“Doesn’t a country need to have someone in charge who can see it through these periods of crisis, a leader capable of guiding us through the bad seasons as well as the good?,” TV host Gary Burns asks the main character Chance Gardiner in the mouthwatering and sophisticated satire “Being There” (1979). “Yes – we need a very good gardener and I do agree with the president. The garden needs a lot of care. It is a good garden. Its trees are healthy,” answers Chance. Chauncey – a simpleminded gardener who speaks in banalities that are interpreted as profound observations – is propelled by everyone around him to become what they want or need him to be. He is turned into a political prophet in the hands of the Washington ruling class. All his interactions during his precipitous ascent of the social and political ladder are beyond his intellectual and financial skills yet he becomes the most unlikely presidential candidate. Does this sound familiar?
Chance – who has limited mental capacities – has lived all his life in a mansion in Washington – raised by the Black housekeeper and looking after the garden. He wears the hand-me-downs from the owners which are all bespoke suits made in the 30s. He’s addicted to watching TV – and everything he’s learnt has come from it. His mental difference keeps him immune to life’s limitations, fears and anxieties. When the patron dies and the estate is liquidated, Chance steps out literally for the first time into the world. In a set of coincidences, he ends up in another mansion – owned by elderly and terminally ill business tycoon and advisor to the President – Ben Rand. Because of his fixed state of mind – he answers all the questions in very direct and simple terms – which get interpreted as deep metaphors. His responses tend to be about gardening – and because of the nature of how totally unexpected his responses are – they’re taken as financial wisdom. In other people’s eyes – Chance is able to reduce complex subject matter into its essential truth. “There’s so much to assimilate it can become quiet muddling sometimes,” expresses Ben’s wife, Eve. Chance’s ability to help an old man comes to term with death and Eve to “uncoil her wants.” He has a gift at being natural.
The film is directed with incredible finesse by one of the most important directors of the 1970s, Hal Ashby – responsible for such classics as “Shampoo” and “Coming Home.” In somebody else’s hands, this premise could have been exploited for crass and cheap laughs. Ashby’s approach is stately – slow simmering – elegant – the comedy is there, but it builds. There’s also the recognition factor – where you totally sympathize with the main character – Chance – yet slowly start to realize that we are the subjects that are being satirized. There’s this fantastic sense of tension throughout the film – between the sheltered world that Chance lives in – and the outside world – and when will the curtain that separates them be pulled aside. As an audience you experience how Chance sees things – and how his audience construes it. Every interaction has a double meaning. The film works as an allegory and Ashby and his cinematographer Caleb Deschanel remind you of that visually. Watch as Chance steps out into the real world – and the way they shoot him on the threshold through a door window pane. Also Sprach Zarathustra plays over this moment. Chance’s TV consumption is woven into the narrative and it’s not just background. Whatever is playing on TV comments on the scene unfolding in front of you. Observe that Big Bird is singing “Different people different ways” as Chance is being told of the death of his boss at the beginning of the story – and later on in one of the most absurd and hysterical scenes involves “The Thomas Crown Affair” playing on TV, a bear rug and a yoga class with a difficult inversion.
This time around I was noticing even more relevant undercurrents. As Chance walks in the poor neighborhood there’s graffiti that reads “American ain’t shot cause the white man’s got a god complex.” And when Chance appears on the TV show as his star is rising, the housekeeper recognizes him and says, “It’s for sure a white man’s world in America. Shortchanged by the lord and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now. All you got to be is white in America to get whatever you want.”
“Being There” is a high wire act to pull off – and it wouldn’t have worked with a lesser actor than Peter Sellers. There’s such precision in Chance’s physicality – in his walk – the way he enunciates things – you fully understand and believe in the innocence behind his words– and the humanity within him. It’s a miraculous creation. Melvyn Douglas won his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing the political advisor who falls under Chance’s spell. His death scene is like none I’ve seen in cinema – and Sellers’ reaction makes for a masterful pas de deux.
The end quote of the film says it all – accompanied with its closing extraordinary allegorical visual that just like Chance’s utterings could be interpreted in so many ways: “Life is a state of mind.” I tend to overthink everything – especially this day and age – so I could definitely learn a lot from Chance the Gardener.
Ben: “I’ve tried not to misuse that power. It’s extremely important Chauncey – that we don’t allow ourselves to become blinded to the needs of our government – no matter how strong the temptation. Oh I’ve been labeled a kingmaker but I’ve tried to keep myself open to the voice of the people, and I’ve remained honest to myself.”
Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Vudu, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Microsoft, FandangoNOW, Redbox and DIRECTV.
Screenplay by Jerzy Kosinski. Based on the novel by Jerzy Kosinski
Directed by Hal Ashby
Starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Warden, Melvyn Douglas, Richard Dysart, and Richard Basehart
Bringing “Being There” to the Screen
“As early as 1973, Sellers introduced the book to director Hal Ashby (1929-1988), whose film Harold and Maude (1971, see entry) he particularly admired. Ashby helped bring the project to Lorimar. As reported in an 8 May 1978 HR article, Being There represented the initial film in a multi-picture contract that Ashby had recently signed with Lorimar and producer Jack Schwartzman’s JS Productions. A 25 Jun 1978 NYT article mentioned that the planned budget was $6 million…Kosinski noted in an interview in the 14 Feb 1979 NYT that his screenplay adaptation was inspired by, rather than based on his novel. During production, the writing credit was shared between Jerzy Kosinski and Robert C. Jones, according to an article in the 21 Apr 1980 New West. Ashby hired Jones, who received an Academy Award for the original screenplay of Ashby’s film, “Coming Home” (1978, see entry), to rewrite Kosinski’s drafts, which he considered “‘too heavy-handed.’” According to Ashby, Jones’s contribution resulted in a shooting script considerably different than Kosinski’s version, and Ashby was displeased when a ruling by the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) awarded sole credit to Kosinski.
