Long before Jim Carrey played a man whose life was its own reality program in The Truman Show, and before Tom Hanks was running back and forth looking for Jenny in Forrest Gump, Peter Sellers was the clueless gardener who became a trusted presidential adviser in Being There. The film might not be the most recognizable title in Sellers' body of work - this was the guy who appeared in Dr. Strangelove and the Pink Panther films after all - but it's a film that merits consideration as one of his best works.
Jerzy Kosinski (Reds) adapted his 1971 novel for the screen, which Hal Ashby (The Slugger's Wife) directed. Sellers' clueless gardener character was named Chance The Gardener. Chance is forced to leave the home where he has been tending gardens at because the homeowner died. He's forced to wander the streets of Washington, D.C., and is hit by the car of Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment), the wife of a wealthy but ailing businessman. Eve takes the injured Chance home to their palatial estate, where he meets Eve's husband Ben (Melvyn Douglas, Hud). Ben is charmed by Chance's outlook on life, and introduces him to the President (Jack Warden, From Here To Eternity) and Chance provides useful advice to him. Sounds pretty innocuous, but consider that Chance's waking hours have been spent watching television. He cannot read, he cannot write, the two things that are his existence are gardening and television. If you could illustrate the phrase "ignorance is bliss," you'd start with Chance. From his elevated role in Washington society to a growing relationship with Eve, he hasn't a clue, other than what television shows him.
Hal Ashby might have been one of the more underrated directors in an era where we had some of the greatest ones emerge from it. Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola broke into critical and/or popular arenas with their films, but Ashby directed Harold and Maude, Coming Home and The Last Detail, among others, working with some of the better known American actors in the process. He's teamed with Sellers, whose status in comedy circles was set in stone. However, Sellers' performance in this film might be his best. His demeanor in the film barely changes throughout; Chance is a kind, gentle yet dim soul. What he does is basic because it is basic, and how he approached doing virtually nothing yet winding up being hilarious for it is amazing work. When Eve starts to warm to him, he doesn't know how to respond initially. A later scene when Chance sees a couple kissing on television gives him the instruction that's needed, to a point because since TV doesn't show much past that, Chance doesn't know what to do. Eve is left to her own devices on that end. MacLaine's performance is superb, and Douglas' Ben is a kind and gentle soul. He is aware that he doesn't have that much longer to go in life, and he appreciates the "thought" and "insight" that Chance brings to the proverbial table. That's why he's introduced to the President, and that's why he's asked to stay in the house with Eve after Ben dies. When Ben does die, Chance sees it happen and you can see it affects him, but he doesn't let the façade down. Maybe it's because he's finally grasping some of these things in the real world? Who knows?
As we grow older, those of us who see Being There probably come out of it feeling several different things. Some of us see the satire that's throughout the film, looking at television's alternate reality. Some of us see the lack of human interaction as one of the reasons why Chance is able to adapt to his new and foreign surroundings. And as mentioned in the supplements, the nods to spirituality can't help but be recognized as well. But after recently seeing the outstanding Henry Poole Is Here, and seeing how a man's cynicism can be worn on when it comes to matters of faith, watching Chance stroll across the lake at the end of the film makes me think about something else. He is unaware of most of his surroundings and virtually all of these friendships he strikes up, and what little beliefs there are can be easily dismissed. But, considering all the things we've experienced as a nation over the last several years, not only is Chance's ignorance bliss, but it might even be envied to some degree.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The 1.85:1 1080p presentation of Being There uses the VC-1 codec for high definition and as one who's seen bits and pieces of the film through the years, I was pleased by the quality. The cinematography is done by Caleb Deschanel (The Natural) and it looks better than I was expecting. At times the blacks even look excellent (during the scene when Chance meets Vladimir for instance). There's a lot of good image detail like in fabrics or woods in the houses Chance lives in that you might not be able to pick up on otherwise. There does appear to be some DNR applied to the film in some of the city scenes, but overall it's safe to say that this is going to be the best that Being There is going to ever look on home video.
The case lists single channel Mono and Dolby TrueHD soundtracks, but when I switched the TrueHD on, it broadcast as two channels, so that's a small perk. There's no hissing or cracking noises on either sound option, which is nice, with the TrueHD track getting a slight nod for better reduction of those instances. I could have sworn that I'd heard some birds chirping in the rear channels of an outdoor sequence once Chance got to Ben and Eve's mansion, or maybe I'm just a gardener myself. Either way this disc sounds quite solid for the material.
The frustrating thing with a film like this is that so many people from the cast have all passed on, with some not even passing their 60th year of life. Ashby (59) and Kosinski (57) died within a couple years of each other in the late '80s/early '90s, and Sellers (54) died months after this film was released. Which means there's not a lot of supplements to peruse. "Memories From Being There" (14:48) features recollections from Douglas' granddaughter Ileana (To Die For) on what her grandfather thought of the production. Sellers and Melvyn had known each other for years from their times in their respective countries' militaries, and Sellers suggested him for the role. Illeana also has discussed the film with Deschanel though the years and he's shared some production stories on things like the ending, which she recounts also. She also discussed the biblical/spiritual nods the film has. It's a decent piece, though hardly anything special. Two deleted scenes (1:42) follow, thought they are forgettable, and the original alternate ending (2:03) is next, the one where Chance and Eve walk into the forest together. A gag reel (6:15) is next, but it's a two-parter of sorts; the first half shows some of the bloopers from the end credits, along with some others, the second half is a publicity interview for theater distributors that Sellers and Ashby conducted, with Sellers in quite the heavy Brit accent. The film's trailer (2:44) completes the disc.
Being There featured one of comedy's giants in one of his best (and final) performances, directed by an excellent auteur. Chance is without personal motivation or allegiance, without a master plan. Those who associate with him draw their own conclusions, perhaps that being simplistic is better. The film will have you thinking and talking about it long after you're done, and technically it's above average, which makes Being There a fun and unique cinematic experience.