The International Writers Magazine: DVD REVIEWS
Directed by Hal Ashby
Dan Schneider review
Hal Ashby made a series of quirky films in the 1970s that were highly regarded, then succumbed to a drug addiction and died before the 1980s were through. The most famous of these were Harold And Maude, Shampoo, Coming Home, and Being There.
Almost all of his films, however, are products of their times, thus do not hold up well to more modern viewers. Harold And Maude was a farce about a ‘romance between a young man and an old woman, Shampoo was a vehicle for Warren Beatty in between more serious films, and Coming Home was a rather standard anti-Vietnam tract that, in light of films like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Full Metal Jacket, has little bite.
Of the four most famous films mentioned, though, Being There is the least dated of the films. And this is because of two factors: first is that it starred Peter Sellers. Enough said. The second is that later films, most notably Rain Man and Forrest Gump, expanded upon the themes this film did, and a) made them more mainstream while b) watering them down to the point that they merely became gawkfests for the retards the film centered upon.
While Being There is nowhere near a great film, it is several cuts above its predecessors in this genre, mainly because it does not overtly tug at one’s heartstrings. The film is, in a sense, based upon a singular conceit: that a retarded man can succeed in life by the even greater ignorance of the non-retarded. It does require an immense degree of suspension of disbelief, but if one accepts that premise, this slight movie does have its charms. It opens with the morning routine of a man named Chance (Sellers), who works as a gardener on a rich estate. He is addicted to television, to the point that he often mimics what he sees onscreen. One morning, while eating his breakfast, the black maid, Louise (Ruth Attaway), who runs the estate tells him that the Old Man (the estate’s owner) is dead. Chance has little reaction, and is berated by the maid, who eventually leaves and hugs him goodbye. Chance is then informed that he must vacate the premises by an attorney handling the deceased man’s will. Chance does not know what to make of this, and we never learn anything of his background, although he is clearly a man in his 50s. If he is related to the dead man is a mystery. The only hint of his past comes from the maid, who, later in the film, after Chance gains fame, claims that she raised him since he was a boy.
Newly homeless, Chance wanders through Washington, D.C., near where his residence was. His attire- that of the Old man- suggests that he is wealthy, and he has a series of comic encounters with mostly black people. Seeing himself on a television monitor in an electronics store window, he tries to use the remote control he carries to change the picture. He backs up into the street, where his leg is injured by a backing up limousine. The woman, named Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), seeks to avoid a lawsuit from Chance, whom she assumes to be wealthy, so offers to bring him home so her private doctor (Richard A. Dysart) can look after him. Her husband, Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas), is also under doctor’s care, suffering from aplastic anemia. They have a whole wing of their mansion converted to a hospital ward. All involved have mistaken his being Chance the Gardener for having the name Chauncey Gardner. Whenever Chance tells of his plight, such as being forced from his home, it is misinterpreted as his being forced out of business by the government. As Ben and Chance recover they become friends, and Eve, much younger than Ben, starts to fall for Chance, as both assume his conservative demeanor that of breeding, not simplemindedness. His real descriptions of gardens and his tending to them are interpreted as homilies about American business.
Through his friendship with Ben, Chance gets to meet the President Of The United States, (Jack Warden), who likewise mistakes Chance’s simplicity for depth, and quotes from him in a speech. This makes Chance an overnight media sensation, whisked to fancy parties and the talk show circuit, where his simple ideas are taken to be wisdom in the emergent sound bite era. Reporters and the President want to know all they can find out about Chance, aka Chauncey Gardner. When nothing turns up (recapping the diegetic problem proffered to the viewer), people assume Chance’s past is a mystery, and that the FBI or CIA are behind it. This only further makes Chance seem important. The misassumptions pile up, and Eve throws herself at Chance, who, while watching a love scene on tv, mimics it, until it’s over. This confuses Eve, who takes his utterances to mean that he wants her to masturbate for him, as he watched the Edward G. Robinson gangster film, Little Casear. She does, and ascribes her orgasm to Chance’s wisdom.
Throughout the film, only Rand’s doctor comes to learn the truth of Chance’s past (what little there is), but since he sees no harm in it, and Chance seems to have ameliorated his clients’ lives, he says nothing; even when Rand tacitly pushes his wife and Chance together, and makes preparations for Chance to ascend to a high place in his corporation.
Ben soon dies, with the doctor and Chance at his side. At his funeral, the President gives a dull hagiography of Rand, as the pallbearers whisper about potential replacements for the President. As Ben’s coffin is to be interred in the family mausoleum, they unanimously agree on Chauncey Gardner as the man for the job. Meanwhile, Chance wanders off during the President’s speech, and fixes a small sapling, then contentedly walks on the surface of a lake, stops, dips his umbrella into the lake, as the President utters the bon mot, ‘Life is a state of mind.’
This lone moment of supernaturalism, or magical realism, has led many critics to imbue meanings into the film that take it into the wildly metaphysical. Most of these are truly silly, for the ending is meant to be ambiguous, meaning that many ends are possible, but none is definite. In a deeper, more serious film this could be a problem. In a small, simple film, it helps floriate its earlier scenes into a bit more. Not much more, but a bit. It also helps to demarcate that the pretension resides not in the film, its director, nor its ending, but in the critics of same, thus neatly recapitulating the same errors that propel the film’s lead character through it.
The DVD, by Warner Brothers, is bare bones, and has only the 130 minute, color film, in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. There is no audio commentary, only the original theatrical trailer, and a featurette called Memories From Being There, which has reminiscences about the film. Overall, a too skimpy package. As for the film? The screenplay is solid, adapted by Jerzy Kosinski from his same titled novel, with the help of Robert C. Jones. It makes good use of ambient audio and video, such as vintage era commercials from television, which give the viewer an idea of what is present in Chance’s mind. There is also excellent scoring by Johnny Mandel, especially in his use of classical music, especially pieces by Erik Satie, and Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, most filmically famed from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The acting is first rate. MacLaine is solid, in a slight role, and Sellers has brilliant moments, and Douglas actually deserved his Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, for he actually acts, and does not preen, like Robert Duvall’s fun, but slight, turn in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, released the same year. Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography is solid but unspectacular.
The film’s weakest moments occur when Chance is with Eve, for her sexual come-ons seem forced and from a different film, as does the narrative of the President’s impotence with his wife. Also, the film is not really a satire nor black comedy. It is more in line with the old time comedies of manner, for it is far more subtle than a satire, which would have made the idea of Chance’s being a blank slate for others’ expectations something to ram down the throat of the viewer. But, the film always restrains itself from that temptation, much in the same way that Martin Scorsese’s film, The King Of Comedy, would do just a few years later. And, like Being There, that film is also often mislabeled. But, while Being There is not the sort of film, like the aforementioned Kubrick and Coppola films, that will leave on endlessly buzzing over its meaning, Being There is an enjoyable film whose minor pleasures can only grow in the mind, just as Chance would claim. Just, lay off too much of the manure many of the bad critics pack it with, ok?
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