Aug 24, 2011

Great Movies - Being There (1979)

"Life is a state of mind."


Rarely do films provoke so much thought to the point where you feel the need to search for other people's interpretations. Hal Ashby's Being There is one of these cinematic gems purposely left ambiguous for the viewer's appreciation. However, if you haven't seen the film, reading on about the premise might give you different ideas, contradicting what I'm arguing. Although essentially simplistic in plot, I must reaffirm to you that-- ultimately-- there's a lot more to Being There than it seems...

Plot summary

Mr. Chance (played by Peter Sellers) is a middle-aged gardener in Washington, D.C. who has never stepped foot outside the home of his employer, a wealthy old man. One morning, Louise, the maid, lets Chance know about the old man's passing, and she leaves him behind in the empty house. When the attorneys handling the estate fail to discover any documents stating any sort of connection between him and the deceased, Chance is forced to evacuate from the house he resided in for as long as he can remember. Since the only reality he knows is that of which is shown on the television, he is unfortunately moronic in the outside world. Lucky for him, when a limousine lightly hits into him as he is roaming the streets, the lady inside, Eve (Shirley MacLaine), insists on taking him to her mansion so he can receive proper healthcare for his sore leg. Once there, she introduces him to her husband Ben (Melvyn Douglas)-- a highly influential businessman-- as "Chauncey Gardiner", and people henceforth call him by this misinterpretation of his name. Throughout Chauncey's stay, he becomes better acquainted with his two hosts, and everyone around him begins to admire him for his simple, care-free, and down-to-earth personality. When the president of the United States of America drops by for a visit to discuss economical matters with Ben, Chauncey is asked to give his input on the topic. Unable to comprehend, he simply utters something oddly vague about gardening ("As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden."). Both men are marveled by his solid choice of words, convinced that there's some commendable philosophy behind everything he says. Chauncey soon builds up a reputation for being a very insightful political insider, appearing on TV and meeting several important people. While Ben grows more and more fond of him as a close friend in which he can confide, Eve wishes to be more than that...


The key to really understanding this film is knowing the meaning of the ending. Since it's left to interpretation, I don't see how discussing it could do you any harm if you haven't seen the movie. In the final shot, we see Chance stepping into the property pond and proceeding to literally walk on water. This is such an incredible moment set apart from the rest of the film that it makes you stop and think for a minute. It doesn't make any sense to you until you look at it with the eyes of a poet. Only then do you realize that it's nothing but a metaphor for the popular perception of his character. In other words, we are looking at Chance in the way of most of the characters in the film, holding him in such high regard that we see him "walking on water" when-- in reality-- he is just crossing the pond on stepping stones.

There's another interpretation out there that I find incorrect but nonetheless interesting. With the final quote being the president saying "Life is a state of mind.", some people like to believe that Chance really did walk on water in the final scene because he knew nothing of the act being impossible. In his mind, he didn't see why he couldn't do it, so he was able to go through with what we know is an impossible feat. Although I find this conclusion far too mystical, I like it because it brings me to a grander point I find true: Chance goes out in the world and doesn't let himself get crushed by anyone because defeat is a thought that will never enter his mind. He just goes on living his life without having to worry about anything, a concept that may sound impossible to human beings having grown up in society.

It's for that very reason that Chance is nearly worshiped by every person he meets. Everyone looks up to him because he is the ideal human being, a model for those struggling with their own lives and wanting to throw away their countless worries. Chance rises up to a celebrity status because he gives hope to dreamers everywhere, whose goals and desires are projected onto him. He is living proof that nothing is impossible. Nobody sees him as the idiot he truly is, because everyone chooses to see what they want to see in themselves.

While watching the film, I discerned a substantial racial theme that was often made pretty blatant. For instance, we see the maid, Louise, watching TV with her family as Chance goes on the air to discuss his economical philosophy. Knowing that he's a fool, she expresses her disgust at his fortunate situation, saying "...all you've gotta be is white in America to get whatever you want". There are other scenes where he makes it clear in his actions that he perceives black people as being all the same. The movie is definitely not racist, but it often brings up the status of black people at the time to accurately depict the era.

Another thing I noticed was the heavy presence of TV in the film. There are scenes after scenes of people watching TV. I guess it would make sense, since it was television that raised the main character, so its recurring appearance could be seen as that of a mother figure. Then again, this could probably be simply explained by the fact that television was especially widespread during the late 70s and played a big role in everyday American life. Having seen movies like Network and Dog Day Afternoon, this seems like an easy conclusion to make on this motif.

I would like to finish my analysis by discussing what the title of the film means to me. I thought about it for a while, and I was overwhelmed by many different ideas. The first thing that came to my mind was the old saying "Been there, done that.". And then I thought about the relation to that and being old and having grown familiar with every facet of life. I knew that wasn't right, so I tried harder. I settled on this: "Being There" describes how Chance lives his life. He doesn't look back at his past in regret nor reflect upon what misfortune may come, but instead he goes through every new day by simply "being there" with a carefree attitude.


Being There is a wonderful treat of a film. It has lots of genius comedic delivery that will make you laugh (the film is fueled by dramatic irony and endless misunderstandings), but it's also full of heartfelt pathos as you can't help but feel for all of the lovable characters, particularly Mr. Chance, aka Chauncey Gardiner. I felt a little bit of pity for him due to his unfortunate ignorance of the world around him, but this sad feeling was soon diluted by the sight of him carrying himself around like a happy child. His character evoked a beautiful blend of mixed emotions.

And who could do a better job than Peter Sellers at playing such a memorable character! He really dove into the shell of Mr. Chance and became him in every second of footage used in the film. The comedy in the film was so good because it rested on his spot-on performance. Never did his acting feel forced or exaggerated. He was absolutely incredible, and definitely deserved the Oscar he was nominated for (Best Actor in a Leading Role, 1980). He lost to Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer, a win I can't disagree with because I thought both performances were equally amazing.

I should add that Melvyn Douglas and Shirley MacLaine were also outstanding in their given roles. I can see why the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role was given to him, but I can't see why she didn't land any nomination. She plays her character with such apparent confidence that it's impressive. It's a shame the film was only nominated for two Oscars.

The writing is spectacular. Rarely do authors adapt their own novels for the big screen, but Jerzy Kosinski is one of the few who was able to pull it off. I haven't read his novel, but judging by how well structured the film's storyline is, I can tell that it was masterfully adapted. Perhaps I will check out the book to find out what changes were made.

Let me tell you, Hal Ashby is now topping my list of directors whose work I must discover. I can't wait to see his other critically-acclaimed works-- especially Harold and Maude. I have a feeling his style is right down my alley.

And that is all I have to say about the hilarious, touching, thought-provoking, sharply written, brilliantly acted, and thoroughly engaging film called Being There. If you have yet to see it, I highly recommend it.

Four stars out of four.