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Being There is a 1979 comedy-drama film directed by Hal Ashby, adapted from the 1971 novel written by Jerzy Kosiński. The film stars Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Richard A. Dysart and Richard Basehart. Douglas won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Sellers was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. This was the last Peter Sellers film to be released while he was alive.

The screenplay was coauthored by Kosinski and the award winning screenwriter Robert C. Jones, winning the 1981 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Film) Best Screenplay Award and the 1980 Writers Guild of America Award (Screen) for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium. It was also nominated for the 1980 Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay.

The making of the film is portrayed in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, a film biography of the late actor's life.

Plot

Chance (Peter Sellers) is a middle-aged man who lives in the townhouse of a wealthy man in Washington D.C.marker Chance seems very simple-minded and has lived in the house his whole life, tending the garden, with virtually no contact with the outside world. His cultural and social education is derived entirely from what he watches on the television sets provided by the "Old Man," who raised him. The only other person in his life is Louise, the maid who cooks his meals and looks upon him as nothing more than a child who has failed to grow up. When his benefactor dies, Chance is visited by attorneys handling the estate. They force him to leave his sheltered existence and discover the outside world for the first time.

He wanders aimlessly through a wintry and busy Washington in old-fashioned clothes, a homburg hat, suitcase, umbrella and a television remote from his old home. In the evening Chance comes across a TV shop and sees his own image in one of the TVs captured by a camera in the shop window. While watching himself in it he is struck by a car owned by Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas), a wealthy businessman.

Rand's wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine) invites Chance to their home (the famous Biltmore Estatemarker doubles as the Rand Estate) to recover from his injured leg. After being offered alcohol for the first time in his life, Chance coughs over it while being asked his name which, instead of "Chance the Gardener" (which is what he said), is interpreted to be "Chauncey Gardiner." During dinner at the Rands' home, Chance describes attorneys coming to his former house and shutting it down. Judging by his appearance and overall demeanor, Ben Rand automatically assumes that Chauncey is an upper class, well-to-do, highly educated business man. Although Chance is really describing being kicked out of the home where he tended to the garden, Ben Rand perceives it as attorneys shutting down Chance's business because of financial problems; he even assumes it must have been caused by "kid lawyers from the SEC," obviously attributing it to have occurred at a higher, more sophisticated level than a tax/IRS problem, as most persons would likely have assumed. Sympathizing with him, Ben Rand takes Chance under his wing. Chauncey's personal style and seemingly conservative and insightful ways embody many qualities that Ben admires. His simplistic, serious-sounding utterances, which mostly concern the garden, are interpreted as allegorical statements of deep wisdom and knowledge regarding business matters and the current state of the economy in America.

Rand is also the confidant and adviser of the U.S. President (Jack Warden), whom he introduces to "Chauncey." Chance's remarks about how the garden changes with the seasons are interpreted by the President as economic and political advice, relating to his concerns about the mid-term unpopularity that many administrations face while in office. Chance, as Chauncey Gardiner, quickly rises to national public prominence. He becomes a media celebrity with appearances on television talk shows, and is soon on the A-list of the most wanted in Washington society. Public opinion polls start to reflect just how much his "simple brand of wisdom" resonates with the jaded American public. In one scene, at an upscale Washington cocktail lounge, two important, older, well-dressed men are discussing Chauncey; one says to the other, there is a rumor "he holds degrees in medicine as well as law."

Rand, dying of aplastic anemia, encourages his wife to become close to Chance, knowing Eve is a fragile woman. Rand's doctor (Richard A. Dysart) makes a few inquiries of his own and gets to see Chance for what he truly is—an actual gardener, totally oblivious and unaware to the ways of the world. However, the fact that Chance has given Rand an apparent acceptance of his illness and peace of mind with his imminent death makes the doctor hesitant to say anything. He also obviously sees that Chance possesses no guile, no intent to deceive, or any interest which would adversely impact Ben or Eve, or have any adverse effect upon Eve, or the estate, following Ben's death.

Just days before his death Rand rewrites his will to include Chauncey. It can be assumed that both Chauncey and Eve will inherit Rand's mansion as well as any final word in all his companies' future business dealings. At his funeral, the President gives a long-winded read-out of various bon mots and quotes made by Rand over the years, which hardly impresses the pallbearers, who are members of the board of Rand's companies. They hold a whispered discussion over potential replacements for the President in the next term of office. As Rand's coffin is about to be interred in the family Masonic pyramid-like mausoleum, they unanimously agree on "Chauncey Gardiner."

Oblivious to all this, Chance wanders through Rand's wintry estate. Ever the gardener, he straightens out a pine sapling and then walks off, across the surface of a small lake. We now see Chauncey physically walking on water. He pauses, dips his umbrella into the water under his feet as if testing its depth, turns, and then continues to walk on the water as Rand's quote "Life is a state of mind" is superimposed in the background.

