Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Overlooked Movies: Being There

Once again I'm pretty sure I'm cheating.  Most of you are likely to have seen this one and remembered it.  But I was thinking about it the other day, and it seemed like a good one to say a few words about.  I was surprised when I took a look around and discovered that it came out in 1979.  I remember it so vividly that I thought it must have been much later than that.

Sometime in the late '60s I picked up a paperback copy of The Painted Bird and was bowled over by it. Later I read Steps and Being There and thought they were both great.  For some reason I didn't read any of his other works, and when I saw this movie I was unaware of the plagiarism accusations that are still controversial and unresolved.  I don't know or care who wrote the books I read.  They're fine works, no matter who wrote them, and this is a very funny (and frightening) movie.

Peter Sellers plays Chance the Gardener.  Chance has spent most of his life gardening for a very rich man and watching TV.  He has no other life, which is okay with him, as he's a man of very limited intellect.  When his employer dies, Chance is loosed on the world wearing a rich man's clothes and carrying his TV remote control.  By chance (ha!) he's taken in by another rich man and his wife (Melvyn Douglas and Shirley Maclaine, who misunderstand his name as Chauncey Gardner.  Before long, his simple conversation (all he can talk about is gardening) is being taken as metaphorical wisdom.  He never pretends to be any more than he is, but people see what they want to see, and by the end of the movie he's being considered as a candidate for president.  

That's the bare outline, but it's also pretty much the whole movie.  Sellers is great, and so is the supporting cast.  If you haven't seen it, you really should.

The final scene, one of the most memorable and most discussed in the movie, isn't in the novel, by the way.

5 comments:

  1. Anonymous7:07 AM

    I must admit that I always thought there was no there there (to quote Gertrude Stein) in this movie, which I found overrated in the extreme.

    But that's just me.

    Jeff

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  2. Whereas I could definitely see why Sellers was drawn to it, I think the last movie he completed. I think I'd heard about the Kosinski allegations back when (one wonders why no translator came forth for THE PAINTED BIRD questions). As a metaphor for the George W. Bushes and Millard Fillmores of the world, it certainly works better in its compass than the likes of such later attempts at satire as WAG THE DOG.

    WIKIPEDIA: "Kosiński appeared 12 times on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson during 1971–73, and The Dick Cavett Show in 1974, was a guest on the (commercial, NYC-based) talk radio show of Long John Nebel..." Well, he might get on THE LATE, LATE SHOW with Craig Ferguson today.

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  3. In my top ten films of all time. I went through most of my life somehow without knowing it was filmed at Biltmore House. I might have to have my Southerner card revoked.

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  4. Shirley was obviously playing herself--rich and easy prey for quack religious frauds.

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  5. Lovely bit of silliness. Certainly a better late movie to remember Sellers by than 'Fu Manchu'.

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