Being There review, Being There DVD review
Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Richard Dysart
Hal Ashby
Being There

Reviewed by Ross Ruediger



hese days, it seems almost impossible to bring up “Being There” without some unimaginative goon coming along and comparing it to “Forrest Gump.” That’s unfortunate, because if, like me, you’ve got little patience for that particular Zemeckis opus, you may be inclined to skip “Being There” altogether. This would be a grave mistake. The big difference between the two films is that “Gump” wants to be an important film, but in doing so, it achieves the opposite. “Being There,” on the other hand, has no such aspirations and manages to become an important film because it isn’t trying so hard. 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.

Chance (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. Since the old man is dead at the start of the film, we’re given very little information about Chance. Where did he come from and how did he come to be in the employ/care of the old man? We never find out. Chance is the blankest of all slates, and his only real exposure to the outside world has come through the television. He seems to enjoy the news and “Captain Kangaroo” equally. But now that the old man has passed on, Chance is given no choice but to go out into the world on his own, for the very first time, and it’s a strange place that doesn’t necessarily work as it does on TV.

A chance encounter (of which there are a deliberate many in this film) with rich socialite (Shirley MacLaine) Eve Rand leads Chance into yet another privileged world – and thanks to him choking on a stiff drink at exactly the right moment – Chance the gardener is now known as Chauncey Gardiner. He befriends her dying husband, Benjamin (Melvyn Douglas), a political kingmaker. Ben appreciates what he interprets to be Chance’s straightforwardness and optimism. He gives this new old man hope in his final days. Before long, others feel similarly, and Chauncey Gardiner becomes the toast of Washington. He’s exactly what people need him to be, and says precisely what people want to hear, at any given moment – through no manipulation on his part. He is also, of course, oblivious to all the change he’s affecting around him.

“Being There” is largely a one-joke affair, but it’s an excruciatingly funny joke, and one that continues to build as the movie progresses. Even in its final, melancholy moments, the joke continues to be mined for everything it’s worth. Humor being the subjective animal that it is, there are bound to be people who don’t find it funny, although I’m not sure I’d like to have those people over for dinner. It’s possible I’m being too harsh, but having not seen this film in over 15 years, I found it every bit as fresh and resonant as it must have been when it came out 30 years ago.

Hal Ashby was one of the great directors of the ‘70s, and by the time he helmed “Being There,” he already helped to cinematically define the decade through such classics as “Harold and Maude,” “Shampoo,” “The Last Detail” and “Coming Home.” “Being There” was arguably his last great film, and it’s also an ideal big finish after the previous benchmarks. It’s with a sense of embarrassment that I admit an inability to pinpoint exactly what it is that defines a Hal Ashby film. They’re all so different, and yet there’s no denying that a man with a deep understanding of the ever-changing world around him was behind these features. It’s almost as if Ashby himself was a gift to each of the screenplays these movies were made from. Another director could have made “Being There” based on Jerzy Kosinski’s script, but it almost certainly would have been an entirely different and lesser work. Note the lengthy sequence when Chance first enters the real world: Ashby uses a funked-out, era-appropriate disco version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Why not use a classical rendition? Because that wouldn’t achieve the right tone. Instead, Deodato’s take is a perfect, comical meshing of the symphonies Chance has watched on TV his whole life, and the urban sprawl outside the front door.

Finally, there is Peter Sellers himself. The man 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. It’s almost as if the material had been beckoning him before it was even written. He’d played simpletons before, such as in “The Party,” and even his most famous character, Inspector Clouseau, was about three steps behind everyone else. And yet it does a huge disservice to his calculated work in this film to compare it to those broad, larger than life performances. Indeed, it’s unfortunate to realize that while “Being There” was being unveiled in theatres all over the world, I was very likely watching a “Pink Panther” entry on Sunday afternoon TV – oblivious to the Sellers renaissance happening around me. What separates Chance and the movie itself from those characters and films is that “Being There,” despite being a very funny movie, 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.

Deluxe Edition DVD Review:

Unfortunately, for a disc labeled “Deluxe Edition,” there’s precious little here to warrant the subtitle, and that’s the only aspect of this disc that keeps this from being a full, five star review. There’s only a theatrical trailer and a 15-minute featurette entitled “Memories from Being There.” The latter features actress Illeana Douglas (granddaughter of Melvyn) recounting time spent on the set as a child as well as her feelings and interpretations of the movie. It’s a wonderful reminiscence and analyzation, but hardly bumps the disc up into anything even remotely resembling “Deluxe.” In all fairness, though, many of the people involved in this film are dead, so it would’ve been tough to put a true celebration of the movie together. According to the press release, however, Blu-ray enthusiasts get a bit more: 10 minutes of never-before-seen additional footage, consisting of two recently discovered scenes, a gag take, and an alternate ending.

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