Film review by Michael Jacobson
Technical specs by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Peter Sellers,
Shirley MacLaine, Jack Warden, Melvyn Douglas, Richard Dysart, Richard Basehart
Director: Hal Ashby
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 130 Minutes
Release Date: March 21, 2017
“Life is a state of mind.”
Being There is a strange, unique film that stirs the waters and comes up with comedy, social commentary, indictments of television, and how groomed we are to take a man who dresses well, seems to speak well, and has nothing intelligent to say as a potential president. I’d say at this point that this 1979 Oscar winning film was disturbingly prophetic, if nothing else.
But it’s much more than that. The film centers around an iconic performance from the legendary Peter Sellers as Chance, a simple minded gardener who finds himself moving in higher and more powerful circles through no effort of his own. In fact, when we first meet him, we learn the “old man” who had been his employer of sorts has passed, leaving the childlike Chance without a home and out in the world for the first time in his life.
The real world is no place for a man like Chance, who only knows about life from television, and can’t understand why a threatening situation doesn’t go away when he points his remote at it. But providence sometimes looks after fools, and an accident put him in the care of a wealthy couple, the dying Ben Rand (Douglas, in an Oscar winning role) and his wife, Eve (MacLaine).
He introduces himself as “Chance, the gardener”, but everyone hears “Chauncey Gardiner”. Chance dresses well, thanks to the use of his old boss’s suits, and he’s polite and speaks in a gentle manner. No one seems to care that his words are empty and there’s no real thought behind them, and soon a man who can’t even read or write is advising Ben and even the President.
Over the two hour plus running time, you can’t be criticized if you start wondering how long the joke can hold out. Well, considering the real joke is not on Chance, but on the people around him (and us, I suppose), the answer is that as long as we live comfortably in our illusions of what constitutes great thinking and philosophy, we’re liable ourselves to carry the joke to its inevitable conclusion, including who we decide is prepared for the most powerful position in the world.
Peter Sellers is an absolute marvel as Chance. The actor, capable of the most eccentric and physical comedy imaginable, shows remarkable restraint. The story focuses on him even though he never calls attention to himself. In fact, the whole cast is first rate, but it’s no wonder that Chance is considered such a signature role for Sellers.
It’s not a perfect movie…the comedy is sometimes a little uneven, and notions such as Eve’s embarrassing seduction of Chance and the President’s own bedroom problems induce more squirms than laughs, and sometimes seem out of touch with the rest of the movie’s gentle, winning spirit.
Yet the film is designed in such a way to leave you with one thought and one image. It’s the simple Chance, strolling out onto the surface of a lake, doing what only one man in history has ever done before. Is it meant to be an allusive comparison? Or is it providence once again looking out for a sweet, simple fool?
I don’t have the answer, and I’m not sure anyone does. Take it for what it is. Maybe we shouldn’t take it to heart when we find the people we project our hopes and dreams upon end up not able to walk on water. Chance may just have ended up as the perfect embodiment of our desires, and as such, he cannot exist in the real world. But as I said…the real world is no place for a man like Chance.
BONUS TRIVIA: Melvyn Douglas and Peter Sellers knew each other from army days, though one was from America and one was from Britain.
This was my first time seeing the film, and I can certainly say that, filmmaking wise, it does not look at all like a film that was made in 1979. And with a brand new 4k restoration (supervised by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel), it looks more distinctive than ever. The overall image is certainly vibrant from beginning to end, with black levels appearing in superbly rich form. The detail in the picture is also quite extraordinary, with The Biltmore House in Asheville, NC (where a great deal of the film was shot) looking as beautiful as ever. I can’t imagine any other existing release of this film surpassing the quality of this marvelous work from Criterion.
With a PCM Mono mix, this delivers exactly what one would expect from a dialogue driven piece made in the late 70s. But the sound mix is nonetheless strong in its delivery of dialogue, various music cues, and a number of key background sounds, most notably that of the television shows our lead character is frequently watching (most of which is heard off screen).
This Criterion Blu-ray is another grand release with some truly terrific supplements, including a new documentary on the making of the film, which features interviews with various crew members. We also get excepts from a 1980 American Film Institute seminar with director Hal Ashby, as well as a fantastic segment with author Jerzy Kosinski from The Dick Cavett Show. There’s also terrific interview pieces with Peter Sellers from both NBC's Today and The Don Lane Show, plus a promo reel featuring Sellers and Ashby. Rounding out the package are a Trailer and TV Spots, Deleted Scenes, Outtakes, and Alternate Ending. Lastly, there’s a wonderful insert featuring an essay by critic Mark Harris.
Being There is the kind of movie we don’t see much of anymore…flawed in the margins, but near perfect in execution, and one with so much faith in its characters and premises that it makes everything seem logical and the absurd seem grounded and real.