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Being There: a brilliant and timely political satire

Based on the satirical novel by the late Jerzy Kosinski, Being There is an apparent farce which disguises a sharp-edged black comedy. Its commentary on politics and the vagaries of public perception are as relevant today – if not more so – than when the original story was written in 1970, or the film released in 1980. Kosinski also adapted the novel, for which he won the BAFTA and other awards for best screenplay.

Peter Sellers plays Chance, a middle-aged man with no surname and no official history, a gentle, helpless character with the mind of a young child. Too severely mentally disabled to attend school or hold a job, he was taken in as a boy by a wealthy gentleman, referred to only as ‘the old man,’ and kept happily secluded in his benefactor’s home. Chance has spent his life peacefully, cared for by servants, his only occupations watching television and tending the house’s enclosed garden.

When the old man suddenly dies, Chance is forced to leave the house for the first time. Alone and with no experience and no resources, he wanders the streets, unlikely to survive for long, until he is hit by a limousine carrying Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), the wife of a prominent, politically influential financier, Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas). At this point, the importance of superficial appearances, a central theme in the film, becomes apparent for the first time. Because Chance is polite, healthy, well groomed, and dressed in expensive clothing, Eve Rand is prepared to accept him as respectable. Anxious to avoid legal troubles over the collision, she invites Chance home to tend to his minor injuries.

Chance identifies himself as “Chance, the gardener,” but is misunderstood and introduced as Chauncey Gardiner, which he accepts without protest. His clothing and appearance, combined with his serene acceptance of being taken into a mansion and attended by servants, establish more firmly in his host and hostess’ minds that he is at their level socially. From this time on, his presumed identity overshadows anything he might say or do.

The renamed Chauncey Gardiner, misunderstood to be a businessman whose corporation has failed, is invited to stay with the Rands for an indefinite period. In spite of his mental deficiencies, Chance makes a positive impression on them, and on Benjamin Rand’s visiting dignitaries, including the U.S. president. Chance has learned genteel manners from his former caretaker, and watching television constantly has given him a superficial idea of social interaction and appropriate gestures. In conversation, he repeats his companion’s key phrases, maintains eye contact, nods thoughtfully, and remarks, “I understand,” and “I know what you’re saying” with apparent empathy. Chance’s calm, unresponsive demeanour is taken for confidence; his brief, uncomplicated answers as honest and deep. This first impression causes others to mentally revise his simplistic remarks. His confused questions are taken as jokes; his childish observations assumed to be pithy folk wisdom. Even his frank confession of illiteracy is automatically reinterpreted.

Because of his associations with important men, and especially after the president quotes him during a speech, the press takes an interest in the mysterious Chauncey Gardiner, but neither they nor the government can find background information on him. This increases his fascination, and he is questioned by journalists in public, and finally invited to be interviewed on television. In all of these situations, Chance is a resounding popular success, his puerile comments taking on whatever meaning his listeners wish to apply. Talk of political opportunities circulates, and there are suggestions that Chance might go far; the film concludes with a whimsical suggestion of just how far that might be.

Much of the humour in Being There derives from the ironic contrast between Chance’s infantile thoughts and words, and the presumptions made about them by those he encounters. It is funny, in an awkward, painful way, to watch Chance’s situation escalate, and see him luckily avoid detection again and again, due to the natural tendency of others to accept the supposed truth that has been presented to them. As the film continues, larger questions arise, forcing us to address how much Chance’s situation relates to real life. Chance’s accidental success, due to little more than the right clothing and the ability to ape televised mannerisms, begins to bear an eerie resemblance to the success of actual public figures, and to our readiness to read into their words what we want to hear.

The movie is not without flaws. Two separate incidents of the innocent and asexual Chance being approached sexually, based on more misunderstandings of Chance’s words, are included purely as comedy, without adding much to the story, even humour. The same applies to the newly homeless Chance’s puzzling encounter with a group of aggressive urban youth, part of which was fortunately edited out in the movie’s final cut. But these weak points are few and far between. Bolstered by Peter Sellers’ wonderfully understated performance and a solid supporting cast, Kosinski’s cleverly rewritten satire is brought to life effectively and entertainingly.

For further viewing:

‘Being There’ director Hal Ashby’s 1971 comedy/drama, Harold and Maude, featuring a soundtrack by Cat Stevens, still has a cult following. The romance between the passionate, bohemian, 79-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon in a charmingly unique performance) and Harold (Bud Cort), a death-obsessed man over 50 years her junior, is a self-consciously quirky film that captures the tone of the already-waning 1960s.

Ashby’s dry 1975 comedy, Shampoo, superficially a sex farce, is actually a complicated study in the conflicts between ambition and ethics, centred around a vain, promiscuous hairdresser to the elite (Warren Beatty) who can’t stop getting in the way of his own desires, or even decide exactly what they are.