By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
Directed by Hal Ashby
Warner Bros. 12/79 DVD/VHS Feature Film
"The emergence of celebrity in America is not based on depth," writes Jerzy Kosinski. "It is based on visibility and accessibility, a smile, a figure. It is based on appearing as a person of importance. The question asked is not 'Is he a good man?' It's 'what circles does he move in?' " Being There is a very funny and thought-provoking movie that can be seen as a fairy tale, a political story, and a religious parable on the nature of identity in a media age. Director Hal Ashby's adaptation of Kosinski's 1971 novel is a tour de force of sensitivity and well-realized pacing.
Chance (Peter Sellers), an individual of mysterious origins, is the gardener in the Washington house of a wealthy and eccentric old man. His only pastime is watching television. When the owner dies, the lawyers for the estate force Chance to leave. He finds himself out on the street with no birth certificate, driver's license, checkbook, or medical records. And Chance can't read or write.
Dressed in one of his employer's custom-tailored suits, he looks like a successful businessman. At least that's what Eve (Shirley MacLaine), the wife of a rich and powerful industrialist, thinks when her limousine bruises his leg. She offers to have a doctor check him at her home. When he says, "I am Chance, the gardener," she hears, "I am Chauncey Gardiner." Her husband Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas), an old and ailing patriarch, takes an immediate liking to the soft-spoken and self-confident visitor. Chance is asked to stay with them during his recuperation.
While the President (Jack Warden) is in a meeting with Rand, he asks Chauncey's opinion of the economy. "In a garden, growth has its season . . . as long as the roots are not severed, all will be well." The Chief Executive uses the line in a speech and the press is soon clamoring to know more about this new economic advisor. Invited to appear on TV, Chauncey is an instant success. Although Rand's doctor (Richard Dysart) has his doubts about the man, both the CIA and the FBI fail to come up with any information on him. Chauncey wows a Russian diplomat at a reception on Capitol Hill and is eventually seduced by Eve. In the end, Rand dies and passes on both his estate and his wife to Chauncey. There is even talk among influential businessmen that Mr. Gardiner is presidential material.
One of the hallmarks of a parable of this type is that it can serve as host to a treasure trove of interpretations. Here are a few to try on: play with the idea of Chance as the Jesus of the electronic age, living by the TV Bible, speaking in botanical parables, and hailed as a savior by the media-dominated society. Or how about seeing the old man as God, Chance as Adam, and TV as his mythology. The lawyers are the angels who send him out of the garden. Eve takes Chance home to tempt him with the fruits of popularity and power. Or see Chance as yourself experiencing all the ways in which others try to force you to play a part in their movies. Others have hailed the political prophecy of Being There— individuals have been elevated to high political office for simply coming across well on television. Or here's a final one to process: the film is simply a very savvy meditation on being present — being at the right place at the right time.