Synopsis: After Being There was published, author Jerzy Kosinski got a telegram from its lead character Chance the Gardner: “Available in my garden or outside of it.” Kosinski dialed the accompanying telephone number and Peter Sellers answered. Sellers indeed got the part and gave an indelible performance (winning National Board of Review and Golden Globe Best Actor awards and an Academy Award® nomination) in this modern comedy classic.
Isolated all his life in a Washington, DC townhouse, Chance knows only what he’s seen on T.V. Cast into the world, he stumbles into the inner circle of governmental power brokers (including Melvyn Douglas in his second Oscar®-winning role) eager for “sage wisdom.” As Chance might say, you’ll like to watch.
Being There 9.25
President “Bobby”: “Life is a state of mind”
To think that I might never have discovered it!
The only reason that I even took the time to watch it was because I had become a fan of Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies. After seeing him ‘Dr. Strangelove’, ‘Lolita’, and few other films, I discovered that he was not only an incredible comedian but also a very versatile actor as well.
If not for this, I might have passed on this marvellous, light-hearted, existentialist motion picture; the poster, the title, the tagline… none of it otherwise pulled me. Maybe it’s just me, but it gives off the vibe of a throw-away film that maybe your grandmother would enjoy watching on television – but nothing more.
Thankfully, ‘Being There’ has so much more going for it than soft afternoon drama: it’s satirical, it’s a commentary on fortune, voyeurism, media influence, human relationships, celebrity, the economy, race relations, politics and even religion. It’s a relatively subtle weave of all these elements, especially with regards to religion, it’s filled with terrific performances and it has a tight script.
The screenplay was actually adapted by the original author, Jerzy Kosinski, himself. I know that I’m biased, but I think that it’s one of the best adapted screenplays that I’ve seen. Since he had an intimate understanding of the original intention, Kosinski was able to manipulate the story to fit the big screen and incorporate elements that weren’t in his novel, which was published 8 years earlier.
One of those elements is race relations, which were already a concern in 1971, but which deserved a good shake by 1979.
Chance: “Are you Raphael?”
The part of this is the fact that, in having led a sheltered life, Chance is unable to tell the difference between black people – to him, they’re virtually all the same. This leads him to think that anyone who looks remotely like his caregiver should serve him lunch (much to the bewilderment of that woman carrying her groceries! ), that anyone who is black must be related or know other black people.
This leads him to false conclusions, certainly, and perhaps even racism, but he is utterly devoid of actual judgement. In fact, he doesn’t look down on anyone: he sees all people as no better or worse than himself. The mistake he is making here is of lumping people together by the most simple attribute he can observe, skin colour, but he by no means judges them.
To deepen the race relations’ commentary, the film has a minor but key difference from the novel: in the book, Louise, the maid who used to take care of Chance, passed away soon after leaving the home that they both worked in – thereby making it impossible to identify him. In the film, they kept her alive in order for her to comment on Chance’s progress in the world.
Only in America, she would rightly moan, after seeing Chance on television, now a celebrity. Even though he was completely incapable of taking care of himself, was fully dependent on her help to feed himself, his opinion was now sought after by everyone under the sun. Louise immediately assumes that it is because he’s white, that being Caucasian offers opportunity.
And yet Chance only makes his way in the world because his simplicity is dissected and extrapolated from in ways that make him seem wise and more astute than he actually is. It’s all about perception: we tend to project meaning on people, things and events to provide ourselves with a sense of connection to the world. But how much of it is fabricated and how much real?
Everything Chance says, even his name, is twisted to serve the purpose of the listener. He begins his journey into the real world as Chance, the gardener, and ends up being Chauncey Gardner, the economist and political up-and-comer who is quoted by the world’s leaders. As he provides the only knowledge and advice he can offer, that of what takes place in a garden, his eager audience translates meaning from his every word.
Morton Hull: “Do you realize that more people will be watching you tonight, than all those who have seen theater plays in the last forty years?”
And yet, with his brittle grasp of the world, he poses significant questions about the way that we live. Who else but someone so simple could provide such an outsider’s perspective without turning it into a farce? He’s not just a fish-out-of-water, he’s actually someone who cannot understand that which he is fascinated with – he loves to watch, to observe, but he doesn’t understand any of it.
In his naiveté, in his ignorance, he forces the audience to question exactly that which escapes him, to wonder the meaning of it. When we see the calculated interactions between political figures, business people, media figures, we can’t help but wonder how many of these leaders really know what they are doing – is much of our society built up on shaky ground, on misconceptions, misunderstanding and posturing? How much leadership is there, really? How much of it is luck?
A commentary that is less prevalent in the film than in the book is the one about religion. I remember a friend’s mother telling me that Chance’s walk at the end of the film was about Jesus Christ. Only the book got me to understand that Kosinki no doubt meant to comment on the cult of personality and how this may have affected our understanding of Jesus’ life. In the film, the walk hints at it, but only barely – no doubt to avoid any controversy that open reflections might raise (you know how it is! ).
Peter Sellers is absolutely brilliant as Chance, even if he played him differently from the way he’s portrayed in the book – that is, more vacant, confused. Not only is he played a bit differently, but he also has a rather different appearance: in the novel, he is described as a rather handsome man, perhaps even somewhat youthful-looking. In the film, he is nebbish and rather plain, reminding me of a British man-servant – but without the confidence.
Still, this version works. And why Sellers did not win an Academy Award for his nuanced portrayal is beyond me. I can think of very few actors who could have managed to emote as little and yet say so much. In his non-verbal, Sellers manages to let the audience know exactly what is going on in Chance’s mind. Granted, there’s not much going on, but it comes across so beautifully through Sellers’ eyes and his reserved smile. He may never have been better.
The only moment that I found hampered the film was the opening bit between Chance and Louise; for some reason, the actress that they picked wasn’t especially natural and their interplay was a bit wonky. Thankfully, if one gets beyond the first 10 minutes, the rest of the performances are much more realistic. Even the awkward “love scene” featuring Shirley MacLaine comes off quite well considering that they tried to keep the film PG – in an era when ratings were tighter than they are now.
Chance: “I like to watch.”
Chance learns about life through the boob tube instead of experiencing life itself, an irony that won’t be missed by the most minimally perceptive viewer. In a society where parents use the television as a babysitter, where we are valued most when we are in the camera’s eye, where things are only real if they are fit to be seen, to be broadcast, it’s quite amusing that this simpleton would rather see anything on TV than with his own eyes.
I love watching Chance contentedly let himself get carried from one plateau to the next, completely oblivious to the impression he’s making and the value that people give him. I rejoice in seeing goodness prevail effortlessly, if only because there’s such a thirst for it, and even though the end result may not be quite what everyone might expect… or want. It says many things about human nature that I believe are true, even if the events portrayed in ‘Being There’ couldn’t possibly happen.
Frankly, ‘Being There’ has so much to say that nothing short of an in-depth analysis could do it justice – something I am sadly incapable of doing. All I can safely claim is that I think that Kosinski has fashioned a tale that is absolutely perfect for our age and, although the novel and motion picture are slightly different, they are both so well-conceived that each stands up by itself. ‘Being There’ wants us to know that “life is a state of mind” and I believe that it couldn’t possibly deliver this astute message with more wit and charm.
President “Bobby”: “Hm. Well, Mr. Gardner, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time.”