Cinematic Century

1979 – Being There

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I’m breaking the trend today, folks! I’ve spent the last few weeks sharing some of the most popular and enduring films of all time with you, massive films that spawned franchises, earning themselves unfathomable amounts of money, and as a result digital ink over the years, making me feel a little silly at times that I was highlighting some of the most highlighted films of all times. But, today I’m throwing you all a curve-ball! Because, I feel like the obvious answer for a favorite film of 1979, and a film I really had to reckon with before making this decision, is Ridley Scott’s Alien. And I don’t want to seem like I’m knocking Alien by not picking it, it’s a truly amazing film, one of the finest horror films and sci-fi films of all time, and I really and truly love it. I also could have picked another potentially obvious choice, and gone with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, one of those towering films in American cinematic history. But, I’ve never really connected with that film in the way that other people have. Honestly, I’m way more interested in watching Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about how hellacious the filming of this movie was that watching Apocalypse Now itself. I also had to struggle with not choosing one of my favorite comedies of all time, the Life of Brian, which over the years has kind of subtly become my favorite of the Monty Python films. I’m also a huge fan of the utterly weird and grimy crime flick the Warriors, one of the most absolutely odd films I’ve ever seen, yet one which immediately draws me into its strange wavelength. It’s a stacked year, not of the most difficult I’ve ever had to deal with, but still pretty wonderful. And yet, despite all of those amazing films, and lots of others ones I didn’t bring up, the film that I’ve decided to choose as my favorite film of 1979 is one that maybe isn’t brought up as often, especially compared to some of those other movies. But, I wholeheartedly love Hal Ashby’s Being There, one of the oddest, most sincere, and shockingly prescient films I’ve ever seen.

And, oddly enough, despite how good-natured and pure this film is, it has some pretty salacious roots. The film is adapted from a novel of the same name by a Polish writer named Jerzy Kosinski, but over time it’s become apparent that Kosinki took this entire premise from a Polish book that never got popular outside of Poland and sold it in America as his own story. The original novel, Tadeusz Doleg-Mostowicz’s The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma is shockingly similar to that of Being There, but the potential plagiarism wasn’t really understood in America until quite some time after the film was released. But, as it stands, the book proved successful enough to get an adaptation, helmed by Hal Ashby, one of the 1970’s most famous oddball directors. And, as a bonus, Ashby decided to use this film to offer a great performance from one of his favorite actors of all time, an actor who had been struggling to receive any quality work for quite a while, Peter Sellers. Sellers was at one time one of the most popular comedic actors in Hollywood, but his career had been on a serious decline, and he saw Being There as an opportunity to deliver one more fantastic performance, giving the role everything he had in order to prove to people that he was a legitimate performer. And, in a rather tragic turn of events, it proved to be one of Seller’s final performances, since he died suddenly just a few months after this film was released. But, there’s no doubt that he succeeded in using this film as a final mission statement for everything he could do as an actor. Sellers was nominated for an Academy Award, and the film was received very kindly by the critical world, going on to be considered one of Ashby’s finest films. But, I feel like it’s not always in the conversation, especially compared to some of the other major films of 1979. And yet, I adore it, totally and completely.

 

 

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Being There is the story of a man named Chance, a simple-minded gardener who has spent his entire life living and working inside the home of a rich man, living in Washington DC. Chance doesn’t really who anything about himself, but he knows his job and he does it well, getting all the support and care he needs from his benefactor. But, when the man dies, Chance finds himself adrift in a world he can’t comprehend. Which is made much more dangerous when some lawyers arrive at the home that he’s still puttering around in, and is told that he’s going to have to vacate the premises and find a new life. So, loading up a suitcase with some of the old man’s clothes, Chance puts on a suit and heads outside into the mean streets of Washington DC, the first time in his entire memory stepping foot outside the home. He then begins wandering the streets, looking for someone to help him, someone to tell him what to do and where to be. And, he doesn’t find much help. People don’t act like they do in the TV shows that he spent most of his time watching, and Chance finds himself adrift in the world, until he’s accidentally hit by a limousine while playing around with a store-front television. The woman inside the limousine, Eve Rand, is terrified that Chance is injured and will sue them, so she offers to take him to a doctor to get him checked out. And, not knowing what else to do, Chance agrees, and when Eve says that she and her husband have a doctor in their home, he agrees to go there instead.

