I’ve only seen a couple of Hal Ashby films – Harold and Maude and now this one – and though both are highly acclaimed, they both left me feeling pretty uncomfortable. I’m sure that’s the point, but it’s not an uncomfortable I appreciate.
In this one, simple-minded Chance (Peter Sellers) has been gardener to a rich man all his life. He’s never left the house, never really talked with anyone, never learned to read, never even gets his own meals – he just tends the garden and watches TV. When the old guy dies, lawyers come and tell him he’s got to leave, just like that, and after roaming the streets of Washington D.C., he finally ends up being hit by Shirley MacLaine’s car and she takes him home to get checked out by her ailing husband’s live-in medical team (mainly thinking to hush up the accident). His simple way of thinking is refreshing to the upper-crust Washington political elite, and he ends up an accidental and unconscious celebrity, with everyone taking his simplicity as wisdom.
I did enjoy the political satire parts a lot, as his straightforward conversations about gardening and his past get taken as deep metaphors. A lot of that is both pretty funny and also fairly trenchant. But there’s also a whole part where Shirley MacLaine gets romantically interested in Chance and he is basically incapable of understanding even what she wants, much less consenting to it. Those scenes were REALLY difficult to watch and I kind of need to see another Shirley MacLaine film stat to reset her in my mind.
There’s not a lot done with the TV angle, other than that’s all Chance wants to do (seeing the various programs he watches is fun) – unless the suggestion is that TV rots the brain and leaves you a blank slate for TV or anyone else to write on. I didn’t feel like watching all the TV was what caused Chance’s mental condition, though, but more that the TV was the only way he could learn how to interact with the world.
I did like the pacing and wry humor of the film, and Peter Sellers, known for his over the top roles in the Pink Panther movies and stuff like The Party, turns in a wonderfully subdued performance here. And it’s fun to see Melvyn Douglas, who I’ve seen in a bunch of old movies, of course. Still, it’s hard to overcome so many scenes that made me uncomfortable in a bad way.
Stats and stuff…
directed by Hal Ashby, written by Jerzy Kosinski
starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden
I’m ranking all my Challenge films on Flickchart (as I do all the films I see), a movie-ranking website that asks you to choose your favorite between two movies until it builds a ranked list of your favorites. Just for fun, I will average out the rankings and keep a running tally of whose recommendations rank the highest. When you add a film to Flickchart, it pits it against films already on your chart to see where it should fall. Here’s how Being There entered my chart:
Being There beats Three Times
Being There loses to Rango
Being There loses to Band of Brothers
Being There loses to Broadway Danny Rose
Being There loses to Mallrats
Being There loses to Drums Along the Mohawk
Being There loses to Rhythm on the River
Being There beats 52 Pick-Up
Being There beats Where the Wild Things Are (1973)
Being There beats Half Nelson
Being There loses to The Blue Angel
Final ranking #1794 out of 3638 films on my chart (51%)
It is now my #1 Hal Ashby film, my #7 Peter Sellers film, my #6 Shirley MacLaine film, my #56 New Hollywood film, my #8 Political Satire, and my #8 film of 1979.
Being There was recommended by Ryan Hope, a friend from the Flickchart group on Facebook.
A few quotes…
graffiti: American ain’t shit because the white man’s got a god complex.
Chance the Gardener: Excuse me, I’m very hungry, can you give me some lunch?
Ben: That’s one of the things I admire about you, your balance. You seem to be a truly peaceful man, Chauncey.
President “Bobby”: Mr. Gardner, do you agree with Ben, or do you think that we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives?
Chance the Gardener: As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.
President “Bobby”: In the garden.
Chance the Gardener: Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.
President “Bobby”: Spring and summer.
Chance the Gardener: Yes.
President “Bobby”: Then fall and winter.
Chance the Gardener: Yes.
Benjamin Rand: I think what our insightful young friend is saying is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, but we’re upset by the seasons of our economy.
Chance the Gardener: Yes! There will be growth in the spring!
Benjamin Rand: Hmm!
Chance the Gardener: Hmm!
President “Bobby”: Hm. Well, Mr. Gardner, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time.
[Benjamin Rand applauds]
President “Bobby”: I admire your good, solid sense. That’s precisely what we lack on Capitol Hill.
Louise: It’s for sure a white man’s world in America. Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss-ant. And I’ll say right now, he never learned to read and write. No, sir. Had no brains at all. Was stuffed with rice pudding between th’ ears. Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you’ve gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want. Gobbledy-gook!
Ben: You have the gift of being natural.
Eve: I don’t know what you like, Chauncey.
Chance the Gardener: I like to watch, Eve. I like to watch.
Eve: You uncoiled my wants. Desire flows within me, and when you watch me, my passion…it dissolves the desire. You set me free, Chauncey, and I reveal myself to myself and I am drenched and purged.
President “Bobby”: Life is a state of mind.
A few more screenshots…