July 21, 2011

Being There (USA 1979)

Sometimes "being there" is enough. At the right place and time, that is.

The main character in Hal Ashby's wonderful film "Being There", a simple-minded gardener who never before left the townhouse of his former employer, happens to stumble into a circle of influential power brokers eager for "sage wisdom". In the course of the film, he becomes famous, meets the president and is celebrated for an appearance on a national TV show for his simplified view of complex problems. He even finds himself an attractive women and is considered a potential candidate for presidency.

Could this happen in real life? Most likely not. Is it a joy to watch? Absolutely. But it is not just the entertainment value that makes the film a winner but the underlying truths that the film - despite all its implausibilty - uncovers. The dominance of TV and the fact that people don't really read anymore is one of them, the dominance of white males in the American society another. The comic situations in the film could easily have been used for cheap laughs but director Hal Ashby prefers a more subtle form of humour. The way he directs the film those scenes are always on the verge of credibilty. The quietness and the wintry atmosphere of the film are other means he uses to give the film a more serious, bittersweet touch.

The great asset of the film are the performances by Melvyn Douglas (who won an Academy award for his role) and Peter Sellers (who inexplicably lost against Dustin Hoffmann in "Kramer vs. Kramer"). Sellers once again proves in one of his last roles that he is one of the all-time great comedy actors. His reduced performance shows a different side of him than the exaggerated ones he became famous for. He once said in an interview: "I have absolutely no personality at all. I am a chameleon. When I am not playing a role, I am nobody." If he meant it, this role of a good-natured nobody may be the one that best expressed his real character.

"Being There" is almost forgotten now which is not surprising because it is not a very fashionable film. Today, such a quirky, low-key film about old people would not even have a chance to get made. Which is a shame because it is a film that displays what has always been Hollywood's main strength: the ability to address serious problems in simplified stories that everyone understands. Even Chance the Gardener.


The man who wasn't there: Peter Sellers

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