Being There (1979) Directed by Hal Ashby. Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas (130 min) PG Shown on DCP
A differently abeled man’s pithy observations are mistaken for political wisdom and he is lionized by Washington insiders. Chance the Gardener speaks in educated tones, and wears his late employer’s tailored suits, bestowing instant credibility on his pronouncements in a nation starved for sound bites that sound like prophecy. Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC stands in for the DC home of an ailing millionaire. “Satire is a threatened species in American film, and when it does occur, it's usually broad and slapstick…"Being There,'' is a rare and subtle bird that finds its tone and stays with it. It has the appeal of an ingenious intellectual game, in which the hero survives a series of challenges he doesn't understand, using words that are both universal and meaningless (Roger Ebert).
Being There, a novel written by Jerzy Kosinski, was published in 1971. About a year later, he received a cable reading “Available my garden or outside it C. Gardiner” and a phone number. When Kosinski called it, Peter Sellers answered. He felt that, like Chance, “he had become a celebrity in a way he could scarely begin to comprehend—just by ‘being there’” (Walker 213). He indicated to Kosinski that since his 1964 heart attack “he sees his life dictated by chance” (ibid). He felt that by playing this part, it would erase all the terrible films he’d made, and leave this one as his legacy. Unfortunately, Kosinski wanted to star as Chance, himself! If that would not work, his next choice was Ryan O’Neal. Fortunately, the final choice would be Peter Sellers, and it is one of his signature roles, along with the three characters, including the title one, of Dr. Strangelove.
Sellers was born into a theatrical family. His mother was a showgirl who went into labor with her only child while on stage. He was carried on himself as a performing infant at the age of two weeks. He was pampered and smothered, and many people who knew him during his lifetime described him as an overgrown child. In spite of four wives and numerous love affairs, he was likely closer to his mother than any other person. During his many long childhood hours alone in dressing rooms, he listened to the radio and became an ace mimic of the many voices he heard. This inspired him to be a comedian. His first great success was “The Goon Show” on the radio with Spike Milligan and Harry Seacombe. Fans included John Lennon and the Prince of Wales, and the comedians who would bring the show’s anarchic surreal aesthetic to tv on “The Monty Python Show.” Sellers’ first movie break out role was in The Ladykillers, but by the early 1960s he was a rich international movie star, starring in Lolita, The Pink Panther, What’s New Pussycat? and Casino Royale. He was often moody and mean, but could be warm and funny, but certainly always difficult to work with. He was likely bipolar, and was impulsive and petulant. He was a vegetarian who used all kinds of drugs liberally to the detriment of his health, relationships and career.
At the time Being There, Peter Sellers’ career prospects were dire. His recent films had been dismal flops, some hadn’t even been released, and his free spending ways had left him destitute. He identified strongly with Chance, and became obsessed with starring in a film adaptation of the book. He inundated the author with many more cards and letters signed “Chance.” Kosinski began to capitulate, especially after they had an encounter at a friend’s Malibu house. “We were walking in a garden at a friend’s house, and he saw a small tree that was drying out, dying. He bent, stiffly, picked up the hose and began watering the little tree. Very quietly. Complete contentment on his face. He was Chance” (Starr 210).
Sellers worked tirelessly on trying to broker a film deal, with Hal Ashby as director, because of his love for Harold and Maude, at the time only a small cult film. They decided that whoever got some currency in Hollywood would try to get the film green lighted. By 1979, Sellers was basking in Pink Panther fame, and Ashby had garnered praise and Oscars for Shampoo and Coming Home. But, the film went into production for a completely different reason, the interest of produce Andrew Braumsberg. He did not want Sellers, who he considered to be a plump, over-the-hill comic, for the part.
Kosinski did not want anyone else tampering with his book, and wrote the screenplay himself. Ashby did not like his adaptation at all (and there were accusations that Kosinski’s book had been ghosted, in fact) and turned the script over to Bob Jones, who went back to the original novel with a radical restructure. Although Kosinski did not, finally, collaborate, he did love the final version, and distanced himself from the filming. But, when the film began to be acclaimed, he changed his mind. Kosinski took his case to the Writers’ Guild—apparently submitting one of Jones’ drafts of his own, and received sole screen credit, even though he had little to do with the final script.
“Chance was astonished that television could portray itself; cameras watched themselves and, as they watched, they televised a program. This self-portrait was telecast on TV screens facing the stage and watched by the studio audience. Of all the manifold things there were in all the world—trees, grass, flowers, telephones, radios, elevators—only TV constantly held up a mirror to its own neither solid nor fluid face” (Being There p. 63).