It turns out that Eve is the wife of an incredibly wealthy and powerful businessman named Ben Rand, a kingmaker in Washington DC whose health has started to rapidly deteriorate after being diagnosed with a rare disease. So, inside their palatial mansion Ben basically has his own hospital, which is put to use by Chance, whom Eve and Ben have misunderstood to be Chauncey Gardiner. And, almost immediately, both of the Rand’s take a shine to Chauncey, taking his simple statements a pearls of pure wisdom. it appears that Chance doesn’t have any real injury from the car accident, but the doctor recommends that he stay in the house for a few days just in case, which is great for Chance, who has no idea what else to do with himself, and who is hoping to parlay this experience into becoming the Rand’s new gardener. But, that doesn’t end up happening. Instead, after a delightful dinner together, Ben has gotten it into his head that “Chauncey” is a former businessman who has been screwed over by the federal government, and who represents a younger version of himself. So, seeking to take him under his wing, Ben starts trying to mentor Chance, help him become a powerful businessman once more. And, one step of that is to invite Chance to attend a meeting between Ben and the President of the United States. Which gives Chance an opportunity to bring forth some more pearls of wisdom, primarily about gardening, which the President and Ben to take as incredibly insightful and powerful. So insightful that the President then quotes “Chauncey” on television, instantly making everyone in the country wonder who this Chauncey Gardiner is.

The entire political world of Washington DC then begins trying to figure out who Chance is and where he came from, all while he’s just happily living with Ben, giving the man some pleasant final days of friendship. And, while all of this is going on, Eve starts to fall in love with Chance, and with Ben’s permission start to try and seduce him, looking for a partner after Ben dies. But, as you can probably guess, Chance has no idea what to do with romantic affection, and just generally doesn’t know what to make of Eve’s new behavior, other than what he’s loosely gathered from a lifetime of obsessively watching television. And the entire time that he’s dealing with more personal issues that world continue to go wild for his thoughts, even eventually bringing him onto a popular late-night talk-show where his simplistic musings about gardening manage to capture the entire nation, making him the toast of the town. He meets with politicians from across America, and even the Soviet Union, and is quickly established as one of the hot up and coming political minds, despite having no idea what anyone is talking about. But, things eventually take a somber turn when Ben finally succumbs to his illness, dying after meeting with Chance one last time where he essentially gives control of his wealth over to the simple man, believing him to be a wise soul who will do the right thing. But, things get even more absurd when Ben’s funeral arrives, and the collected political minds of Washington are brought together where they covertly agree that the current president doesn’t stand a chance at reelection, and that they must nominate Chauncey Gardiner as the next president of the United States. And, while they’re scheming on how to accomplish this, Chance wander through Ben’s garden, eventually walking across the later of a pond, leaving the viewer with some questions of Chance’s divinity.

 

 

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Whenever I finish watching Being There I’m just left with an incredible sense of comfort and happiness. The film has some cynical leanings, and it is certainly full of some really great comedy, but at its heart it’s an immensely earnest film about a pure and good person, just trying to make his way in the world, not being manipulated or conned by anyone, and just making everyone around him more happy. Chance is a fascinating character, and the film only succeeds thanks to Peter Sellers’ absolutely transcendent performance, vividly reminding any viewer that he was more than just Inspector Clouseau. Which, isn’t a bad thing! Sellers was a tremendously gifted performer, and his work with comedy was virtually unparalleled, but this film showed what beautiful depth he was capable of, giving us a character who could so easily be played as a sort of stereotype, but who was handled with such grace that he never became a punchline, but a character worthy of all the respect he was being given. Likewise, Hal Ashby had gained himself a reputation as being something of a hippie beatnik, a gifted editor and filmmaker, but not someone who was capable of a lot of depth, and yet these two men, both eager to show that they actually had something worth saying, were able to give us this wonderful film. It’s incredibly tragic that Seller died so shortly after making this film, and that Ashby’s career kind of cratered out shortly after, because it was so clear that both of these artists had found a new passion and zeal, but we just didn’t get to see what they could make after this.

A few weeks ago I talked about Network, an amazing piece of social satire that lampooned the world of news, entertainment, and corporate over-sight, while giving us a film that has just become more and more prescient as time has gone on. And, in a weird way, I feel kind of similar about Being There. It’s not quite as blisteringly satiric as Network, Being There also took a look at the world of contemporary politics, and gave us a somewhat outlandish look at how things could work if taken to the extreme. And yet, I spent this last rewatch just floored by how accurately the film viewed people’s natural inclination in just hearing what they want to hear. Really, this could have worked in any sort of world, but by placing this story so firmly in the world of politics we get to see a man who really has nothing to say get seen as a genius, purely because the things he’s saying are so bland that people are able to use it to prop up whatever they actually believe. People view Chance as a genius because they’re able to infer that he’s agreeing with them at all times, letting them narcissisticly think that whatever they believe is brilliant because it sounds so good the way that Chance summarizes it. And, at the end of the day, that’s all people want. This film ends by suggesting that Chance will shortly become the President of the United States, and I fully think that he has a chance. Because people don’t really want new ideas that challenge them, they want someone to tell them that everything they think is right. Obviously we’re living in a world where the worst possible version of that scenario is occurring, someone who is speaking to humanity’s worst impulses and telling them that it’s okay to be ignorant and hateful, but this film at least lets you imagine what a world would be like where someone who just wants the best for people was in charge.

 

Being There was written by  Jerzy Kosinski, directed by Hal Ashby, and released by United Artists, 1979.

 

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