Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979)
USA, 1979 Dir: Hal Ashby
Starring Peter Sellers, Shirley Maclaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Richard A. Dysart, Richard Basehart.
This week sees the 30th anniversary DVD release of Hal Ashby’s comic fable Being There, the film which gave Peter Sellers his last great role. Sellers had become obsessed with Jerzy Kosinski’s novella Being There since the early 1970’s, fascinated by the character of Chance the Gardener, a man with hardly any personality but whom others see in him whatever character they want to see. Clearly tapping into Sellers’ anxiety of ‘who was the man behind the actor’s mask’ (he was famously quoted as saying “there used to be a me behind the mask, but I had it surgically removed”), the character of Chance represented the ultimate challenge for the actor. The story concerns the quiet and simple Chance, isolated from the world as a gardener in a private townhouse and learning all he needs to know through television, who through a chain of fortuity and misunderstanding becomes an important and influential figure in US high office, to the extent that his associates ultimately consider him as a Presidential candidate. Chance’s lack of personality and his short uncomplicated replies are seen by others as highly intelligent statements of great depth and profundity, essentially using Chance’s blank canvas to paint any picture they want on to it.
The film is deliberatley slow paced, befitting Chance’s measured nature, but there are several wonderful scenes throughout. As Chance first embarks on his lonely path back into society and towards his fate, we see him walking down the centre of a busy highway accompanied by a funk version of Also Sprach Zarathustra a la 2001: A Space Odyssey, highlighting the exploratory nature of this all-new territory. Later, when Shirley Maclaine’s sexually deprived Eve seduces Chance, she is unaware that he is entirely focused on watching television, resulting in one of the most bizarre sex scenes in cinema history! The film ends in the realms of the fantastic, with Chance apparently walking on water, raising questions as to whether his fated path was really so coincidental.
Being There is surely the most gentle and thoughtful black satire ever made. Hal Ashby’s delicate direction is underrated, given that the film is generally regarded as a ‘Peter Sellers movie’, but afterall it was Sellers’ last film completed and released during his lifetime (his last film, released after his death, was a weak comedy of Fu Manchu, and the least said about the cobbled together Pink Panther sequels the better!). Sellers’ performance is understated and mesmeric (he said he had partly based his interpretation on the lackadaisical style of Stan Laurel) and netted him his first Oscar-nomination for Best Actor since Dr. Strangelove in 1964. Sadly he lost out to Dustin Hoffman in Kramer Vs. Kramer and to rub salt in the wounds his co-star Melvyn Douglas won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Sellers died from a heart attack on 24th July 1980, aged just 54. This delightful story of chance remains a fitting finale to a career encompassing many compelling and hilarious performances.