetuates itself. Despite being a very funny movie, it is rarely played for laughs. The overall tone is one of light drama, and it’s only through its situations that it becomes a sly, witty statement on society, politics and pop culture.
Being There is an indictment of our narrow view of the world, and Peter Sellers' last performance is a gift to treasure.