The production began filming in Los Angeles, CA, Jan 1979, as reported in a 21 Jan 1979 HR brief. The greenhouse and garden of Chance’s original residence were constructed at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, while the house was shot on location at the Pasadena Historical Society in Pasadena, CA. Filming continued in Washington, D.C., and in Asheville, NC, at The Biltmore House and Gardens, the 1895 estate of George W. Vanderbilt, which functioned as the interior and exterior of the Rand mansion. The filmmakers spent the majority of the shooting schedule, four to five weeks, at the 10,000-acre estate and in the process brought over one million dollars to the local economy of Asheville, as noted in a 20 Feb 1979 HR news item. The décor of the chateau-like home, including the library, banquet hall and artwork, required little modification for filming purposes, with the exception of adding scenery for the private medical clinic and the pyramid crypt. The film crew was able to utilize other areas of the house and grounds for production offices, dressing rooms and construction sites.” (catalog.afi.com)
Casting Peter Sellers
“…Peter Sellers had been interested in playing the role of Chance since the publication of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel “Being There” in 1971. As recalled by Kosinski in a 23 Dec 1979 NYTarticle, Sellers sent him a message that read, “‘Available my garden or outside it. C. Gardiner,’” and the actor would often pretend to be Chance in public. When Kosinski learned that original screenplays resembling the novel were being commissioned, he decided to sell the screen rights on the condition of Sellers’ involvement, marking the first time one of his books had been adapted. After producer Andrew Braunsberg, an acquaintance of Kosinski, purchased the rights in 1978, the project got underway…In preparing for the role, the crucial aspect for Sellers was the sound of Chance’s voice. He described the accent in production notes as “very clear enunciation, slightly American, with perhaps a little Stan Laurel mixed in.” (catalog.afi.com)
Shirley MacLaine Reflects on Working with Peter Sellers
In an interview with The New York Times, Shirley MacLaine shares her experience working with Peter Sellers in Being There. “…Peter had a leak in his aura. Therefore, he was remembering all these past life experiences and could use them to become his characters in performance. During “Being There,” Hal Ashby directed this 1979 adaptation of the Jerzy Kosinski novel of the same name. He believed he was Chauncey Gardiner and I was Eve. He believed he was in love with me. We had been jet-set buddies; I used to hang out with him and Peter O’Toole whenever I would go to London or Paris and stay up for three nights. I would make sure they didn’t fall down drunk. But then when we did “Being There,” Peter became his character totally, and we never even had lunch together. My buddy had turned into Chauncey Gardiner. What an experience…Before he got the part, they offered it to Larry Olivier. Larry called me and said, “I’m not doing this film because of the masturbation scene.” “Oh, bull. Come on, Larry!” That’s why he didn’t do it.” (The New York Times)
About Director Hal Ashby
“Ashby was the youngest of four children. After holding a series of odd jobs, Ashby hitchhiked to Los Angeles, where he eventually became a multilith printing press operator at Universal Studios. He worked in Republic studios’ poster-printing operation in the early 1950s, then became an assistant editor to such directors as William Wyler (on “Friendly Persuasion”  and “The Big Country” ) and George Stevens (on “The Diary of Anne Frank”  and “The Greatest Story Ever Told” ). As head editor, Ashby worked with Tony Richardson on “The Loved One” (1965) and with Norman Jewison on “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965) and “In the Heat of the Night” (1967); Ashby won an Academy Award for his work on the latter film.
Jewison helped Ashby land his first directing assignment, the socially conscious comedy “The Landlord” (1970), with Beau Bridges as a quirky, wealthy young man who bonds with the tenants living in the Brooklyn tenement he has purchased on a whim. Ashby’s second film was “Harold and Maude” (1971)…It was “The Last Detail” (1973), however, that advanced Ashby to the front rank of mainstream directors. One of 1975’s biggest—and most controversial—hits was “Shampoo,” a satire of Los Angeles society in 1968 with charismatic starring performances by Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, and Goldie Hawn, great supporting work by Lee Grant (who won an Oscar) and Jack Warden, and a clever, bold screenplay by Towne and Beatty. Ashby’s next film was “Bound for Glory” (1976), a biopic about the activist folk singer Woody Guthrie (David Carradine). Although it did not do well at the box office, the film was well received by critics; among its many Academy Award nominations was one for best picture.
Ashby’s most-lauded film was one that many critics panned, an appropriately polarized reaction to a film about the effects of the Vietnam War on the home front. But if some regarded Coming Home (1978) as sanctimonious, others believed the film had the courage of its convictions. Most critics, however, agreed that Coming Home featured powerful performances. In fact, all the principal actors were nominated for Oscars—Jon Voight, Jane Fonda, Penelope Milford, and Bruce Dern, with both Voight and Fonda winning—and Ashby received his only Oscar nomination for best director. Although Coming Home was a difficult act to follow, Ashby did nearly as well with Being There (1979)… After an impressive string of acclaimed films, Ashby’s next efforts—”Second-Hand Hearts” (1981) and “Lookin’ to Get Out” (1982), which actually was filmed before “Hearts” but was left on the shelf for two years—were poorly received. Searching for a change of pace, Ashby directed “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (1982), a Rolling Stones concert film that he assembled in a workmanlike fashion from their 1981 tour. In 1985 he returned to feature films with “The Slugger’s Wife,”…Ashby’s final film was “8 Million Ways to Die” (1986). Ashby turned to television, and he worked on several projects before being diagnosed with cancer. He died in 1988.” (britannica.com)