Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Hal Ashby|
|Produced by||Andrew Braunsberg|
|Screenplay by||Jerzy Kosinski
Robert C. Jones
|Based on||Being There
by Jerzy Kosinski
|Music by||Johnny Mandel|
|Edited by||Don Zimmerman|
|Distributed by||United Artists|
Being There is a 1979 American comedy-drama film directed by Hal Ashby. Adapted from the 1970 novella by Jerzy Kosinski, the screenplay was written by Kosinski and the uncredited Robert C. Jones. The film stars Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Richard A. Dysart, and Richard Basehart.
Douglas won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Sellers was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. The screenplay won the 1981 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Film) Best Screenplay Award and the 1980 Writers Guild of America Award (Screen) for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium. It was also nominated for the 1980 Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay.
Being There was the last film featuring Sellers to be released in his lifetime. The making of the film is portrayed in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, a biographical film of Sellers' life.
Chance (Peter Sellers) is a middle-aged man who lives in the townhouse of an old, wealthy man in Washington, D.C. He is simple-minded and has lived there his whole life, tending the garden. Other than gardening, his knowledge is derived entirely from what he sees on television. When his benefactor dies, Chance naively says he has no claim against the estate, and is ordered to move out. Thus he discovers the outside world for the first time.
Chance wanders aimlessly. He passes by a TV shop and sees himself captured by a camera in the shop window. Entranced, he steps backward off the sidewalk and is struck by a chauffeured car owned by Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas), an elderly business mogul. In the back seat of the car sits Rand's wife, Eve (Shirley MacLaine).
Eve brings Chance to their home to recover. Drinking alcohol for the first time during the car ride home, Chance coughs as he tells Eve his name. Eve mishears "Chance, the gardener" as "Chauncey Gardiner". Chance is wearing expensive tailored clothes from the 1920s and '30s, which his benefactor had allowed him to take from the attic, and his manners are old-fashioned and courtly. When Ben Rand meets him, he assumes from these signs that Chance is an upper-class, highly educated businessman. Chance's simple words, spoken often due to confusion or to a stating of the obvious, or to his constant desire to speak about his garden, are repeatedly misunderstood as profound; Ben Rand finds him direct and insightful, qualities which he admires. Chance's simplistic utterances about gardens and the weather are interpreted as allegorical statements about business and the state of the economy.
Rand is also a confidant and adviser to the President of the United States, (Jack Warden), whom he introduces to "Chauncey". The president likewise interprets Chance's remarks about the garden as economic and political advice. Chance, as Chauncey Gardiner, quickly rises to national public prominence. After his appearance on a television talk show, he becomes a media celebrity and soon rises to the top of Washington society. He remains very mysterious, as the Secret Service is unable to find any background information about him. Public opinion polls start to reflect just how much his "simple brand of wisdom" resonates with the jaded American public.
Rand, dying of aplastic anemia, encourages Eve to become close to Chance. She is already attracted to him and makes a sexual advance. Chance is asexual, but mimics a kissing scene that happens to be on the TV just then. When the TV scene ends, Chance stops suddenly and Eve is confused. She asks what he likes, meaning sexually; he replies "I like to watch", meaning television. She is momentarily taken aback, but decides she is willing to masturbate for his voyeuristic pleasure. As she becomes involved in the act, she does not notice that he has turned back to the TV and is watching it, not her.
Chance is present at Rand's passing, after which he talks briefly with Rand's physician, Dr. Allenby. Allenby confirms for himself what he had come to suspect, that the man in their midst is not the genius Chauncey Gardiner everyone believes him to be, but the simpleton Chance the gardener; however Allenby seems unperturbed by this revelation, repeating to himself Chance's comment, "I understand," the only character who realizes the true situation. At Rand's funeral, while the president delivers a speech, members of Congress hold a whispered discussion over potential replacements for the President in the next term of office. As Rand's coffin is about to be interred in the family mausoleum, they unanimously agree on "Chauncey Gardiner".
Oblivious of all this, Chance wanders through Rand's wintry estate. He straightens out a pine sapling and then walks off across the surface of a small lake. He pauses, dips his umbrella into the deep water under his feet as if testing its depth, turns, and then continues to walk on the water as the president quotes Rand: "Life is a state of mind."
- Peter Sellers as Chance the Gardener, a.k.a. Chauncey Gardiner
- Shirley MacLaine as Eve Rand
- Melvyn Douglas as Ben Rand
- Jack Warden as The President
- Richard A. Dysart as Dr. Robert Allenby
- Richard Basehart as Vladimir Skrapinov, US Soviet Ambassador
- Than Wyenn as Ambassador Gaufridi
- David Clennon as Thomas Franklin
- Fran Brill as Sally Hayes
- Ruth Attaway as Louise
- Denise DuBarry as Johanna (Thomas Franklin's Wife or Girlfriend?)
- Sam Weisman as Colson
- Arthur Rosenberg as Morton Hull
- Jerome Hellman as Gary Burns
- James Noble as Kaufman
- John Harkins as Courtney
- Elya Baskin as Karpatov
- Oteil Burbridge as Lolo (Boy on Corner)
- Hoyt Clark Harris, Jr. as Riff, Secret Service agent
Incidental music is used very sparingly. What little original music is used was composed by Johnny Mandel, and primarily features two recurrent piano themes based on "Gnossiennes" No. 4 and No. 5 by Erik Satie. The other major piece of music used is the Eumir Deodato jazz/funk arrangement of the opening fanfare from Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss.
The film opened to positive reviews and helped revitalize Sellers' comic career after he landed many movie flops, except for the Pink Panther movies. Film critic Roger Ebert mentions the final scene in his 2005 book The Great Movies II (p. 52), stating that his film students once suggested that Chance may be walking on a submerged pier. Ebert writes, "The movie presents us with an image, and while you may discuss the meaning of the image, it is not permitted to devise explanations for it. Since Ashby does not show a pier, there is no pier — a movie is exactly what it shows us, and nothing more."
Sellers won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for his performance in Being There. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor as well at the 52nd Academy Awards, but he lost to Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer. Hoffman, upon receiving the award, remarked that he refused to believe that he had beaten Sellers, or any of the other nominees.
The credits at the film's end roll over a humorous outtake, known as the "Rafael outtake." Sellers was later displeased that the outtake ran because he believed it took away from Chauncey's mystique.
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