They really don’t make ‘em like Being There anymore. The wonderful adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel is both a pitch-perfect dramedy and an effectively gentle satire of politics, race, and sex.
Hal Ashby’s film is not limited to, but certainly draws much of its appeal from, the penultimate performance of the great Peter Sellers as Chance the Gardener. Sellers dials down the bumbling persona he had perfected over his career and turns in one of his best as a man who knows two things, and only two things: gardening and television.
When the owner of the estate where Chance had lived his entire life dies, he is evicted onto the streets of Washington, D.C, suitcase in hand and TV remote in pocket. It’s the first time Chance has been outside the grounds of the estate in his life. When he’s struck by the limousine of Eve (Shirley MacLaine), he’s transported to the lavish estate of Eve and her husband Ben (Melvyn Douglas, in an Oscar-winning turn), a “kingmaker” with political ties that go all the way to the highest office.
What everyone fails to realize is Chance isn’t merely laconic or thrifty with words; he’s a human blank slate. Never taught to read or write, Chance’s great love in life is the boob tube, and he’s got the attention span to prove it. He flicks between channels with no real objective in mind. Exercise programs, cartoons, and the nightly news – he’ll watch it all.
Ben is immediately taken with Chance, who he sees as a dispenser of sage wisdom, and invites him to join him in a private conference with the President of the United States (Jack Warden). Chance offers some gardening tips mistaken for economic allegory, and the president mentions Chance in a televised speech, causing him to become the most oblivious of celebrities.
It’s hard to imagine the story of Being There playing out the same way in a film today. Instead, we’d have a “comedy” where Chance would become some wacky character who’s constantly saying inappropriate things he learned from TV but, despite the hijinks, has a heart of gold.
Thankfully, Being There is not that film – it’s a character-centered drama at its core, with the lightest comedic touches released around the edges. The majority of this era’s dramas would never make it through with such a light touch guiding them, and today’s comedies could never relent to giving up their obviousness. But Being There manages the delicate balance with ease.
Sellers is so successful in his role because he doesn’t play the character like an idiot (although intelligence-wise, he is) or a buffoon (although social-wise, he could be). He slips into the shoes of a gardener named Chance, and stays there until the credits roll. (Unfortunately, the credits are played over a number of Sellers’s outtakes. He wanted them removed because he felt they broke the spell of the film. He was right.)
The Being There Deluxe Edition DVD features a video and audio presentation that has been newly remastered from the original release, and it looks and sounds fantastic for a ‘70s-era film of its type. No doubt, the accompanying Blu-ray release is an even stronger performer.
Unfortunately, the “Deluxe Edition” tag is a bit of a misnomer, as only one special feature other than the theatrical trailer accompanies the film – a 15-minute retrospective featurette with Illeana Douglas, granddaughter of Melvyn. While this extra is well-produced, it’s hardly enough.
Strangely, the Blu-ray release features additional content, including ten minutes of additional footage (deleted scenes, gag reel, alternate ending). Granted, this is not that much more material, but it makes little sense to make it Blu-ray exclusive when the bonus content is already so paltry.
Lack of extras aside, Being There is a wonderful film, and deserves to be more well known. It’s available on DVD and Blu-ray February 3, 2009.Powered by Sidelines