Director: Hal Ashby
Screenplay: Jerzy Kosinski, Robert C. Jones (uncredited)
Based on a Novel by: Jerzy Kosinski
Starring: Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Richard Dysart
Country: USA, West Germany
Running Time: 130 min
Hal Ashby was a force to be reckoned with in the 70s. After a successful career as an editor in the 60s, which saw him win an Oscar for his work on In the Heat of the Night, Ashby moved into directing with The Landlord in 1970. It didn’t make much money but was a critical success and throughout the rest of the decade, he directed a string of highly respected films, some of which (Shampoo most notably) did decent business at the box office too.
However, the 80s were a completely different story. Due, possibly, to drug problems and clashes with Lorimar, the organisation he formed a production company with, his projects were all disastrous or taken off his hands and tampered with. Sadly, he died of pancreatic cancer in 1988, so was taken from the world before he had a chance to climb back to the heights he enjoyed in the previous decade. Thankfully, we’re still left with those seven gems he made and one of his most beloved films is the final one he made in the 70s, Being There. Considered one of Peter Sellers’ best roles too, Criterion have deemed it worthy of inclusion in their illustrious collection and I was quick to snap up a copy to review.
Being There sees Sellers play Chance, a simple-minded, middle-aged man who’s spent his life shut-in as the gardener for a wealthy old man in Washington, DC. He’s never ventured out of the grounds, learning about the outside world via television, which he loves to watch.
When the man he works for dies, Chance is kicked out of the house, leaving him roaming the streets with no clue as to where to go or what to do. He soon gets a lucky break, however, when a limousine carrying Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), the younger wife of the incredibly rich and influential businessman Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas), accidentally backs into Chance. She takes him to her vast mansion, which has its own private clinic for the dying Ben. Eve and others at the estate assume Chance is a businessman, due to the way he is dressed (in his employer’s tailored clothes), so treat him as such and let him stay there while he recovers from his mild injury.
When questioned about his business and asked for advice about some of Rand’s ventures, the bewildered Chance talks about his gardening. Due to his calm, polite temperament, those around him assume he’s talking in deep, thoughtful metaphors. This leads to Chance being revered by Ben and later by the US president (played by Jack Warden), who comes to seek advice from Ben. This leads the unknowing Chance to become some sort of celebrity guru whose reputation progressively grows. Eve begins to fall in love with him too and Chance just follows along as he floats through this bizarre worship of his simple ways.
Being There is a film I’ve wanted to see for a long time and I’d heard great things, so my expectations were high. Thankfully they were met, for the most part.
It’s an unusual film, most notably due to its tone. It has a strange, calm, ‘floaty’ sort of atmosphere, largely due to the protagonist’s quiet, innocent demeanour, as well as Ashby’s elegant directorial style. Nothing is rushed. There’s no rapid editing or desire to push on to the next plot-point. The story is fairly slight in fact, particularly for what is quite a long film. You’re nonetheless kept gripped by the curious Chance as his life takes these unusual twists.
As careful and controlled as Ashby’s direction is though, the film wouldn’t work without Sellers’ fantastic central performance. In the wrong hands, a ‘simple’ character like that could have been grossly insensitive or pushed too far into ‘normality’ it could have made the fact so many people are drawn to Chance difficult to accept. Sellers treads the line very carefully and effectively. Although the audience is in on the joke and knows he isn’t actually a genius, his delivery is enigmatic enough for us to accept others do fall for it.
Speaking of being ‘in on the joke’. The film’s comedic slant is unusual too. The quiet, melancholic tone makes you forget you’re watching what is ostensibly a comedy, or at least a satire. The jokes sneak up on you here and there though. As such, it’s not a laugh-out-loud affair, but more of a ‘dramedy’. An ambiguous and daring final sequence takes the film down a fantastical path for a moment too. It’s an ending that can be read in numerous ways and is quite a shock to the system but nonetheless fits beautifully.
There are directions the film takes that I didn’t buy into though. In particular, I found the intense sexual attraction Eve and some other women (as well as at least one man) seemed to have for Chance hard to believe. I could accept that people would fall for his innocent charms as a companion and confidant, but not that anyone would want to tear his clothes off.
Overall though, I found it a strange, yet fascinating conundrum of a film. It’s funny yet melancholic, gentle yet bitingly satirical and touching yet a little distancing (in the way nobody truly understands Chance). Although quite a few fish-out-of-water or ‘misunderstood simpleton’ films have been made over the years, Being There feels unique, due largely to its odd, peaceful tone and pace. I didn’t always know quite what to make of it, and the sexual angle that crept in didn’t work for me, but I was still totally drawn to the film as it gently rolled along. Finely crafted and wonderfully performed, it’s an excellent film and further testament of Ashby’s skill behind the camera.
Being There is out on 6th January on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The newly restored transfer looks fantastic. The picture is flawless and the audio comes through beautifully too.
There’s a handful of special features included in the package:
– New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
– New documentary on the making of the film, featuring interviews with members of the production team
– Excerpts from a 1980 American Film Institute seminar with director Hal Ashby
– Author Jerzy Kosinski in a 1979 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show
– Appearances from 1980 by actor Peter Sellers on NBC’s Today and on The Don Lane Show
– Promo reel featuring Sellers and Ashby
– Trailer and TV spots
– Deleted scene, outtakes, and alternate ending
– PLUS: An essay by critic Mark Harris
The documentary is fairly lengthy so goes into considerable depth on the making of the film. The various talk show excerpts are very good too, largely being respectfully and intelligently hosted. Sellers does get to show off a couple of accents in one of the clips though. The seminar is also recommended, with Ashby proving a frank and insightful speaker. It’s surprising to see so many deleted scenes for quite an old film too. It’s rare to see them crop up for anything pre-90s.
The disc is missing a commentary perhaps and I’d have liked to hear the thoughts of a critic or historian about possible readings into the film rather than just the story of its production, but the pieces here are all well-curated and valuable additions to the set.