A simple-minded gardener named Chance has spent all his life in the Washington D.C. house of an old man. When the man dies, Chance is put out on the street with no knowledge of the world except what he has learned from television. After a run in with a limousine, he ends up a guest of a woman (Eve) and her husband Ben, an influential but sickly businessman. Now called Chauncey Gardner, Chance becomes friend and confidante to Ben, and an unlikely political insider.
Peter Sellers ... Chance the Gardener
Shirley MacLaine ... Eve Rand
Melvyn Douglas ... Benjamin Turnbull Rand
Jack Warden ... President
Richard Dysart ... Dr. Robert Allenby
Richard Basehart ... Vladimir Skrapinov
Ruth Attaway ... Louise
David Clennon ... Thomas Franklin
Fran Brill ... Sally Hayes
Denise DuBarry ... Johanna
Oteil Burbridge ... Lolo
Ravenell Keller III ... Abraz
"To see me as a person on screen would be one of the dullest experiences you could ever wish to experience" - quote from Peter Sellers.
Peter Sellers had many quotes like this in which he spoke of his near self-hatred, hated seeing himself, and that when he was not doing comedy, he was dull and unfunny. That makes his portrayal of Chauncey Gardner that much more amazing, because he portrays a very simple man totally comfortable within himself.
Being There is a great film. It deals with a simple premise - if you act in a certain way, people will make unquestioned assumptions about you. Chauncy is slow witted and has the mind of small child, and all that he knows in gardening. However, he dresses in nice suits, has impeccable manners and is not shy, so he is accepted into social circles. When he speaks of gardening, his ramblings are mistaken for metaphors and he is instantly considered an economic genius.
This is wrapped around a beautiful film, in which Chauncey wanders from one circumstance into another, never changing his demeanor, never faltering. I an reminded of Mr Magoo walking blindly down a succession of steel girders thinking they are stairs. Essentially, he is not in peril because he does not know he is in peril. The charm of this film exists in Chauncey's unwavering personality, and how it affects the world of phonies and bureaucrats he has come to inhabit.
Although the film sometimes comes across as forced, and some of the encounters with Eve (Shirley MacLaine) come off forced, the film is still a masterpiece. Its theme and Sellers' stunning performance lauch it into the catoegory of greatness.
There is much debate amongst the lovers of this film over its final scene. If you have not seen it, rent it, and draw your conclusions. Like many great movies steeped in mood and metaphor, we are left to draw our own conclusions.
The phrase "I like to watch" has become so famous from this movie - it refers to Chauncey's love for TV and the fact that it is his reference point for his existance. (Such has when he tries to click a remote to thwart off muggers). But there is a great deal more to Being There. It is a Top 10 Selection of 70s, Hal Ashby's best film and Peter Sellers greatest performance.
On the face of it, this was always going to be a cinematic treat. Hal Ashby, who in my opinion had the greatest sense of humour in Hollywood directing Peter Sellers, one of the finest comic actors of all time.
What i didn't expect was an excellent supporting cast with superb performances from Shirley MacLaine and Melvyn Douglas and a watertight script from Kosinski. What gave me the biggest pleasure was Ashby's subtle portrayal of his own politics. Sellers' character's rise and rise is set against, in the beginning at least, images of the socially deprived. In most of Ashby's films there is a strong sense of the anti-establishment but what is brilliant in this movie is that Ashby gets inside the establishment to ridicule it and yet at the same time bring across a strong sense of humanity in the richer character's isolation and loneliness.
Politics or not Ashby's perfect pacing bring the best out of Sellers whose film career, Strangelove aside, was hit and miss. This movie is definitely a hit from the most underrated film director Hollywood has ever had the arrogance to forget to miss.
I had no expectations when watching this movie, in fact all I knew was that Peter Sellars was in it after watching a biography on him on TV. As it wore on, I thought it no more than average; the plots were more than a little far-fetched, the story slow, and very little action in it.
But... the ending. Wow. I never expecting that coming. Suddenly everything starts to fall into place. 'Chance' is some sort of angelic figure. No wonder he seems aloof! Can he speak Russian? Maybe. His timeless appearance also starts to make sense; his pristine suits and otherworldly manner. Suddenly many of the scenes in the movie make sense. His lack of attraction to women, his total innocence in the ways of the world, his instant likeability. Is his story in this movie luck, or divine intervention? One thing is for sure - Chance knows a hell of a lot more than he lets on.
I, for one, really enjoyed this movie and look forward to watching it again to find all the little references I missed the first time. There are quite a few. Excellently written!
* Every contract that Peter Sellers signs includes a clause which stipulates that his accommodation must have the bed facing East-West. Chance says: "I like to sleep with my head facing North". The attorney he's with says "But this bed is facing west!"
* In different versions, the credits are either shown over retakes of Chance saying a line that was not in the movie, or (for TV and video) shown over TV white noise.
* Henry B. Dawkins, who plays Billings-the X-Ray Technician, really was an X-Ray Technician. He was the head of the Radiology Department at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College (in Asheville, North Carolina, one of the shooting locations of this film) in the early 1990's.
* Despite Sellers' repeated requests, the producers would not remove the out-takes from the version they submitted to Cannes.
* Peter Sellers patterned the voice for Chance the gardener after his idol, Stan Laurel.
* The Mansion used in the movie was The Biltmore Mansion in North Carolina.
* Laurence Olivier was offered the role of Benjamin Rand, but passed when he read the completed script. He said he didn't want to be in a movie where Shirley MacLaine has to masturbate.
* Originally there was a different last shot planned for the funeral sequence at the end of the film. Director Hal Ashby was chatting with another director one day about filming when he commented how well everything was going. "It's like walking on air," he said, then suddenly was struck with a thought. He changed the last shot to the one that appears now in the movie.
* The inscription "Life is a state of mind" is on Rand's tomb and also serves as the last line in the movie. These words were also inscribed on Sellers' own tomb, when he died a year after the movie was released.
* It took Sellers' nearly nine years to get this movie made by a studio, mostly because by the 1970s Sellers' career had hit rock bottom and no studio in Hollywood would dare work with him. After the revival (and success) of the Pink Panther movies, Lorimar pictures finally greenlit the project.
* Peter Sellers was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor. Some said the reason Sellers lost was because of the outtakes at the very end of the movie as the credits are rolling. Sellers himself later said the outtakes "broke the spell" of the movie.
* Shirley MacLaine's masturbation scene was shot seventeen times.
* After the novel's release and the subsequent purchase of rights to the book, Peter Sellers successfully lobbied for the lead role by sending a telegram to author Jerzy Kozinski with the message "Gardener available for work". It was during casting and after the success of the later Pink Panther movies that Sellers was the only choice for the lead role.
SPOILER: The South African Publications Control Board ordered that the final minutes of this film be cut from the South African release print as the scene showing Chance walking on the water surface “might offend many South African Christians".