Directed by Hal Ashby and adapted by Jerzy Kosinki from his novel, Being There tells the story of the appropriately named Chance, a simple-minded man who finds himself gaining power and prestige in America because he is able to fill a need within people that they project upon him.
Chance, played by Peter Sellers in one of his finest performances, is immediately revealed to be obsessed with television. No matter what room of the townhouse he goes to, there’s a television set and Chance turns it on. The maid tells Chance the “Old Man” of the house has died but he doesn’t appear to understand and continues with his gardening. When two attorneys come to the house to begin to settle affairs, there’s no record of Chance so they tell him he has to leave.
Although no information is given about him, Chance appears to be somewhere between late 40s/early 50s and he has been kept within the grounds of the townhouse as long as he can remember. Chance packs a suitcase and ventures out in Washington D.C. He appears ill equipped as he asks a stranger who looks like his former maid to make him something to eat, and when confronted by a gang of kids, one of whom pulls a knife, he tries to use the channel-changer.
Later that evening, Chance is mystified when he sees himself appear on storefront television. While moving around, he is backed into by a limousine, which hurts his leg. The owner, Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), asks that Chance come to her home to be taken care of because a doctor (Richard Dysart) is already there tending to her dying husband, Benjamin (Melvyn Howard in an Academy-Award winning performance), a wealthy and influential businessman. Eve offers Chance a drink, which causes him to choke because it’s alcohol. As he is coughing he introduces himself as Chance the Gardener, which Eve hears as Chauncey Gardiner.
Without trying, Chance impresses people due to his gentle nature and the continual misinterpretation of what he is saying. When Chance says lawyers turned him out of his house, Ben, who doesn’t care for lawyers, thinks Chance means they shut down his business. A bond forms between them as presumed mutual businessman and Ben asks Chance to sit in on the meeting with the President (Jack Warden) who comes to him for counsel. Trusting Ben’s judgment and the implicit meaning of Chance’s inclusion, the President asks Chance his thoughts about stimulating economic growth through temporary incentives. Chance has no idea what they are saying and keys in on the word “growth” and talks about it in relation to a garden, because that’s all he knows. Ben and the President take what Chance is talking about to be a metaphor and later, the President quotes Chance at a press conference.
Now everyone wants to know who Chauncey Gardiner is, from the President to newspaper reporters, but no one can find any information, not even international agencies, which causes some concern as to who he may actually be. However that doesn’t stop his celebrity status from rising. When the Vice President cancels a talk show appearance, Chance agrees to go on in his place because, referring to the incident before he was hit by Eve’s car, he’s been on television. He becomes all the rage to viewers at home and at a Washington D.C. cocktail party. Yet, the doctor, a man of science, is able to get to the truth of Chance’s identity, creating the question of what he will do with that information.
Whether identified as a serious comedy or a funny drama, Being There is a very enjoyable. Most of the decade Sellers performed slapstick in Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther films, but here is performance is restrained, almost deadpanned, which accentuates the humor. Ashby, one of the overlooked greats of the ‘70s, is in such total control that it appears effortless as the film moves along. It was his idea during the shoot and without telling the studio to change the ending to the powerful image of Chance walking out onto the surface of a lake.
Of course, it’s difficult to see a man walk on water and not think of Jesus Christ, and Chance, though unintentionally, acts as a savior in the lives of a few characters. The way the character identifies himself also hints at the connection. In the Gospel of John Mary Magdalene mistakenly thought Jesus was a gardener, which has been depicted in painting by both Rembrandt in 1638 and Manet in 1856. This isn’t to say the film proselytizes, because that aspect is dealt with subtlety. Plus, it deals with other themes as well like the media and society.
For some reason, the disc as a Blu-ray promo, but since the consumer has already made the choice, who is the commercial for. The movie then starts right up, which is fine if you are okay with the Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack. However, since the menus aren’t accessible while the movie is playing, you have to stop it and switch to the Dolby TrueHD if that’s your preference. But that only comes in at 2.0. The soundtrack only offers dialogue, music, and no surround use, so the only difference I noticed was the volume slightly louder for TrueHD.
The video is presented in 1080p High Definiton 16×9 and an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The print has a nice clean picture although there are occasions when noticeable digital noise reduction has been applied to remove grain, so it counteracts the reasoning behind using it. The colors are rich and fine detail can be seen in fabrics and the wood in Ben’s elevator. There’s a lot of use of source television images but the frame was altered so it looks good on screen.
This new release has special features. “Memories from Being There” has actresses Illena Douglas, Melvyn’s granddaughter, talking about the film and its creation. She had been to the set as a kid, but I was surprised no one directly involved with the film spoke. There are two new scenes, each less than a minute, of Chance and Eve before he goes to the TV studio and Chance talking to the kids playing basketball. The alternate ending was the originally planned ending. The gag reel is over six minutes, some of which appears in during the closing credits. It’s great to see Sellers and Ashby as they address distributors.