Being There (1979)


Untitled-1Chance is a very interesting man. He isn’t complex or well educated, but he is interesting. And many of the people in Being There find him interesting too. He has the mind of a child; he can’t make his own meals, and he has a very limited vocabulary that usually consists of “Oh yes, very much”, “Oh yes please”, “I’d like that very much”, and so on. He is dim-witted, but he carries himself well. This is important, because his appearance means the difference between people loving him and calling social services.

He is played by Peter Sellers, who was no easy man to live with. He burned many bridges in his day, especially ones leading to his one and only son, Michael. Apparently, the two began reconciling shortly before Sellers’ death in 1980. Maybe it’s this tattered relationship — and the prospect of losing his only child — that allowed Sellers to channel something special for his role as Chance. Or maybe he just knew that his time was coming. I’ve seen him go crazy in many of his earlier roles. When he played three different people in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, that was remarkable. When he made Inspector Clouseau his own, and then evolved the character the more times he played him, that was remarkable. When he created havoc in The Party, that was remarkable. But here, he is something beyond remarkable. Moving, perhaps. Almost sublime. He is reserved, calm and steady, but no less captivating. He does more by doing less. When we see a tear stream down his cheek near the end of the movie, we know he’s earned that tear. And that tear has earned him, if that makes sense.

That tear is a big deal, because it’s the first time we see him display any sort of genuine emotion. How he manages to conjure that tear I cannot tell you, but I was surprised to see it there. It almost seems like an impossibility. From the moment we meet him, all he ever does is watch TV and shake people’s hands. That is the extent of his social skills. But like I mentioned earlier, the key to his success in the movie is the way he dresses and carries himself, because it creates a lie that is innocent.

The idea of Being There is that no matter what your background is — even if you have none — you will gain friends, connections, even lovers, if you are able to present yourself as someone of substance. This is how Chance gets by. He has nothing going on in his head, but because he wears expensive suits (that aren’t his), is polite, and speaks with complete and utter honesty, the people he meets — particularly Eve Rand (Shirley MacClaine) and her husband Ben (Melvyn Douglas) — mistake his low IQ for quiet intelligence. Here’s an example, and it’s a big one: He joins Ben in a meeting with the president, and when asked for his opinion on the imminent financial threat, he responds by talking about gardening. Now, we all know that he’s talking about real gardening, because he loves to garden and knows nothing about finance, but the president and Ben think he’s speaking in metaphors. Something about roots and the four seasons. The president takes his “advice” and broadcasts it to the country, and he becomes a star.

And still, he has no idea what’s going on. He is as clueless as a toddler at a high stakes poker game. When Eve tries to make love to him, he just sits there like a block of wood with his eyes on the TV. When she pleasures herself for his amusement, he chooses instead to emulate aerobics positions. He creates moments that are hysterically funny, and at the same time, difficult to watch, and we can’t help but feel for him.

Being There is both drama and comedy, but the drama and comedy are unlike anything we’ve seen. They don’t work apart from each other; they work together. They merge into one seamless thread of touching moments, laughter, uncomfortable moments, and greatness. When Sellers makes us laugh, he does so by spurting unexpected words, or doing the wrong thing at the right time, not by knocking over a flower vase or shooting a suction dart in between a guy’s eyes. He is subtle in the way he walks, talks, smiles, eats, jokes. And it’s all fabulous.

I know I’m talking an awful lot about Sellers, but he is the star of the show. More so because Chance is so unlike anything I’ve ever seen Sellers play before. He is like a breath of fresh air. He doesn’t necessarily outplay MacClaine or Douglas, or Jack Warden, but I feel that the movie is his to win, and the other’s to fight for. I’m sure many people have compared him to Forrest Gump, but I didn’t like Forrest. I didn’t like Tom Hanks in the role (I think I need to rewatch it). I liked Sellers in this role. He is fragile and sympathetic, and truly lovable. And he’s possibly ethereal. The last scene has been open to debate for years and years, and I don’t know what to make of it. There’s probably nothing to make of it. It is what it is. Chance walks on water, just like Christ did 2,000 years before. What is there to say about that?

Best Moment | Many. Oh, and if you manage to catch the version of the movie with the set of bloopers during the end credits, watch it, because it’s hilarious. Sellers apparently hated it, but whatever.

Worst Moment | Nope.


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