Filmsite Movie Review
Being There (1979)
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Being There (1979), subtitled "a story of chance," is a provocative and elegiac black comedy -- a wonderful dramatic yet placid tale or fable that satirized politics, celebrity, media-obsession and television. The subtle film's slogan proclaimed:

"Getting there is half the fun. Being there is all of it."

The film was directed by Hal Ashby (already known for Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), and the acclaimed Vietnam war film Coming Home (1978)). The politically-satirical, overly-long film, although thoroughly contrived, was about mistaken identity and the television age, It had been adapted from the 1971 novel by Polish writer Jerzy Kosinski, with Sellers in a chameleon-like role in his second-to-last film, just before The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980). His role was a forerunner to the mentally-challenged Tom Hanks character in Forrest Gump (1994).

The existentialist title referred to the fact of human existence, seen in the person of the childlike protagonist (named Chance) with a clean slate (or tabula rasa) for his past. His entire frame of reference (for both words and deeds) was derived from his empty-headed dependence upon an ever-present television and his simple occupation - gardening. Once the man-child was expelled (a Garden of Eden motif) by lawyers and thrust into the outer world (to experience both extremes - the inner city and the world of the wealthy, powerful, and elite, and a woman named Eve!), he maintained his primal, archetypal, semi-enlightened innocence and restrained detachment. Almost everyone he encountered (except his African-American maid and a watchful resident doctor) in the DC political system interpreted his slightly mysterious, extremely literal pronouncements (mostly about gardening) as wise, pithy, profound, and metaphoric gnomic statements, and perceived him the way that they wished to envision him, regardless of his naivete and the reality of the situation.

Chance's miraculous success and recognition in the world was due to his reticent ignorance, his stately attitude, and his sweet, gentle and unruffled mannerisms. In the ambiguous ending, like many of TV's cartoon characters, he walked off the stage - and literally walked on water - reinforced by the film's final refrain: "Life is a state of mind."

The film had two Academy Awards nominations, including Best Actor for the very versatile actor Peter Sellers (with his second and last unsuccessful bid - he lost to Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)) for his superb understated performance, and a Best Supporting Actor nomination and Oscar win for Melvyn Douglas (his third and last career nomination and second Best Supporting Actor win that defeated Robert Duvall's nomination for Apocalypse Now (1979), among others).

Plot Synopsis

At the "Old Man's" (Mr. Jennings) Home:

The film opened at a very measured, minimalist and tepid pace to introduce the main protagonist - a graying, unidentified gentleman as he slept with the television on in his ornate bedroom, as the credits played. A symphony orchestra was performing Franz Schubert's Unfinished Symphony (No. 8), as he awoke to his ever-present view of TV 'reality':

[Note: The performers were from the North Carolina School of the Arts Orchestra. Principal filming occurred in their area, at the Biltmore Estate, constructed in the late 1800s (Gilded Age) for George W. Vanderbilt II. It remains the largest privately-owned home in America, set on a 10-acre lot, and was located in Asheville, North Carolina. The home substituted for the main Washington, DC palatial estate later in the film.]

He sat on the edge of his bed in a light yellow silk set of top and bottom matching pajamas. He groomed his hair before a mirror before fussing with the placement of some plants. Shortly later, the blankly staring and expressionless, mentally-challenged individual was in a greenhouse or potting room (with another TV in the background playing a bank advertisement), as he watered some plants. He fastidiously dusted a 1935 limousine in the garage with a hand feather duster (note the two flat tires on the left side, signifying it had been rarely driven). He appeared to have only two favorite past-times: gardening and watching TV (that provided him with most of his knowledge about the world).

Back in his bedroom, he used the remote clicker to change the channel to:

  • a Mumbly cartoon show (the popular dog animated series from Hanna-Barbera Productions from 1976 to 1977) - an excerpt from the show's second episode, airing Sept. 18, 1976, titled "The Great Hot Car Heist")
  • a weather report about a significant blizzard in the Midwest moving eastward
  • an episode of Sesame Street from 1977, featuring Buffy and Big Bird, who said: "Friends? I have no friends"

He was now smartly-dressed and seated at his dining room table before a place setting with a bib tucked under his neck - directly across from a table top TV (playing the 3rd clip above). Apparently, he was a virtual imprisoned reclusive - but well-groomed, dressed in custom-tailored 1930s suits, and fed on schedule. The estate's elderly black cook-housekeeper Louise (Ruth Attaway) entered with ominous news for Chance (Peter Sellers), that his benefactor had perished in the upstairs bedroom. She was distraught: "He's dead, Chance. The Old Man is dead....He wasn't breathing and as cold as a fish. I touched him, just to see." Chance reacted blankly, flatly, impassively and with an emotionless, simple-minded response about the weather: "Yes, Louise,. it looks like it's going to snow. Have you seen the garden? It feels just like it's going to snow." She was perplexed by his lack of concern, although shouldn't have been:

Damn it, boy. Is that all you've got to say? That Old Man is lying up there dead as hell, and it just don't make any difference to you.

