Starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Denise DuBarry, Richard A. Dysart
Profound. Brilliant. Moving.
Peter Sellers, one of the great film comics of all time, built his persona on being the versatile fool. The bumbling French detective. The sage foreigner crashing a Hollywood party. Whatever the premise, whatever the accent, the joke was on him, and he was loved for it. But he saved his best performance right up until the end as Chance the Gardener in Hal Ashby’s Being There, released in 1979, just one year before his death. While the role is somewhat of a departure for Sellers, it still works largely because of our knowledge of his star image going in. The big difference is that this time instead of us laughing at Sellers’ foolishness, we are laughing at everyone else for not recognizing it.
Being There, adapted from a novel by Jerzy Kosinski, concerns Chance, a man we gather who has worked as a gardener for a wealthy man his whole life. Who his parents are, we’re not told. We also learn pretty early that Chance is unintelligent. After his benefactor dies, Chance is forced out of the house and onto the street. He apparently has never left the house, and we hear from a maid who also worked in the house that he cannot read or write. How can he survive in the world with no skillset outside of gardening, no intelligence, and advanced age? Fate puts Chance in the home of another wealthy man. A woman’s chauffeur hits the simple gardener. As an act of decency or perhaps just to avoid a lawsuit she, Eve (MacLaine) takes him to her mansion and has her doctor look at him. Eventually, he meets the influential Ben Rand (Douglas), the head of the house, the woman’s much older husband, an adviser to the president. Suddenly, Chance, the Gardener, becomes Chancey Gardiner and an instant star in the political world. His common advice about gardening is perceived as profound statements about the United States political landscape. This premise is the basis for Peter Sellers’ best performance and the most personal project he ever worked on. He fought for years to get this film made.
It sounds like a premise for anyone of Seller’s previous broad comedies. An idiot becomes political adviser to the president; a perfect setup for buffoonery. But Being There is not that film, and Peter Sellers does not give that kind of performance. Instead, we are given a profound and gentle satire. There are layers to it. One level on which the film works is similar to say The Party, another film in which Sellers starred in. A sincere if simple-minded fool earns the respect of his peers through no effort on his part. The deeper level and the great thing that happens in the movie to me (and not everyone may feel this way as the film is very much open to interpretation) is that it sets Chance up as a comic figure- we laugh at how the sophisticated, brilliant upper-class society is taken in by a simpleton, believing him to be a wise man-but eventually I came to view him as a wise man myself. He does not pretend to know things he doesn’t. He only talks when he has something to say. When, in the end, Chance walks on water, I am surprised and then not surprised. Again there have been many interpretations of this scene, but my feeling is that because he doesn’t know that human beings can’t walk on water, he just does it. He almost literally knows no limitations.
So what drew Peter Sellers to this character? Why did he feel he had to play this character? He once said, “Most actors want to play “Othello”, but all I’ve really wanted to play is Chance the Gardiner. I feel what the character, the story is all about is not merely the triumph of a simple man, an illiterate. It’s God’s message again that the meek shall inherit the earth.” I think there is a general feeling of comedians being part of the meek. It is not the popular, great looking men or women who make us laugh in film typically. I can see why Sellers would be drawn to that aspect of the story. He said of himself, “I writhe when I see myself on the screen. I’m such a dreadfully clumsy hulking image. I say to myself, “Why doesn’t he get off? Why doesn’t he get off?” I mean, I look like such an idiot. Some fat awkward thing dredged up from some third-rate drama company. I must stop thinking about it, otherwise, I shan’t be able to go on working.” Also, and this idea was probably not conscious on his part, but there is somewhat of a parallel between Chance, apparently an unfeeling fool who proves to be incredibly sensitive and wise, and Peter Sellers, seen as just a clown and rumored to be a hard, cold personality. Sellers gives Chance a very bland appearance and plays him like a blank slate that slowly becomes a beautiful mystery. Again Sellers said this about himself, and I see it manifested in Chance, “If you ask me to play myself, I will not know what to do. I do not know who or what I am. There used to be a me behind the mask, but I had it surgically removed. To see me as a person on screen would be one of the dullest experiences you could ever wish to experience.” As the last film of his career, while he was alive, Sellers gets to play the Scaramouche for a final time, and then leave us thinking he wasn’t what he seemed, as he walks across the water, more than just a buffoon.
-Walter Tyrone Howard-