For most, Peter Sellers is regarded as strictly a comic actor. This is understandable, given his iconic role as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. However, Sellers had lobbied for years to play the lead role in 1979’s Being There. Sellers had the rights to the Jerzy Kosinski novel before the movie went before the cameras. Sellers made it known that he hoped that his portrayal of Chance the gardener would be his lasting contribution to film after years of playing light, comedic roles. With respect to the legions of Clouseau fans, of which I am one, along with his role in Dr. Strangelove, his portrayal of Chance the gardener in Being There was probably the best thing he ever did.

being_there.jpgDirected by Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude), Being There allows Sellers to mine his comedic talents, while showing a heart that other roles didn’t afford him. Sellers stars as a simpleminded gardener named Chance. An aging man with a young man’s mind, he has spent his entire life in the carefully regimented and sequestered world of a Washington D.C. home working for its rich owner. He has never left the confines of the home or learned to read and write. He has no relatives and no discernible background beyond being a gardener. As a simpleton, Chance doesn’t understand much of what goes on around him and is devoid of most emotion. He gets a lot of enjoyment in life from watching television. For him, television is his reality.
As the film begins, the old man of the house dies. Penniless and lacking any knowledge of the outside world, he has nowhere to go. Lawyers representing the old man’s estate force him out of the only home he’s ever known. Dressed in his finest clothes and armed with a single suitcase, Chance wonders the streets of Washington D.C. Later that night, he gets bumped by a car. Lucky for him, the car belongs to one Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), wife of one of the richest and most powerful men in America, Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas, winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor Oscar in the role). Forgoing a hospital, Eve insists that “Chauncey Gardner” (as she understands his name to be), come to her home and have the Rands personal physician (Richard Dysart) examine his injured leg.
From the time Eve misunderstands Chance’s name, “Chauncey” becomes an almost mythical figure because everything he says is misinterpreted. The Rands find their new friend brilliant, though Chauncey himself does nothing to encourage this. His bewildered silence is mistaken for quiet intellect, and they think his idiotic smiles are nods of knowing approval. People think he has a great sense of humor when he asks why the elevator is such a small room and inquires as to whether it has a television. The President of the United States (Jack Warden) even thinks Chauncey’s gardening analogy is metaphoric wisdom on fixing the economy. Chauncey becomes a media sensation; everyone loves his simplistic philosophies on government and life.
Sellers was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar but didn’t win. Frankly, I thought he should have won hands down. His performance is effectively understated. Throughout the entire film, Sellers never raises his voice above a monotone and gives no extra gestures. He effectively portrays bewilderment and a sense of disconnect throughout. However, he is also able to make the people around him think he’s totally brilliant. The Russian ambassador (Richard Basehart) thinks he’s smart as a whip, at an embassy party the rumor floats that he speaks eight languages, the CIA and FBI can find no trace of him in their files, so he must have enormously influential connections, and Eve falls in love with him. “He’s such a kind and sensitive man.”
By the end of the film, Chance has grown to such mythic proportions, he can walk on water. In the end though, Chance reminds us, “Life is a state of mind.” I would encourage any film fan to add Being There to their DVD collections. The film represents Peter Sellers best work and stands on my list of the fifty best films of all time.
This new Deluxe Edition of Being There boasts an anamorphic transfer “newly remastered from original elements.” It looks very good, with no scratches, dirt or any digital noise. The tones look natural and preserve the look of the 1970s film stock while also maintaining the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The blacks do look a bit hazy at times but it’s nothing that should interfere with the viewing experience.
The original English soundtrack is mixed in Dolby mono, which likely maintains the balance of the vintage audio mix. The sound is extremely clear and sharp without any external noise or distortion. French and Spanish mono tracks are also available, as well as subtitles for each of the languages. This includes a second English subtitle track for the deaf and hearing impaired.
There really aren’t too many extras here. The “Memories of Being There” featurette is just under 15 minutes long. It consists entirely of clips and an interview with Ileana Douglas, the granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas. The younger Douglas visited the set to see her grandfather play Rand, and she shares her impressions of all that went on. It was nice to hear her thoughts but I wondered why Shirley MacLaine didn’t contribute a comment or two. The theatrical trailer is also included.
Check out some “defining moments” from the film: