Chance the gardener (Peter Sellers) wakes up one day and goes about his usual chores, attending to the garden and polishing his master's car, that sort of thing, and still finds time to watch his beloved television shows. But things are different today, as he discovers when the housekeeper, Louise (Ruth Attaway) tells him that the old man has died and now Chance is on his own. He doesn't really take this in, and Louise grows angry with him, but then realises that he is too simple-minded to understand the implications. Soon the lawyers arrive and ask him if he plans to make any claims on the estate, but Chance has no idea what they are talking about and is ordered out of the house, so packing his belongings he ventures out onto the streets for the first time in decades...
Jerzy Kosinski scripted this and wrote the novel Being There was based on, although he was revealed to have plagiarised it from a Polish novel, a revelation that contributed to his suicide. When Peter Sellers read it, he was entranced and fell in love with the idea of playing Chance in a film; it took him almost ten years and a resurgence of success thanks to the Pink Panther sequels, but he did make it eventually and was nominated for an Oscar for his labours. Unlike his Clouseau, Chance was a restrained, subtle character for him, and considering his frequent, self-pitying pronouncements that he had no personality further than the roles he played, some saw it as an ideal marriage of actor and material.
Not that Sellers secures no laughs here, because as well as being a drama the film is also a comedy of sorts - how could it not be with the absurdity of Chance's situation? The main joke is that people misunderstand his innocent comments and observations for something much more profound, and this is what propels him into the higher echelons of society after he is ejected from his home. After wandering the streets, encountering gang members and little old ladies he asks to feed him he ends up in front of a television showroom, confused when he sees his own image on the largest screen in the window, not comprehending that there is a camera pointed at the street.
Taking a step backwards, Chance is almost run over by a limousine belonging to the wealthy Rand corporation, and inside is Rand's wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine) who insists he be taken first to a hospital, then to her mansion where her husband's doctor Robert (Richard Dysart) can attend to him. Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas, the cast member who actually won the Oscar) needs a doctor because he is elderly and infirm, but that doesn't stop him being an advisor to the most powerful men in the country - it is implied that he is one those who put the President (Jack Warden) in his position. When he meets Chance, he is charmed and soon the gardener, who everyone believes is called Chauncey Gardener thanks to Eve mishearing him when she asked his name, is staying in the mansion.
Sellers goes some way to making Being There watchable, because it goes on far too long considering it's premise is a slight fable at best. At times it is aching with meaning, but there's a danger of reading too much into it just as those around Chance read too much into his agriculture based sayings. For example, was he a Christ like figure, as the ending suggests, and was Christ saying what people thought they wanted to hear? It's an interpretation that fits the story, but so do other views of this oddly soothing film. Director Hal Ashby ensures a gentle pace that that is contrasted with the jumble of brash images and sounds coming from the television sets that hold Chance's attention, but even with the carefully created atmosphere it is difficult to accept Chance would fool so many people - they're even talking of making him president by the film's close. Of course, that's part of the joke. Music by Johnny Mandel. Avoid the version with the outtakes at the end, as Sellers observed it breaks the spell of the film.
Cult American director who started out as an editor, notably on such works as The Loved One, In the Heat of the Night (for which he won an Oscar) and The Thomas Crown Affair. Thanks to his friendship with Norman Jewison he was able to direct his first film, The Landlord, and the seventies represented the golden years of his career with his sympathetic but slightly empty dramas striking a chord with audiences. His films from this period were Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There. But come the eighties, Ashby's eccentricities and drug dependency sabotaged his career, and he ended it directing a forgotten TV movie before his untimely death from cancer.