Being There (1979)

“This is just like television, only you can see much further.”

‘Being There’, directed by Hal Ashby in 1979, is an American comedy drama starring Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine. Sellers plays Chance, a man who has lived almost his entire life in the house of a wealthy man in Washington DC. Chance looks after the garden and watches television, but after the man dies, he is evicted and forced onto the streets that he has only seen on the TV. He is quickly taken up by another wealthy businessman, this time someone with the ear of the President, and Chance finds himself mistaken for a gnomic sage, his simple concerns for the garden and his basic views of life taken for complex and subtle political commentary. It’s a melancholic film that is notable for Sellers’ understated but charismatic performance, particularly compared to his more broad comedic roles. The character of Chance, much like Forrest Gump after, is a simple man who is somehow catapulted into the public eye. There is also the suggestion of religious-like fantasy about this film. Chance is a strange combination of Mary Poppins, Forrest Gump and Christ, with Sellers presenting him as a passive, distracted and eternally curious figure. The final scene, in which Chance apparently walks on water, cements this characterisation, but also elevates the film before it to a different and more magical level. The comedy comes mostly from the obliviousness of those around Chance to his true nature as businessmen, politicians and lawyers all tie themselves in knows trying to understand the meaning of his aphorisms, thus turning them into the simpletons and the placid Chance into the genius they assume him to be.

Would I recommend it? Yes. I’m rather ashamed this is the first time I’ve seen ‘Being There’ as I wrote my PhD thesis on the US Presidency. I was surprised to see how prominent the role of the President was in this movie. I blame my supervisor. I’d watch it in a double bill with ‘Forrest Gump’ for obvious reasons.

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