Director – Hal Ashby, Screenplay/Based on the Novel by Jerzy Kosinski, Producer – Andrew Braunsberg, Photography – Caleb Deschanel, Music – Johnny Mandel, Also Sprach Zarathrusta Arrangement – Eumir Deodato, Makeup – Charles Scram & Frank Westmore, Production Design – Michael Haller. Production Company – Lorimar/Northstar International
Peter Sellers (Chance/Chauncy Gardener), Shirley MacLaine (Eve Rand), Melvyn Douglas (Benjamin Rand), Richard Dysart (Dr Robert Allenby), Jack Warden (The President), Dave Clennon (Thomas Franklin)
Following the death of his elderly patron, the gardener Chance, who has lived inside the old man’s house all his life, is turned out onto the street by the lawyers. However, Chance is a complete innocent who has never been out into the world before. He is then accidentally run down by Eve, the wife of millionaire Benjamin Rand. Concerned, she takes him home. In Rand’s household, Chance becomes a celebrity after The President takes his simple-hearted habits of relating everything to the garden as brilliant metaphors for the economy.
This gentle, clever satire contains the penultimate performance of Peter Sellers who died in 1980. (Sellers’ last effort was the occasionally amusing The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu (1980), which is considered best forgotten by most Peter Sellers fans who prefer to let their memories of the comic genius go out on Being There). For a man who once claimed that he had no identity outside his roles, the film is a fitting if ironical final tribute to Sellers.
The 1971 novel by acclaimed Polish emigre Jerzy Kosinski, best known for The Painted Bird (1965), was already a cult book when Peter Sellers read it. Sellers personally shepherded the film into production, bringing on board Jerzy Kosinski to adapt his own book. Chosen as director was the eccentric Hal Ashby, who was behind essential 1970s hits like Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1974) and Coming Home (1980). Ashby had begun as an editor in the 1960s and it is worth remembering that at the time he made Being There, his last worthwhile film, he had developed a substantial drug addiction problem.
Jerzy Kosinski clearly construed the role of Chauncy Gardener as a perfectly blank existential question mark – the running gag throughout the film is that Chance reacts to everything with complete innocence and it is what people project onto what he is saying that makes him seem a genius. Peter Sellers steps into the part with the vacant emotionality of a newborn child and gives an hysterically deadpan performance. (Some have argued it is the best of all of Sellers’s performances – and he received an Academy Award nomination for the part).
Hal Ashby directs at a clinically restrained distance with many scenes taking place in wide angles – there is some wonderfully glacial photography. Some of the deadpan tableaux like Shirley MacLaine’s attempt to seduce Sellers go on and on until an audience lies collectively battered in hysterics on the floor. The matter-of-factly tossed aside ending with Chance casually walking across the water out onto a lake, wherein comes the fantasy element, is always guaranteed to have an audience leaving the theatre debating its meaning.
The making of Being There was later depicted in the Peter Sellers biopic The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004).