NetflixIt! "Being There" DVD Movie Review (1979)

1/28/2010 Posted by Admin

DVD, Movie Review

"Being There"

Directed by Hal Ashby, Written by Jerzy Kosinski and Robert C. Jones, 130 Minutes, Rated PG.

By our guest blogger, Rob Stammitti

"Being There" was the final film appearance of genius comic actor Peter Sellers before his death in 1980. Despite the fact that Sellers is generally remembered more for his performances in "Dr. Strangelove" and the "Pink Panther" films, "Being There" is in many ways the essential Sellers role, and the actor spent his entire career waiting for a dramatic role. It was worth the wait--it is by far his greatest performance.

Sellers plays Chance, a man raised (as an orphan or otherwise, we aren't told) in a house in Washington D.C.  He has received no education and has never journeyed into the outside world. He is simple-minded, almost blank. Everything he knows he learned from watching television, which he has on at all hours of the day. He's a gardener for the household, but upon the death of the old man who lives there, Chance is forced to leave and to enter a world he does not know or understand.

By sheer fate, the car of wealthy businessman Ben Rand accidentally backs into Chance as he walks aimlessly downtown. The wife of the businessman, a Mrs. Eva Rand (Shirley MacLaine), asks him to come back to their home to have his leg looked at in case he was injured. There he meets Ben (Melvyn Douglas, who received an Oscar for his performance), a very old man who has very little time to live. He asks Chance to stay for dinner. After some misunderstandings, the Rand couple believes Chance to be named Chauncy Gardiner, and they take his simple-mindedness and minimal speech for low-key brilliance and profundity. This mistake soon spreads to everyone Chance meets, including Ben's good friend, the President of the United States.

It's not long before the President starts quoting Chance in speeches and the gardener becomes an unexpected media phenomenon.

"Being There" is quite a simple film, taking place almost entirely on the Rand estate and exploring societal detachment, the upper-class and finding hope in the simplest things. Director Hal Ashby uses Chance as a rather disconnected figure in which to view this extravagant world--the gardener has very little personality to speak of, but the people meets are able to project everything they desire into his personality. Eva is a lonely woman--she finds love and acceptance in Chance. Ben finds his personality and philosophies (really all just gardening tips) refreshing, and he is ultimately able to find peace with death because of him.

No matter what the purpose or plot of the film, however, it all belongs to Peter Sellers from beginning to end. He has an immense level of detachment, but there are so many subtle emotions in his performance, and even in his overall obliviousness you cannot help but fall in love with him. Perhaps it's because he serves as a blank slate upon which the viewer can project as well. Sellers received an Oscar-nomination for the performance, which he unfortunately didn't win, but it truly is his best.

Ashby, known predominately for his cult-hit "Harold and Maude," maintains a similar balance of drama and comedy here, though sometimes the attempts at comedy are a bit less and amusing and feel either out of place or entirely inappopriate. He also has a somewhat uneasy detached style in his direction, like his main character, which works some times and doesn't on other occasions.

Overall, "Being There" is not a perfect film, but Sellers does give a perfect performance that serves as a fantastic swan song for the brilliant actor, and the film is often quite beautiful and life-affirming, especially during the poignant finale. Surely one of the essential drama-comedies of the 1970s and a must-see for any fan of Sellers.

Grade: B

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  1. Kathy said...

    Thank you for the reminder of what a great performance this was, you made me want to see it again.