Hal Ashby’s last great film is also probably his best work other than Harold and Maude, and it’s virtually a toss-up as to which of the two is the better movie. I have a personal preference for Harold and Maude, but it’s such a very near thing that it scarcely matters. Like most great films, Being There is one of those movies that always seems fresh and relevant. In fact, this is one instance where the work seems more relevant to our own era than it did during its own time; the film appeared in 1979, when we were still a year-plus away from the concept of a “feel-good presidency.”
The film stars the great Peter Sellers in what is probably his finest and yet most atypical role: He plays the mild-mannered, mentally challenged Chance, a gardener in his later years who has never even left his employer’s estate. His life changes when his employer dies and he is thrust into the outside world. Wearing his late master’s clothes, he’s immediately taken as a man of some importance, and since Chance isn’t a proper name, people mistakenly assume his first name is Chauncey and that his previous occupation must be his last name.
“Chauncey Gardiner’s” world view, such as it is, is cobbled together from what he’s seen on TV. You can’t even call what he’s assimilated “half-digested,” since he scarcely does more than repeat what he’s heard. And when he repeats these things, his remarks — which today we’d call sound bites — are taken as the last word in profundity.
He quickly finds himself a celebrated figure, whose presence and opinions are eagerly sought by the rich and powerful. What could have been just a long sequence of fantasies (predicated on the curious belief that the mentally challenged and/or mentally afflicted are mystically smarter or wiser than so-called normal people) is turned into a richly satirical examination of that mindset.
And Sellers’ portrayal of Chance as a kind of “holy innocent” (an impression made most clear in the film’s final image) is far removed from the facile coziness of the kind of stock portrayals one finds with Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Sean Penn in I Am Sam or Cuba Gooding Jr. in Radio. Here there’s no reliance on the patented mannerisms for portraying the mentally challenged, such as Lon Chaney Jr.’s Lennie in Of Mice and Men. Of course, this makes sense, in that it’s hard to imagine the stock approach working in a story where the character is mistaken for a giant intellect.
But more to the point, Chance actually isn’t profound at all. What he says has no clear meaning to him. If he’s smarter than the people around him, it’s only because they’re so desperate for someone to follow that they’ll readily follow a man with barely a single thought in his head. Chance is never a figure of fun because he’s so genuine — and that counts for much in the film, which is surprisingly humane. Some of Chance’s supporters are indeed presented as boobs, but through him, others find answers within themselves — even if they think they got those answers from him. Rated PG.
[This altogether remarkable film — which is also by far the best movie ever to use the Biltmore Estate as a location — will be featured at the Walk-In Theater at dusk on Friday, July 8, in the parking lot behind the Bledsoe Building in West Asheville. The film is sponsored by Orbit DVD and the merchants of the Bledsoe Building. Admission is free — and once again, please leave pets and alcohol at home.]
— reviewed by Ken Hanke