Cast, characters and their perceptions

  • Peter Sellers as Chance the Gardener, a.k.a. Chauncey Gardiner: a simple gardener who has spent his entire life isolated from the world. Chance's calm and seemingly highly intelligent demeanor is essentially a blank canvas on which each of the film's characters paint their own picture, sometimes making Chance out to be much more than he really is. In most of his interactions with others, mostly prominent individuals, he pays rapt attention, nods appreciatively, and often restates their comments by way of agreement, all simply oblivious actions on his part, but the types of responses that cause them to be flattered and feel confirmed by this man who has recently entered their circle.


  • Melvyn Douglas as Ben Rand: a dying business leader and political king-maker. Rand gains a perception of Chauncey as a failed though completely decent businessman down on his luck. He also sees Chauncey's reference to seasons in gardening as an insightful comment on the national economy. As he and Chauncey spend more time together, Ben obviously relishes his simple directness and sincerity; also, as one of the nation's wealthiest and most politically-influential individuals, he appreciates and enjoys the company of this man who is friendly, candid, and sees no need to try to flatter or curry favor with him (as Ben's background and some aspects of the story clearly indicate most people have). Near the end of the film and because of Chance's strong presence in his life, Ben finally makes some much-needed peace with himself and his terminal illness, knowing that Chance will be around to love and care for his wife Eve after his inevitable death.


  • Shirley MacLaine as Eve Rand: Ben's wife. She is first puzzled by Chauncey's strangeness and then thinks of him as having insight and a sense of humor. Later she renounces her initial doubts and adopts the consensus view that he is a great man. She then pursues her own need for friendship and sexual contact, especially when her dying husband signals his consent to her forming a strong relationship with Chauncey. This ultimately leads her to act on her sexual desires with the oblivious Chance. In one scene, Chance kisses her, imitating a scene he has just seen on TV, but then tells her that he prefers to watch. Eve subsequently proceeds to masturbate while Chance continues to channel-surf (which is really all he meant).


  • Jack Warden as The President: He first sees Chauncey's advice as inspiring, to the point that he quotes and names him on national television. But he soon comes to regret bringing this mystery man into the spotlight since it might jeopardize his chances of running for a second term. His anxiety over Gardiner is so intense that it renders him sexually impotent. In one scene, after he has previously quoted Chauncey on television, interpreting his references to gardening and seasons as bright metaphors regarding the hope for improvement in the economy, he and his wife are watching Chauncey on a late-night talk show. As he is asked by the host about his opinion of the President's view of the economy, Chauncey simply replies: "Oh? Which view?" The President cringes, as he obviously interprets what the viewer knows is simply an instance of Chauncey's being ignorant of what the question really means, as a subtle criticism of him.


  • FBI Agentsmarker: Stymied in their efforts to discover anything about "Chauncey Gardiner," they come to the conclusion that someone has eliminated the entire record — a feat of such ability that "Only an ex-FBI man could have done it!" The CIA prefers to think that the cover-up was perpetrated by one of its own agents, highlighting the rivalry between the two organizations.


  • David Clennon as Thomas Franklin: the attorney who distrusts Chance's motives for acting the way he does when they first meet in the house owned by Chance's late benefactor and orders him out. Later, Franklin, keen to pursue a career in politics, seems to view his contact with Chauncey Gardiner as potentially ruinous to his ambitions. But in a subsequent scene, he meets with Dr. Allenby at an upscale cocktail lounge. The doctor had found his card in Chauncey's room, and called to meet with him. This meeting allows Dr. Allenby to confirm for himself that Chauncey is simply a gardener. However, obviously to ensure the maintenance of Chauncey's increasing prominence and reputation (to avoid mitigating the great benefit it has provided the ill Ben), the doctor requests that Franklin keep his initial information confidential. Franklin readily agrees, indicating that he feels this might now preclude the anticipated damage to his future political ambitions.


  • Ruth Attaway as Louise: the African-American maid. Her monologue was known to have garnered the most laughter in theatres of any of the film's scenes during its theatrical run:
    "It's for sure a white man's world in America.
    I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss ant, and I'll tell you he never learned to read nor write.
    No sir.
    Has no brains at all.
    Stuffed with rice pudding between the ears.
    Short-changed by the Lord and dumb as a jackass.
    Yes sir, all you got to be is white in America to get whatever you want.
    Gobbledegoop."


  • The general public, portrayed by the audience in the TV studio, opinion polls, and Thomas Franklin's girlfriend, thinks that Chauncey is simply "brilliant."


  • Financial and political elite seen at Rand's funeral: They believe that Gardiner may be their man for the next presidential election instead of a second term for the incumbent president.


