Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979, West Germany/USA)

Being There certainly feels like one of the last films of the 1970s. It was released almost at the exact tail end of that decade – on December 19, 1979 – and it represents one of the last quintessential films of New Hollywood. It marked the end of Peter Sellers’ career (he died soon after filming), the end of Hal Ashby’s success (the rest of his career was marked by commercial flops), the end of Melvyn Douglas’s career (he also died soon after filming), and the end of Jerzy Kosinski’s career (he published only one more novel after the release of Being There). Given all of this context, there is a melancholy core at the center of Being There, and it is embodied in the figure of our protagonist Chance – played by Peter Sellers in a career-best performance.

                Based on Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970 novel (which in turn was at least heavily inspired by Tadeusz Dolega-Mostowicz’s interwar novel Nikodem Dzyma’s Career), the film tells the story of Chance, a simple gardener taken in by a wealthy benefactor and raised on television. After the benefactor dies, Chance ends up becoming a celebrity and political figure via a series of screwball-comedy like chance encounters. Ashby’s adaptation of Kosinski’s novel feels like the perfect satire of the 1970s – a mocking view of the self-help, feel-good, and various gobbledygook movements of that era. The film is also one of the best examinations of how people will read what they want to see into other people. Chance becomes a guru merely by spouting off simple concepts about gardening.

                The film’s ending, which imbues Chance with perhaps a more mystical quality, has been criticized by some including Shirley Maclaine. But overall Being There is a satisfying film and rightly deserving of its classic status. The performances here are truly some of the best ever put to film.


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