Harold and Maude director Hal Ashby signed off the decade with a delectable slow-burn political satire based on Jerzy Kosinski’s novel. In his last great role, Peter Sellers is Chance, a simple soul who has spent his entire life in service as a gardener in a wealthy household – in fact he’s never left the house, never learned to read, and his only comprehension off the world at large comes from watching television. When his employer dies the property is sold. Adrift in Washington DC, Chance is bumped by a limo – and welcomed into the home of a mega-rich couple, the Rands (Shirley MacLaine and Melvyn Douglas). And so it is that “Chauncey Gardener” is mistaken for a gnomic economic guru and philosopher, becoming a personal advisor to the President of the United States.
Ashby gets the tone just right here. The movie doesn’t sentimentalize or condescend to Chance. We’re never in doubt the man is a simpleton, but he’s gentle and harmless, and Sellers – channeling his childhood hero Stan Laurel – invests him with a childlike beatitude. He’s a Holy Fool. This is one of the great comedic performances in all cinema. The movie anticipates Forrest Gump (and a President whose name rhymes with Gump). He’s a Holy Fool who unwittingly makes a mockery of the unholy intelligentsia, the rich, powerful and privileged who mistake his gardening tips and TV sound bites for profound political metaphors. As the New York Times review put it in 1979: “Being There is a vivid reminder of how ignorance and illiteracy, mixed with attitude, can lead to fame and riches.” Yes, indeed.
Being There is seen as Ashby’s masterpiece, but it is also the quintessential Hal Ashby film. Its gentleness, compassion, and optimism, as well as its intelligence and understated humour are all manifestations of Ashby’s own personality.
Nick Dawson, Hal Ashby: Hollywood Rebel
Being There finds humor in the way Sellers becomes a blank screen on which people project their expectations. But it also finds value in his simplicity.
Keith Phipps, AV Club
One of the best American films of its day, Being There provides a richly ambivalent reading of American decline, generating huge irony out of its bemused idiot savant (Peter Sellers) caught between roles. The movie displays a compelling stillness that, to the credit of Ashby and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, makes each scene a joy to watch.
Richard Armstrong, The Rough Guide to Film
Sep 3 Only: Introduction from Vancouver writer and cultural historian Aaron Chapman
Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden
Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Melvyn Douglas), Academy Awards 1980