  • Richard A. Dysart as Dr. Robert Allenby: the good-hearted doctor initially worries that Chauncey will sue Rand for damages following the accident. He eventually learns the truth and confronts Chance with the information, who confirms it, having never actually claimed to be anything else — the whole affair has been based on what people assume Chauncey is rather than what Chance led them to believe he was. However, Allenby ultimately decides to keep this knowledge to himself since Chance has given his patient a new outlook on life and death, and acceptance of his fate. He also understands that Chauncey does not possess even the slightest capability of nefarious intentions.


  • Richard Basehart as The Soviet ambassador to the United States: He invites Chauncey to sit with him and his wife at a major Washington party, where Chauncey has escorted Eve at the ailing Ben's request. This being the Cold War era, the ambassador makes a reference to the "closeness" of the two nations' positions. In reply, Chauncey notes that their "chairs are almost touching." Like many of Chance's simple, literal remarks, this one is interpreted as a subtle, clever metaphor—here referencing the possible risk of conflict, but also one of opportunity. The ambassador, after agreeing, then pronounces there is something "Krylovian" about Chauncey, referencing the famous Russian fabulist, Ivan Krylov. He then proceeds to quote a Krylov fable, in the latter's native tongue; as usual, by pure "chance," the clueless Chauncey smiles and laughs at the appropriate time during the ambassador's recitation. The latter then proclaims he was correct in feeling that Chauncey "knew Krylov, in Russian" — to everyone's admiration, for yet another example of Chauncey's "brilliance."




Lake scene

In the final scene, as the party elite discuss their choice of Chance as their preferred candidate in the upcoming presidential election, Chance is seen wandering over the estate. He comes to the edge of a lake and then proceeds to seemingly defy gravity by walking on the surface of the water, and not sinking into it. Film critic Roger Ebert mentions this scene in his 2001 book The Great Movies, stating that his film students once suggested that Chance may be walking on a submerged pier. Ebert opines, "The movie presents us with an image, and while you may discuss the meaning of the image, it is not permitted to devise explanations for it. Since Ashby does not show a pier, there is no pier—a movie is exactly what it shows us, and nothing more."

Closing credits

As the closing credits roll, bloopers from a scene that does not appear in the movie are played: Sellers, lying on a gurney, tries in vain to recite the "message" given by the gang leader, which includes quite a bit of swearing, with a straight face, and ends up flubbing the lines and laughing instead. Such outtakes being shown in a major Hollywood production were very rare at the time, and Sellers reportedly disapproved of the decision to include them since, by all accounts, it was his desire with this film to display his skills as a serious dramatic actor as opposed to just being a comedian.

Sellers' view

This was Peter Sellers' penultimate film, his last being The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu. In the intervening years between that novel's publication and the film's production, a span of several years, he reportedly engaged in quite a dogged quest to obtain the rights to bring the story to the screen and portray its lead character.

Sellers won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor — Motion Picture for his performance in Being There, and was nominated for (but did not win) the Academy Award for Best Actor for this film at the 52nd Academy Awards.

Television clips

The film makes continued use of actual television clips throughout. These clips are part of the ambient visual and audio background, presented as a natural occurrence of a television being on in the room where the scene is taking place. The clips were chosen by Dianne Schroeder, and are referenced in the film credits as "Special Television Effects". These clips are an essential element of the film. They provide a window into the mind of Chance, who knows nothing of the world outside the old man's home except from what he's learned on television.



Score

Incidental music is used very sparingly in this film, and what little original music is used was composed by Johnny Mandel, and primarily features two recurrent piano themes based on Gnossienne No. 4 and No.5 by Erik Satie. The other major piece of music used is the Eumir Deodato jazz/funk arrangement of the opening fanfare from Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, in the scene where Chance leaves the house and ventures out into the world for the first time. This composition is widely known in its original Strauss orchestration for its use in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Inspiration

Kosinski named the character Chance for a teacher of transcendental meditation in Cambridge, Massachusettsmarker named Jerry Jarvis, whose calm and simple manner reflected that of Chance. Jarvis' milieu was based at the corner of Chauncy and Garden Streets.

The film's title is a direct translation of the term Dasein, used by the German phenomenological philosopher Martin Heidegger to describe the essential nature of human beings. Sellers' character invariably responds to people and phenomena as they present themselves.

Controversy

Jerzy Kosiński's English novella Being There bears strong resemblance to the best-selling Polish novel The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz, a novel unknown to English readers in 1971 when Being There was published. In June 1982, a Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes and Eliot Fremont-Smith accused Kosiński of having plagiarizing Dołęga-Mostowicz. The article also pointed to striking stylistic differences among Kosiński's novels, and argued that they had either been ghost-written or translated from the Polish by his "assistant editors." This sparked further controversies about the authorship of Kosiński's literary output.

Honors

American Film Institute recognition

See also



References

  1. Being There at rogerebert.com


Bibliography



External links




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