Being There is about a man who does nothing but garden and watch TV. His experience of the world is limited to those two activities. Through a series of events, he is thrust into one of the the highest echelons of the real world: politics. He clearly has no idea what he’s doing and doesn’t seem to understand that when he gives vague comments about gardening and television, those around him are taking it as insightful political commentary and, as a result, he keeps rising higher and higher in the opinions of the people until, at the end, there is discussion of having him run for President.
What I think is striking about this film is that there immediately seem to be two ways of interpreting it. At least to my view, there was little intentional directorial swaying one way or the other on how we are supposed to view Chance the gardener [or Chauncy Gardiner, as his name is misunderstood to be]. A viewer can either look at it as an optimistic bootstraps narrative, or a cynical and even racist commentary. Let’s explore both of these viewpoints.
The Optimistic View
The glass-half-full interpretation can take Chance as an American Everyman. Like many Americans, he enjoys simple pleasures: watching TV and gardening. He lives in a small room operating as a gardener on a large estate in exchange for food and shelter.
The fact that Chance could rise from his humble beginnings to hold such powerful influence with important people is an example of the favorite American myth: the old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myth. That is, if one does everything right, they can achieve anything.
Chance is a kind and gentle man—he never gets angry or passionate in any way, and he has a deep understanding of the earth due to his love of gardening. These are the exact traits that make people like Chance so much, including the President of the United States. They all think he is speaking wisdom in metaphors, when really he’s just giving facts about gardening. But his calm, pleasant demeanor make people love and trust him. Just being nice is how he pulled himself up by his bootstraps to power. And shouldn’t we all aspire to be nicer?
Through these rosy glasses, the ending makes sense. If he is not actually Jesus [which feels like too literal an interpretation] then he has at least transcended to the role of Jesus-like. After all, what is Jesus if not a kind, gentle figure who could easily have been underestimated? And might a spiritual influence explain why Chance has the powerful effect on people that he does? Why they immediately trust him and place large stock in what he says?
Looked at like this, Being There is a happy movie that might influence people to live a better, simpler, and kinder life.
The Cynical View
However, I don’t think that’s how most modern viewers see this story. The point of view that sees this as a cynical, biting commentary might go something like this:
Chance is a simpleton who may rise to the highest office in the country because he has an unusual demeanor, and everyone around him is too stupid to see that he has no idea what he’s talking about. He is a blank slate on which people can project their own ideas and admire him for it. Furthermore, only white men can be this kind of blank slate in America.
This is touched on in what I think is the most interesting scene of the film, when Louis [the former maid at Chance’s old house] sees Chance on TV and expresses frustration. Chance is on a talk show once again explaining basic gardening principles while the host and audience take his words as sublime wisdom. “It’s for sure a white man’s world in America,” she says, staring at the television set as her companions nod in agreement. She says that she raised him, and could never teach him to read or write. “Shortchanged by the Lord and dumb as a jackass,” she declares. “All you gotta be is white in America to get whatever you want.”
The film can also be seen as a [clairvoyant] cautionary tale. If we over-value entertainment, we might end up with a dunce in the White House. People are entertained by Chance even though he’s spouting nonsense. During his TV talk show segment [which he only agrees to do because he loves TV so much] the audience is continuously laughing as they applaud his answers to the host’s questions. Even his declaration that he does not read newspapers, he only watches TV is interpreted as brave and honest. Chance never lies or intentionally misleads people, but his simple and naive demeanor and the ideas given to him by watching TV nonstop most of his life make people love him.
From this viewpoint, how do we interpret the ending? Metaphorically, of course. Chance has done literally nothing of national or political value, but people still admire him to the point that he transcends into something spiritual. They have put so much faith into this one blank-slate simpleton that he becomes Jesus-like. This is how megalomania is born.
I’m not sure which viewpoint is correct, or which was intended in either the film or the book on which it’s based. But it is interesting that it can be so easily interpreted in dual ways. Perhaps that is the point, and that’s what we’re supposed to take away from Being There.