She realized that she had been expecting too much from him. [Note: In the background, singer Buffy Sainte-Marie sang to Big Bird on the Sesame Street TV show: "Different people, different ways" - from the song Different Ways, to emphasize Louise's realization.] After an apology, she offered to bring Chance his usual breakfast of eggs prepared for him. Chance again changed the channel by rotating the dial to:

  • an episode of Captain Kangaroo, with a talking rooster saying: "Cock-a-Doddle-Doo"

After breakfast, Chance walked upstairs to fold down the sheet covering the head of his deceased benefactor (the Old Man - his father who had raised him?) stretched out on his bed - and then felt his cold forehead. [Note: This was the first of two significant 'father-figure' deaths in the film for Chance. Both life-changing events bookended the film to keep it balanced. However, Chance had no reaction or mourning period for this first death.] Without any emotion next to the corpse, he sat on the edge of the bed, reached for the room's TV remote, and switched on another TV:

  • a Sealy Posturepedic Advertisement: with the cheery "It's a Sealy Posturepedic Morning" jingle, and the pitchman: "Feeling so good that it shows because Posturepedic is designed in cooperation with leading orthopedic surgeons for no morning backache from sleeping on a too-soft mattress." There was a connection between the ad (with a woman pictured on a bed), and the deceased body on the bed next to Chance
  • an unidentified movie, set in the South, in which a woman ("Miss Kittling") admonished her black buggy driver Alvin (who kept saying "Yowsa") to keep the horses out of the sun, and to keep his own hat and gloves on in his seat

As she departed from the estate for the last time from the garden, Louise bid Chance a melancholy goodbye, advising him to find a caretaker for himself:

You're gonna need somebody. You ought to find yourself a lady, Chance. But I guess it oughta be an old lady, because you ain't gonna do a young one any good, not with that little thing of yours. You're always gonna be a little boy, ain't ya? (She kissed him on the cheek) Goodbye, Chance.

Everything in the estate was now covered with white sheets, although Chance was able to uncover the one over the TV on the dining room table - he watched:

  • the game show The Price is Right ("Here's what you can win in this game. Look. It's a new car!")
  • a news-report about the US President (Jack Warden) visiting with dignitaries in the Oval Office from the Republic of China

With the owner deceased, attorney Thomas Franklin (David Clennon) and his associate Ms. Sally Hayes (Fran Brill), working for the law firm of Franklin, Jennings, & Roberts, entered the front hallway door of the estate. They were handling the financial matters for the deceased old man ("Mr. Jennings"). Chance introduced himself as "Chance, the Gardener," and to their surprise told them: "I live here." Ms. Hayes noted: "There is no mention of a gardener" or any other full-time employee for decades except for a brick-mason (for a short time) named Joe Saracini who repaired some of the brick wall. Chance told them the estate had been his home "ever since I can remember" - where he had worked in the garden since childhood. He admitted he had no proof of his existence - no documentation of his residence or personhood (medical or dental records, Social Security Card or Birth Certificate) or his relationship to the deceased. He confirmed:

I've never been allowed outside of the house.

After visiting the garage, the group went inside the house, where Chance described how early in his life, he first listened to the radio, then was given television sets by the eccentric, bed-ridden millionaire "Old Man" - with whom he had lived his whole sheltered life, while remaining oblivious about the real world. To attempt to prove he lived there, while a TV was blared in the background, he showed the two lawyers his bed, bathroom, sink, toilet, bathtub and closet - filled with clothes he was allowed to wear any of the "Old Man's" elegant hand-me down suits in the attic. Strangely, he mentioned his preference for his bed to face north, although it was facing west. Without a claim to make against the deceased's estate, except his blank statement: "The garden is a healthy one," and due to his inability to sign a statement (due to his illiteracy?), Chance was forced to be evicted by Franklin by noon the next day:

I have no alternative but to inform you that this house is now closed. If, indeed, you have resided here, you have no legal right to remain. You'll have to move out by, let's say, noon tomorrow.

There were a number of ads or excerpts from TV shows during the lawyers' entire visit:

  • a TV commercial for Anheuser Busch Natural Light Beer at a bar ("You can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay")
  • "Maybe there's another gum machine someplace?"
  • a comedic discussion on a sit-com about the safety of an airline ("Madam, we're very proud of our safety record. Do you know that we haven't had one accident since we started flying...last week...The plane. To Washington. Is that where you're going?...Just a ding-a-ling and a pig that thinks he's the Red Baron?")
  • a disposable shaver ad: "Flicker wraps every blade with a hair-thin wire...for a very close shave without nicks and cuts. Great legs!" - ♪ Ain't gonna cut ya ♪
  • a candy bar ad: "Did you know that Mounds have no artificial ingredients?...From our family to yours. With no artificial ingredients."
  • a Washington Post ad montage played on TV, identifying the location of the estate as Washington, DC
  • a clip from an episode of the original Get Smart (TV series from 1965-1970)
  • an excerpt from the quiz show Hollywood Squares featuring Paul Lynde answering a question
  • a show about a man who suffered a skull fracture and chest crushing and became a paraplegic, but recuperated after a year in the hospital, acquired a Master's degree, and was feeling posiive about his future

Chance searched in the attic for a small suitcase in the Old Man's possessions.

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