Being There is a 1979 film directed by Hal Ashby, adapted from the 1971 novel written by Jerzy Kosiński. The film stars Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Richard A. Dysart and Richard Basehart. Douglas won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and Sellers was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. This was the last Peter Sellers film to be released while he was alive.
The screenplay was coauthored by Kosinski and the award winning screenwriter Robert C. Jones, winning the 1981 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Film) Best Screenplay Award and the 1980 Writers Guild of America Award (Screen) for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium. It was also nominated for the 1980 Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay.
Chance (Sellers) is a middle-aged gardener who lives in the townhouse of a wealthy man in Washington, D.C.. Chance has lived in the house his whole life, tending the garden, with virtually no contact with the outside world. His cultural and social education is derived entirely from what he watches on the television sets provided by the "Old Man", who raised him. The only other person in his life is Louise, the maid who cooks his meals and looks upon him as nothing more than a child who has failed to grow up. When his benefactor dies, Chance is forced to leave his sheltered existence and discover the outside world for the first time.
He wanders aimlessly through a wintry and busy Washington in old-fashioned clothes, a homburg hat, suitcase and umbrella. In the evening Chance comes across a TV shop and sees himself in one of the TVs due to a camera in the shop window. While watching himself in it he is struck by a car owned by Ben Rand (Douglas), a wealthy businessman.
Rand’s wife Eve (MacLaine) invites Chance to their home (the Biltmore Estate) to recover from his injured leg. After being offered alcohol for the first time in his life, Chance coughs over it while being asked his name which, instead of "Chance the Gardener" (which is what he said), is interpreted to be "Chauncey Gardiner". During dinner at the Rand’s home, Chance describes attorneys coming to his former house and shutting it down. Although Chance is really describing being kicked out of the home where he tended to the garden, Ben Rand perceives it as attorneys shutting down Chance’s business due to financial problems. Sympathizing with him, Ben Rand takes Chance under his wing. His simplistic, very serious and indeliberate utterances, which mostly concern the garden of which he was once steward, are interpreted as allegorical statements of deep wisdom and knowledge regarding business matters and the current state of politics in America.
Rand is also the confidant and adviser of the US President (Warden), whom he introduces to "Chauncey". Chance’s remarks about how the garden changes with the seasons are interpreted by the President as economic and political advice, relating to his concerns about the mid-term unpopularity that many administrations face while in office. Chance, as Chauncey Gardiner, quickly rises to national public prominence. He becomes a media celebrity with appearances on TV talk shows, and is soon on the A-list of the most wanted in Washington society. Public opinion polls start to reflect just how much his "simple brand of wisdom" resonates with the jaded American public.
Rand, dying of aplastic anemia, encourages his wife to get close to Chance, knowing Eve is a fragile woman. Only Rand’s doctor (Dysart) sees Chance for what he truly is: an actual gardener totally oblivious and unaware to the ways of the world. However, the fact that Chance has given Rand an apparent acceptance of his illness and peace of mind with his imminent death makes the doctor hesitant to say anything.
Rand dies, leaving Chance a legacy in his will. At his funeral, the President gives a long-winded read-out of Rand’s quotations, which hardly impresses the pallbearers, members of the board of Rand’s companies. They hold a whispered discussion over potential replacements for the President for the next term of office. As Rand’s coffin is about to be added to his family’s Masonic pyramid-like mausoleum they finally agree on "Chauncey Gardiner".
Oblivious to all this, Chance wanders through Rand’s wintry estate. Ever the gardener, he straightens out a bush and then walks off… across the surface of a small lake. He pauses, dips his umbrella into the water under his feet as if testing its depth, turns, smiles, then continues to walk on the water as Rand’s quote "Life is a state of mind" is read in the background.
Cast, characters and their perceptions
- Sellers as Chauncey "Chance" Gardiner: a simple gardener who has spent his entire life isolated from the world. Chance’s calm and seemingly highly intelligent demeanor is essentially a blank canvas on which each of the film’s characters paint their own picture, sometimes making Chance out to be much more than he really is.
- Douglas as Ben Rand: a dying business leader and political king-maker. Rand gains a perception of Chauncey as a failed though totally decent businessman down on his luck. He also sees Chauncey’s reference to seasons in gardening as an insightful comment about the national economy. Near the end of the film and due to Chance’s strong presence in his life, Ben finally makes some much needed peace with himself and his terminal illness knowing that Chance will be around to love and care for his wife Eve after his inevitable death.
- MacLaine as Eve Rand: Ben’s wife. She is first puzzled by Chauncey’s strangeness and then thinks of him as having insight and a sense of humor. Later she sinks her own initial doubts and adopts the consensus view that he is a great man. She then pursues her own need for friendship and sexual contact, especially when her dying husband signals his consent to her forming a strong relationship with Chauncey. This ultimately leads her to act on her sexual desires with the oblivious Chance. In one scene, Chance kisses her, imitating a scene he has just seen on TV, but then tells her that he prefers to watch. Eve subsequently proceeds to masturbate while Chance continues to channel-surf (which is what he meant).
- Warden as The President: He first sees Chauncey’s advice as inspiring, to the point that he quotes and names him on national TV. But he soon comes to regret bringing this mystery man into the spotlight since it might jeopardize his chances of running for a second term. His anxiety over Gardiner is so intense that it renders him sexually impotent.
- The FBI, astounded by their inability to discover anything about "Chauncey Gardiner", come to the conclusion that someone has eliminated the entire record — a feat of such ability that "only an ex-FBI man could have done it!" The CIA prefer to think that the cover-up was perpetrated by one of their own agents, highlighting the rivalry between the two organizations.