Sellers agonized over what kind of an accent to use for the character. He and his wife, Lynne, taped and played back his attempts at different American accents. He didn’t want anything to regional, because it was important to the plot that Chance’s background could not be traced. He finally settled on the Americanized English tones of one of his idols, Stan Laurel. His wife then video recorded his movements as he worked on a physical language for Chance, “He’s sedentary and solitary, even eats like a big child, which is basically what he is” said Sellers, and he acknowledged how much his wife’s assistance helped him find this longed-for character (Walker 236). As he got deeper and deeper within the character, he sometimes called ‘cut’ in the middle of a scene because he was emotionally overwhelmed. He retreated to his trailer in solitude after a take, refused interview requests and kept his distance from his co-workers to maintain his intense focus. Of course, he brought the character home with him after the day’s shooting was over, straining his already fragile marriage.
Caleb Deschanel, a young cinematographer who had met Ashby while still at USC, was first choice for DP. He couldn’t see the appeal of the script, until Ashby described it to him. “He told the story in such a wonderfully charming way, and he just had this incredible vision of it that seemed so extraordinary, so unusual, especially for an American film” (Dawson 209). They scouted Newport, RI, for a mansion to use, but settled on Biltmore Estate in Ashville NC, because its huge scale denoted wealth and power. Until then, the exteriors had only appeared on screen once, in Grace Kelly’s final film, The Swan, and the interiors had never been filmed. Now, Biltmore appears in so many films, that initial freshness is hard to imagine.
Television is a vital part of the atmosphere of the film as Chance’s sole contact with the outside world, but Ashby himself rarely watched television. Someone else was tasked with the job of finding clips from dramas, cartoons, children’s shows, advertisements and game shows to insert into the background. The children’s shows in particular were very important. “They’re very strong in the film, if you listen; all they do is talk about friends, about love and special people. And so it all makes its own comment on just what it is. It’s what it is. It’s what every individual does with it that counts. It can be the greatest tool in the world, and it can be the greatest detriment in the world” (Dawson 85, interview with John Powers). Being There is a cautionary tale about the manufactured reality of the television screen altering political will. Change out the television for the ubiquitious screens of the internet and the message has only intensified in the almost 40 years since this film was made.
Melvyn Douglas had been an MGM leading man, but one without a lot of fire. He was a reliable foil opposite actresses like Greta Garbo in Ninotchka. But, later in life, his career had a second chance as he played weathered patriarchs with gentle humanity, and the 78 year old actor won a second Oscar for Being There (his first was for Hud). He said, “I was thoroughly at home inside of Being There, in significant measure because of Ashby’s immaculate empathy. The director loves his actors and his work, and that seemed just exactly right at this time with this part” (Dawson 200).
Shirley MacLaine was in a very successful part of her career, and she consented to take what was essentially a supporting role in the film. “I did it just to see a genius at work” she said (Sikov 357). She tried to socialize with Sellers, because of their shared interests in what one might call New Age pursuits. “Shirley used to have a go at me for always going off into a corner. But, I had to. I didn’t want to break my gardener for the day” (Sikov 359). Sellers did not often act opposite actresses as talented as MacLaine, and he was lucky to have her as a collaborator in this film.
Sellers got his best reviews since Dr. Strangelove, and was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for the second time. A lesser actor would have exaggerated Chance’s deficiencies, but Sellers, for once in his career, underplayed him. Already ill with the heart disease that would soon kill him, he hoped that an Oscar would be a magnificent finale for his career. He was beside himself when Ashby decided to include some outtakes over the end credits of the film, and he thought that it would ruin his chances for the award he coveted, and for whatever reason, he proved to be correct. He won a Golden Globe for the part, but lost the Oscar to Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer. Sellers died of a massive heart attack the next year.
He would make one more film, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu. I don’t need to see it to assume it would be unbearably racist. Vincent Price was always so glad that his last film was Edward Scissorhands, so that he could go out at the top of his game. Sellers was not granted the same privilege, so perhaps out of consideration for his genius, we should accept this to be his final film.
The critical response to Being There was enthusiastic, and some consider it to be the masterpiece of both director and star. “It is also the quintessential Hal Ashby film. Its gentleness, compassion, and optimism, as well as its intelligence and understated humor, are all manifestations of Ashby’s own personality” (Dawson 223).
Ed Sikov wrote in 2002, “it’s not surprising that American audiences accepted the plot of Being There, in which an idiot becomes a national hero, for after all, they elected Ronald Reagan to the presidency the following year” (Sikov 360). Those were the days.
The ending of the film has different interpretations, and Ashby wanted it to be purposely ambigious. “It means whatever you want it to mean” (Dawson 84, interview with John Powers).
Peter Sellers: A Film History by Michael Starr, Peter Sellers: The Authorized Biography by Alexander Walker, Being Hal Ashby: The Life of a Hollywood Rebel by Nick Dawson, The Films of Hal Ashby by Christopher Beach, Hal Ashby Interviews edited by Nick Dawson, Mr. Strangelove by Ed Sikov, Being There by Jerzy Kosinski Grove Press New York 1999)