||Being There was not the final film of Peter Sellers, but for his fans, it was the last one of note, for after making it he starred in the spoof The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, a production in stark contrast to this one as it was full of turmoil thanks to Sellers' now-infamous mental health difficulties that turned it into a nightmare for all concerned. Shortly after, he was dead of a massive heart attack, not his first, either, yet even so it was Being There that was celebrated, not his serious misstep that he actually ended on. The curious thing was, had that success taken any longer to produce, he might not have lived to see it completed.
Sellers was not a well man during the nineteen-seventies, and not helping was the fact his career was on the wane at the beginning of the decade, his reputation for being difficult - entirely justified - seeing him placed in increasingly negligible efforts. All the while, he was trying to get a film of Jerzy Kosinski's short novel Being There made with himself as the lead, Chance the Gardner as the other characters know him as, or Chauncey Gardner as he inadvertently becomes, a man whose innocence and general sense of benevolence can be traced back to his learning difficulties. Though even that is called into question by the film's famous closing shot.
Kosinski regarded this as a political parable, in that Chance says and repeats phrases he believes are to do with either the gardening duties he held at the mansion house in Washington D.C. belonging to an elderly millionaire who has died at the start of the story, or thanks to his other favourite pastime apart from the horticulture. This is watching television, something he does at every opportunity, making this a satire on the media as much as it was a satire of politics, maybe even more so as the idiot box lives up to that denigrating nickname by providing succour to anyone who is seduced into its orbit. Switch this on, says the film, and just try and switch it off.
Even if you do, you will be back, and the carefully curated barrage of clips from the small screen that littered the action were acutely chosen to sum up what you could see on the television of 1979 - adverts, cartoons, game shows, old movies and of course the news broadcasts and magazine shows - that at this remove you can find yourself drawn into wishing there was a compilation available of all those now-vintage bits and pieces. That was how curiously soothing they were, demonstrating how potent television was, but also giving an insight into Chance's uncomplicated mind that leaves you wondering exactly how funny this was supposed to be.
It had a comic actor in the lead (Sellers had enjoyed a career boost with Return of the Pink Panther, going some way to ensuring Being There was produced), but it did not feel like a comedy, it was too quiet, its mood too detached. Yet there was an element in Sellers' performance, one of his favourites after Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, that suggested he was sending up these people around Chance, exposing them as the children they really were for placing so much faith and reading so much insight into a man who was more or less a cartoon character made flesh. So if this was not an uproariously hilarious knee-slapper, there was humour in it.
The question was, was it scathing send-ups or was it gentle digs at human nature, and so inscrutable was Being There it remains difficult to discern even decades later. Once Chance - through, yes, chance - literally bumps into Shirley MacLaine as the lonely, younger wife of elderly "kingmaker" Melvyn Douglas who is terminally ill, and is injured by her limousine, she takes him back to their mansion to makes sure he is all right. Soon he has charmed all and sundry, since they do not believe he is as simple as he makes out, they see profundity in his remarks when all he actually wants to do is settle down in front of the television or potter about in a garden.
Hal Ashby was the director, personally recommended by Sellers (though they had never worked together before), and this project suited his humane yet quirky outlook born of his essentially hippy demeanour, something that would clash with the approaching decade of the eighties to his disadvantage. You can claim Being There as Ashby's final notable film just as you can for Sellers, throwing in what amount to "dirty jokes" (President Jack Warden's impotence, MacLaine masturbating for Chance when he blandly tells her he likes to watch - he means the TV) but also the sense that everyone in this is hearing what they want to hear, because that is the only thing that keeps them going, when it comes down to it. While it sounds like a winking satire like Robert Redford's The Candidate or something more populist like Kevin Kline's Dave, this was really neither, it was stranger than that, and no other film has ever captured its off-kilter tone afterwards.
[The Criterion Collection Blu-ray has the following features:
New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
New documentary on the making of the film, featuring interviews with members of the production team
Excerpts from a 1980 American Film Institute seminar with director Hal Ashby
Author Jerzy Kosinski in a 1979 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show
Appearances from 1980 by actor Peter Sellers on NBC's Today and on The Don Lane Show
Promo reel featuring Sellers and Ashby
Trailer and TV spots
Deleted scene, outtakes, and alternate ending
PLUS: An essay by critic Mark Harris.]