Reviews of Classic Movies: ‘Being There’ cuts ever deeper as social media gets louder

Peter Sellers stars in  Being There , directed by Hal Ashby.

Peter Sellers stars in Being There, directed by Hal Ashby.

Interpreting a piece of media – whether it’s a movie, a TV show, or something as fleeting as a meme – seems to get more fraught by the day. Look no further than the vicious dialogue around the new Star Wars films, wherein a small but distractingly loud minority of fans appear to purposefully misunderstand new films in the series, and attack anyone who doesn’t agree. No matter what decision a filmmaker makes, there’s someone waiting out there to make a 30-minute video treatise on how they feel personally offended by it.

You can extend this behaviour to the social and political spheres, as well. We often find ourselves bitterly fighting online wars about political correctness, misguided marketing, or the beliefs of a particular public figure. In a deeply divided time, it’s easier than ever for figures spouting slogans and empty rhetoric to run up the middle (intentionally or not) and claim undue attention.

This is the central premise of Hal Ashby’s film Being There, a black comedy from 1979 that seems just a relevant today as it was forty years ago. The movie wonders, “What if an unfailingly polite, but mentally disabled gardener (Peter Sellers), mistaken for a wealthy genius, is welcomed into the circles of power?” What if his bland pronouncements about the growing cycles of the seasons are interpreted as bold ideas for the American economy?

Chance the gardener, obsessed with his TV.

Chance the gardener, obsessed with his TV.

Sellers plays Chance, who was adopted at a young age by a wealthy man in Washington, D.C. Chance spends his entire life in the old man’s home, never going outside or receiving an education. Chance’s only activities are tending the garden and watching TV. In fact, his TV habit is so pronounced that there are TV sets everywhere in the house, and he treats his remote control as a prized possession.

When Chance’s benefactor dies at the beginning of the film, Chance is cast out into the world for the first time. Over the course of a day, he wanders across the city, not even knowing how to find food for himself without his benefactor’s maid to prepare his lunch. And then a sudden encounter with Eve (Shirley MacLaine), the wife of an elderly tycoon (Melvyn Douglas), draws Chance into a network of political influence.

Mistaking Chance’s simplistic outlook for mystique and intelligence, Eve invites Chance to stay with her and her husband at their palatial home. Chance soon charms the old man and finds himself being drawn into discussions with the President, TV appearances, and ritzy parties. All the while, Chance passively looks on as everyone ascribes their own preoccupations and beliefs to him, when all he wants to do is watch TV.

The movie is a subtle, but damning representation of modern politics. We’re invited to wonder how many of our leaders and public intellectuals are really know-nothings who were lucky enough to stumble into recognition and respect. At the time Ashby (perhaps best known for Harold and Maude) was working on Being There, the political climate in the United States was nowhere near as charged as it is today. But even in the late 1970s, Ashby clearly felt that something was deeply wrong with the social and political spheres of American life. Perhaps inspired by Ronald Reagan’s rise to power, he turned to Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970 novel for a film adaptation.

Chance finds himself staying with Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), and her husband, a prominent businessman.

Chance finds himself staying with Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), and her husband, a prominent businessman.

But the premise only gets us so far. Sellers’ performance is vital in delivering the deadpan tone of the film; a performance with too much comedy or seriousness might have sent the film veering into Saturday Night Live territory. As Chance, Sellers is eerily placid and pliable. It’s such an unexpected and committed choice that it’s easy to accept how a person like that could be entirely reshaped by those around him. Some people might expect that a life entirely structured by TV would turn someone into a boorish loudmouth, but Chance’s reality seems more likely: one of the most passive activities creates a static sponge of a person.

As troubling as the lesson in Being There may be, there’s still something oddly beautiful about the way Ashby renders Chance’s experience. Unlike some real-life political figures who might share some of Chance’s qualities – specifically, an obsession with TV and an absurd rise to influence – Chance has no narcissistic or megalomaniacal urges. His childlike attitude makes us care for him, even if his words send other characters into a frenzy.

This is encapsulated in the movie’s final image, a sudden instance of magic realism that cements the idea of Chance being effortlessly above the fray for reasons completely unknown to him. It’s perhaps the first time in the film that we want to be the character: his inner peace and his insulation from the chaos of the outside world seem very attractive. The sequence may be the most perfect metaphor for what it’s like to delete your social media accounts and stop following the news. If that can be said about a movie 39 years after its release, who knows how much more relevant Being There will become in the future.

Being There gets three and a half stars out of four.

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