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Peter Sellers and the art of ignorance in 'Being There'

One of the greatest acting talents of the 20th century, Peter Sellers is fondly remembered by many for his delightful performances in gems like The Pink Panther and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, among many others. However, the definitive performance of Sellers’ illustrious career will always be his stunning rendition of a simple-minded gardener in Hal Ashby’s enigmatic 1979 masterpiece Being There.

A mesmerising adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s celebrated novel, Being There stars Sellers as Chance, the gardener, a naive middle-aged man who was raised by an affluent man in Washington, D.C. Like many children, Chance grew up watching the television, which became his only source of connection with and information about the outside world. Perpetually isolated, Chance’s mental maturity is put to the test when he is thrust out into the hostility of America by lawyers after his employer and guardian passes away.

Throughout the film, Sellers has a somewhat unsettling but simultaneously non-threatening smile plastered on his way, which might just be a perfect description for his character as well. Being There is a remarkable story of failing upwards, chronicling the meteoric rise of a gardener who ends up as a potential presidential candidate by the end of the film. When he accidentally runs into wealthy people who are so superficial that they cannot see past the stylish clothes Chance borrowed from his former boss, they mistake him for the mythological figure of “Chauncey Gardiner”, a wealthy titan of the industry.

Described as an “unparalleled [performance] in modern comedy” by filmmakers like Judd Apatow, who were immensely moved after witnessing the mastery of Ashby and Sellers, Being There cannot be reduced to the labels of comedy, satire, ad infinitum. It is a philosophical doctrine, a shocking meditation on the sociopolitical frameworks that sustain the illusion of the great ‘American Dream’. For underprivileged minority groups who were never on the same playing field to begin with, Being There is a tragicomic confrontation with the real America where an uneducated white man can rise to the very top by spouting gardening tips in stolen clothes.

While describing the seminal influence of Being There, Apatow claimed that Ashby’s magnum opus should be mandatory viewing for anyone who wishes to enter the world of comedy as a filmmaker. He said, “Here you have a film with the most outlandish premise that is presented with such wit and confidence that you never for a moment doubt it. As it pushes the envelope, step by step, it keeps its reality level and you never for a moment call bullshit on it. All comedy directors should be forced to watch this film so they will learn that comedies can be subtle, riotously funny, meaningful, well acted, and visually gorgeous all at the same time.”

In a conversation with Roger Ebert, Sellers once confessed that he had “absolutely no personality at all. I am a chameleon. When I am not playing a role, I am nobody”. In Being There, he plays the embodiment of a nobody. Sellers’ expressions are impenetrable, his mind is too cloudy to be properly read by the audience, and his words are notoriously vague. Despite the fact that the people around him mistake his experiences as a gardener to be profound insights offered by a capitalist magnate, the audience knows. The audience knows his origins, his terrifyingly ironic propulsion up the ladder of success and yet, the audience knows nothing at all. With each passing second of Sellers unnerving us with his smile, we slide deeper into the rabbit hole of social, economic, political and cosmic absurdity.

Sellers would pass away soon after the film was released due to complications arising from a heart attack at the relatively young age of 54. Before he died, the actor claimed that the only reason he did not win the Oscar was because of the film’s famously indecipherable ending, where we can see Chance walking on water during an outtake. Sellers might not have liked it, but Ashby knew; he knew that it would be the perfect ending to such a brilliantly indescribable performance. It is the director’s way of telling us to stop trying to figure out the machinations of Chance’s mysterious mind and to cease the search for the comforting constructs of deeper meaning when all life has to offer is the random chaos we see before us.