Being There 1979 - Art by Erik Weems

Being There - 1979

Being There - Released December 20, 1979. Directed by Hal Ashby

Being There - 1979

The power of Metaphor

Peter Sellers is a simple man suddenly thrust out into the Washington DC city streets when his protector dies and his house is closed up "by the lawyers" who are settling the estate and find no record that Sellers' character even exists, much less has a right to go on living there. A chance minor accident on a street with the limo that contains Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine) gets the foot-sore Sellers (who has been wandering around DC all day, the first time he's ever travelled further than the walled garden of the house he grew up in) a ride to the home of the super-wealthy Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas), Eve's elderly husband. A simple misunderstanding of his name gets Sellers' character branded as "Chauncey Gardner," despite that he's replied, when asked who he is, that he is "Chance the Gardener." But Eve, Benjamin and the wide group of people in the Rand's politically powerful circle (including the President of the United States, played by Jack Warden) are soon convinced that the plain-speaking 'Chauncey' is a clever genius who explains complex and profound matters using gardening metaphors.

'Chauncey' displays no awe or expectations about the famous and powerful people he is meeting, and this follows with each one of them falling as if under a spell in which their expectations of what a genius is fills in all of the ambiguous space of what they don't know about Chauncey's very spare biography.

This is a building joke within the film as the President demands the intelligence services find out the background on this close associate of the powerful Rands, and the Intel analysts, with nothing to go on, are forced to build a biography of what is implied by the man's clothing, which is about the only belongings Chance was able to leave his home with, aside from a TV remote controller. The elegant wardrobe in Chauncey's suitcase are the hand-me-downs from the dead man who may have been his father, clothing from the 1920s and 30s, something which just adds to the confusion of the mystified spies who then conclude that the real records must have been destroyed, the FBI blaming the CIA and visa versa, which then follows with each agency claiming Chauncey must be one of their own former super agents, for who else would be smart enough to pull off extinguishing every trace of a whole life?

This same chain thinking seems to afflict almost everyone else, for example the Russian Ambassador (Richard Basehart) who becomes convinced Chauncey speaks and understands Russian (though in fact he can neither read nor write even English) and is an expert on Krylov's fables. Or something as simple as the elevator operator at the Rand's mansion who is convinced Chauncey is a great wit making jests when he is only making confused remarks about the elevator, something he's never seen before and doesn't understand how it works.

Director Hal Ashby and star Peter Sellers don't try to solidify all of the gaps in how "Chauncey Gardner" is able to exist in this world of money and politics, and only one character proves able to accept that Chauncey really is a gardener, and that's Richard Dysart as the Rand's personal doctor. Dysart decides he must stay quiet, and, anyway, he is far outnumbered by Chauncey's growing national (international?) fan club of misunderstanding admirers.

Is Chance intellectually disabled? Is he autistic? Ashby and Sellers never lay their cards completely on the table, unlike a similar later film, Forrest Gump, which tries to provide a more clinical explanation for the peculiar brain-power of their starring character. But in both films there is the ethical straightness and gentleness which marks them as "babes in the woods," that classic theme of innocence against the world.

In Being There, the question becomes, is Chauncey different from the rest because, in Jerzy Kosinski's script (from his novel), he simply doesn't know any better? This is wordlessly shown when Chauncey doesn't sink when standing atop a new (to him) phenomenon, the Potomac River. Being There is a comedy, after all, and like Wiley Coyote suspended in the air, defying gravity is possible for as long as you don't know you're supposed to fall.

Original Page March 2017

What's Recent