- David Clennon as Thomas Franklin: the attorney, who distrusts Chance’s motives for acting the way he does when they first meet in the house owned by Chance’s late benefactor and orders him out. Later, Franklin, keen to start a career in politics, seems to view his contact with Chauncey Gardiner as potentially ruinous to his ambitions.
- Ruth Attaway as Louise: the African-American maid, sees Chance, whom she has known since he was a boy, on national TV, and declares out loud that he only has "rice pudding between the ears." It confirms her opinion that America is certainly a "white man’s world." Her actual monologue was known to have brought the biggest laughter in theatres during the movie’s theatrical lifespan: "It’s for sure a white man’s world in America. I raised that boy since he was the size of a ‘pissant’ and I’ll tell you he never learned to read nor write. No sir. Has no brains at all. Stuffed with rice pudding between the ears. Short-changed by the Lord and dumb as a jackass. Yes sir, all you got to be is white in America to get whatever you want. Gobbledegoop."
- The general public, portrayed by the audience in the TV studio, opinion polls and Thomas Franklin’s girlfriend, thinks that Chauncey is simply "brilliant."
- Financial and political elite seen at Rand’s funeral. They believe that Gardiner may be their man for the next presidential election instead of a second term for the current President.
- Richard A. Dysart as Dr. Robert Allenby: the good-hearted doctor initially worries that Chauncey will sue Rand for damages following the accident. He eventually learns the truth and confronts Chance with the information, who confirms it, having never actually claimed to be anything else — the whole affair has been based on what people assume Chauncey is rather than what Chance led them to believe he was. However, Allenby ultimately decides to keep this knowledge to himself since Chance has given his patient a new outlook on life and death, and acceptance of his fate.
Memorable scenes in the film version include Chance leaving the house he has lived in all his life to enter into the poor black Washington, D.C. neighborhood he has never explored. The scene is musically set to a funked-up version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (performed by Deodato), the music popularized in 2001: A Space Odyssey and an accompaniment to many TV programs regarding space exploration.
Chance is later confronted by a street gang. A street gang member pulls a knife on Chance and says, "Don’t give me no jive…I’ll cut up your white ass." Chance pulls out his TV remote control as though to change the vision before his eyes. A lifetime of watching TV has not prepared him for the realities of real life.
In Eve Rand’s limousine, Chance asks to watch TV, to which he pays more attention than the luxurious vehicle around him or the woman he has just met. Chance watches the Cheech and Chong short film Basketball Jones in Eve’s limo, and the song continues to play when he arrives at the Rand estate and is brought into their mansion. George Harrison plays guitar on the song "Basketball Jones".
A large portion of the film including the final scene take place at the massive Biltmore House, which "stands in" as the home of Mr. Rand. The Biltmore House and Estate is the largest private residence in the United States and is located in Asheville, North Carolina. The scenes involving the funeral for Rand were also filmed on the grounds of the estate.
MacLaine’s character writhing in long-suppressed sexual pleasure on a bear rug while Chance obliviously channel-surfs and tries to mimic a yoga program by standing on his head.
The second to last scene has generated discussion and controversy. Before Ben dies, he says, "Tell Eve that…", and he dies in the middle of the sentence. The doctor puts Ben’s hand to his chest. Chance then puts his hand on Ben’s forehead as if reviving him or sending his soul to rest. When he takes his hand off Ben’s forehead, he speaks with the doctor, and then, leaves the room. As Chance is leaving the room, the doctor, blurred, is watching him with his back facing the screen. Someone (the doctor or Rand) then says, "I understand." The doctor turning around to look at the dead Ben, then says, "I understand?" This scene can possibly support the hypothesis that Chance indeed possesses some unknown divine power.
In the final scene, as the party elite discuss choosing Chance as their preferred candidate in the upcoming presidential election, Chance is seen wandering over the estate. He comes to the edge of a lake and then continues to walk on the surface of the water, and not into it. Film critic Roger Ebert mentions this in his 2001 book The Great Movies, saying that his students suggested Chance may be walking on a submersed pier. Ebert comments, "The movie presents us with an image, and while you may discuss the meaning of the image it is not permitted to devise explanations for it. Since Ashby does not show a pier, there is no pier–a movie is exactly what it shows us, and nothing more."
One clue that is often overlooked, is the diegetic sound accompanying the simple image of Chance walking on the lake water. As Chance walks through the woods near the funeral, a series of Rand’s personal quotations are read aloud while the coffin is carried to its final resting place. Rand’s last quote coincides with the last image of the film: just as the words "Life is a state of mind" are recited, we see Chance walk on water.
- "I have no use for those on welfare, no patience whatsoever, but if I am to be honest with myself, I must admit that they have no use for me either."
- "I do not regret having political differences with men that I respect. I do regret however, that our philosophies kept us apart."
- "I could never conceive why I could never convince my kitchen staff that I looked forward to a good bowl of chili now and then."
- "I have heard the word "sir," more often than I have heard the word "friend," but I suppose there are other rewards for wealth."
- "I have met with kings; during these conferences I have suppressed bizarre thoughts. Could I beat him in a foot race? Could I throw a ball further than he?"
- "No matter what our facades, we are all children."
- "To raise your rifle is to lower your sights."
- "No matter what you are told there is no such thing as an even trade."
- "I was born into a position of extreme wealth, but I have spent many sleepless nights thinking about extreme poverty."
- "I have lived a lot, trembled a lot, was surrounded by little men who forgot that we entered naked and exit naked and that no accountant can audit life in our favor."
- "When I was a boy, I was told that the Lord fashioned us from His own image, that’s when I decided to manufacture mirrors."
- "Security. Tranquility. A Well Deserved Rest. All the aims I have pursued will soon be realized."
- "Life is a state of mind."
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