Film: Being There

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Film:

Being There

Director: Hal Ashby
Honors:
Genres:
Distributor: Warner Home Video

Thanks to an extraordinary, delicately balanced performance by Peter Sellers, Being There received mixed reviews during its theatrical release in 1979, but has since become a celebrated comedy with a loyal following. It's one of the most unusual black comedies ever made, simply because it stretches a simple premise over 130 minutes of straight-faced, strangely compelling commentary on politics, media, and celebrity in media-savvy America. Adapted by Jerzy Kozinsky from his own novel, the movie's about a simple-minded, middle-aged gardener who, after a lifetime of seclusion and safety in a Washington, D.C. townhouse, gets his first exposure to reality beyond the walls of his sheltered existence. His only reference to the world is through his childlike addiction to television, and when a chance encounter brings him into the inner fold of a dying billionaire (Melvyn Douglas), he suddenly finds himself the toast of Washington's political elite. His simple phrases about gardening are misinterpreted as anything from economic predictions to sage political advice, and under the sharp direction of Hal Ashby, Sellers has the audacity to take this comedic conceit to its logical extreme. Being There is not for all tastes--especially not for those who don't appreciate comedic subtlety. But as a showcase for the daring genius of Peter Sellers, this is a classic movie in a category all its own. --Jeff Shannon

Reviews

Amazon.com

Thanks to an extraordinary, delicately balanced performance by Peter Sellers, Being There received mixed reviews during its theatrical release in 1979, but has since become a celebrated comedy with a loyal following. It’s one of the most unusual black comedies ever made, simply because it stretches a simple premise over 130 minutes of straight-faced, strangely compelling commentary on politics, media, and celebrity in media-savvy America. Adapted by Jerzy Kozinsky from his own novel, the movie’s about a simple-minded, middle-aged gardener who, after a lifetime of seclusion and safety in a Washington, D.C. townhouse, gets his first exposure to reality beyond the walls of his sheltered existence. His only reference to the world is through his childlike addiction to television, and when a chance encounter brings him into the inner fold of a dying billionaire (Melvyn Douglas), he suddenly finds himself the toast of Washington’s political elite. His simple phrases about gardening are misinterpreted as anything from economic predictions to sage political advice, and under the sharp direction of Hal Ashby, Sellers has the audacity to take this comedic conceit to its logical extreme. Being There is not for all tastes—especially not for those who don’t appreciate comedic subtlety. But as a showcase for the daring genius of Peter Sellers, this is a classic movie in a category all its own. —Jeff Shannon

Hal Ashby’s much-praised Being There stars Peter Sellers in what was perhaps his finest comic performance. Chance the gardener has spent his entire life in an old man’s house and has no idea of the world outside except for what television has given him. Sellers manages to make his innocence touching and oddly impressive rather than an offensive exploitation of disability. Jerzy Kozinski’s screenplay neither entirely endorses nor discounts the twin possibilities that Chance’s simplicity and closeness to the natural world give him access to real wisdom, or that he is simply a blank on whom people project what they want to see and hear. What is clear is that he gives his dying friend Ben (Jack Warden) peace of mind and consoles Ben’s wife (Shirley Maclaine). Whether he’s being groomed for the Presidency or appearing to walk on water, he always does something right, and the same is true for Sellers’ minimalist performance. —Roz Kaveny

Barnes and Noble

A generally faithful adaptation of Jerzy N. Kosinski’s quirky comic novel that is blessed with a devastatingly hilarious deadpan performance by top-billed Peter Sellers, Being There examines contemporary America’s cultural life and finds it wanting in many ways. Sellers plays Chauncey Gardner, a middle-aged, sheltered illiterate who spends most of his waking hours watching TV, from which he gleans what little he knows of life. A bizarre series of events catapults him into the inner circle of a politically active industrialist (veteran actor Melvyn Douglas in an Oscar-winning turn), who mistakes Chauncey’s childlike rejoinders for profundity and proposes that he run for president. Kosinski’s script, rife with absurdities but savagely witty and unsparing in its digs at the intelligentsia and the political elite, is visualized with elan by director Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude), who keeps a tight rein on the normally irrepressible Sellers. Among the supporting players, Shirley MacLaine is deliciously subtle as the smitten woman whose amorous advances go right over Chauncey’s head, and Jack Warden appears to advantage in one of his customarily blustery characterizations. Being There occasionally drags, and its humor isn’t the type to provoke sustained belly laughs. But it’s a thoughtful, substantive comedy that rewards patient viewers and yields additional treasure with repeated viewings. The DVD includes cast/director highlights. Ed Hulse

Related Works

Book:Being There

Being There

Jerzy N. Kosinski

Chauncey Gardiner is the great enigma: a hero of the American media. TV loves him; print pursues him. He is a household face; the one everybody is talking about. Nobody knows what he is talking about or where he has come from, but everybody knows he has come to money, power and sex. Was he led to all this by the lovely, well-connected wife of a dying Wall Street tycoon? Or is Chauncey Gardiner riding the waves all by himself because, like a TV image, he floated into the world buoyed up by a force he did not see and could not name? Does he know something we don’t? Will he fail? Will he ever be unhappy? The reader must decide.

Being There is one of those rare books which echoes in the mind long after you have finished it. It will survive as a seminal work of the Seventies.” —New York Post.

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