I first remember catching a bit of Being There on television once when I was a boy. I did not understand the story but I knew that it must be funny because Peter Sellers was in it. Television—late night showings of Pink Panther movies in particular—had taught me that Peter Sellers was funny. This was my perception at least and so I laughed at his portrayal of Chance the Gardener without fully understanding the meaning behind the actions he was portraying.
But in this, I may have been the exact target audience for Being There. I did not understand Chance in the same way most of the other characters in the film do not. I simply perceived what he was and put my own meaning and expectation onto him. This is the point—Chance is simply there. Whatever expectation is put on him is put upon him by his audience. The beauty of Being There exists due to its dualities—the duality between perception and reality, expectation and irony, meaning and ignorance.
After catching it on television when I was a boy, I had largely forgotten about it until I heard it referenced more recently in regards to the Trump presidency. The comparisons of Donald Trump to “Chauncey” began almost immediately after his election. Here was a president who by all accounts seemed to have his entire world framed by the ever-present version of reality his television presented him with. He receives all of his news from the television. He has it on at all times.
Donald Trump was even on it for a while—he had his very own television show where he was able to point at people and fire them. Now he gets to do it in The White House, which must be great fun.
Rewatching Being There under this umbrella of political context, I expected to see a sharp and pointed satire about politicians and the stupidity that surrounds them. In some way, it is. But the film was made and set at the end of the 70s, not in 2017, so my context was misinformed. Instead, the film really focuses on the reality of its own time and place—an era where politics and celebrity was suddenly being framed by the increasing dominion of the television set, and where the reality of being successful in a country coming off the heels of the civil rights movement still meant being white and male. If you were dumb as a rock and still wanted to be somebody in America, excuses could be made—you just had to look the part.
The film, adapted for the screen by its original writer, Jerzy Kosinski, tells the story of a man who certainly looks the part: Chance the Gardner [misunderstood throughout the film as “Chauncey Gardiner”] is dressed well and speaks in a pleasant enough drawl [modeled by actor Peter Sellers after eternal man-child Stan Laurel] to get himself accepted and elevated into white upper-class Washington D.C. where his gardening metaphors are misinterpreted as new age philosophical genius. When he is seen watching children’s shows, no one can believe it is because he is a simpleton—he must just be seeing something they aren’t, a zen dimension far above their own miniscule way of looking at life. But Chance IS a simpleton, and his ascension to Christ-like status reflects a truth of the times, best exemplified by a piece of graffiti showcased in the film as Chance walks the streets: “America ain’t shit because the white man has a God complex.”
Hal Ashby was certainly the director to bring this truth to American cinemas, being very much a director for the American 70s. His directing run throughout the 70s is legendary, having made The Landlord, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and finally Being There all during that one seminal decade. Once the 70s were over, so too seemed to be the glory days for Ashby. With Being There, Ashby closed out the decade with a beautifully subdued satire for his times. There are of course some flubs here and there—in particular, the end credits shows a series of outtakes which completely subverts the magical tone of the rest of the film. Ashby should have listened to his lead when it came to that decision—Peter Sellers, Chance himself, hated the gag reel at the end of the film.
Sellers was also experiencing the end of his career at this time—he would die only a few months after finishing Being There—but the film was something of a pet project for him. It is understandable as to why he wanted to get this film made and steal the role for himself—Sellers’s acting chops are on full display here. Through his acting, Sellers allows Chance to be a blank slate for not just the characters, but the audience as well. He is pulling double duty with Chance in every frame of the film—every word he says and action he portrays is interpreted differently by the characters within the film from what the audience infers is truth. The way he looks at the television screen, the slow intonation he gives when he says “I understand” [even when we know he doesn’t], the way he tears up at Ben’s death—everything serves a duality, a mystery. Who is Chance really? Should we see him as mystical or is this really as absurd as it seems? And sometimes, most importantly, how are all of these other people [including the normally intelligent and insightful Shirley MacLaine] not able to learn that Chance is not who they think he is?
When Chance walks on water in the last image of the film [again—discounting the awful gag reel], the film’s last lines ring even more true—“life is a state of mind.” What we interpret doesn’t necessarily equate to reality, but does it matter? Isn’t perception everything anyway?
In an era where politics have escaped the confines of the television screen and gone mobile—across every medium provided by an internet connection—the haunting truth of this problem of perception is now a daily conundrum. How is it that we deify stupidity just because it’s on our screens? How can we differentiate between what is real news and what is just being sold to us as a product? How do we know that the television star will give us all those things he promised us once we get him into the White House? Can any dimwit make it in America if he is good enough, or is it as Louise says in the film, that “all you’ve gotta be is white in America to get whatever you want”? How much does achieving the American Dream depend on working hard and being a good person, and how much of it just depends on “being there”?