Play It Again – Being There

Play It Again – Being There. Starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, and Melvyn Douglas. Directed by Hal Ashby. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!). 

Peter Sellers is inarguably one of the finest comic talents to have ever lived, but this chameleonic actor wanted to be remembered for more than simply playing Inspector Clouseau, Hrundi Bakshi, and his triumvirate of genius characters in Dr. Strangelove (as if their legacy alone wouldn’t have cemented his status as one of ‘the greats’). In Hal Ashby‘s 1979 social satire Being There – scripted by author of the novel, Jerzy Kosinski, and overhauled by Robert C. Jones  Sellers set out to prove he could carry a movie with a dramatic, subdued performance. He received an Oscar nomination for his troubles, but lost the prize to Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer. What did he blame the snub on? The controversial – and jarring – inclusion of bloopers in the final credits, surely the addition of nervous producers who didn’t want to deny his fans a couple of yuks.

Sellers stars as Chance, a simple gardener who has never left the estate of his recently deceased benefactor. Cast out onto the streets and too timid to fit into a cruel world, he is struck with a second chance – quite literally – when nearly run down by the car of wealthy Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine). She takes pity on the poor gent, and brings him home to meet her ailing husband Ben (Melvyn Douglas), a political kingmaker with a close relationship to the current President (Jack Warden). Chance – mistakenly referred to as Chauncey Gardener – earns the trust of Ben, is offered residence, and winds up with the President’s ear, giving him gardening tips that are mistaken for advice on the nation’s economy. Soon, all of Washington is abuzz, wondering just who this high-powered new advisor to the commander-in-chief is. The bewildered Chance has little interest in such things – concerned more with the constant chatter of the television – but is too polite to deny talk show appearances or party invites. Thanks to the media frenzy, Chance looks set to become America’s next great leader. Hey, he’s gotta be better than [insert politician who you find inept], amirite?

As with Ashby’s Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, and Shampoo, there’s a sliver of hope beneath all that cynicism. MacLaine and Douglas never seem to exploit Chance’s innocent ways; generally falling for his genial manner, and in the case of MacLaine’s Eve, mistakenly thinking she’s conducting an affair with him (the funniest sequence involves Chance telling her “he likes to watch,” referring to the TV, but leading her to put on an erotic show that goes largely unnoticed). The political commentary is rarely hammered home, and absolutely never overtakes the plight of the characters. Perhaps the famed final scene could be considered preachy; I won’t get into a description, but the magic of it felt more like a cheekily ambiguous but tonally consistent note to carry along with us, as opposed to some key that might unlike the mystery of our protagonist.

Though the blooper that plays throughout the credits is a misstep of gargantuan proportions – reminding us that we’re indeed watching a film, right after a magical moment that sweeps us away from reality entirely – it is nice, in retrospect, to see Sellers laughing once more. Being There would be his last screen appearance; he succumbed to a heart-attack the next year, aged 54. It also marked the final notable feature for director Hal Ashby, who died of cancer in 1988 after a series of commercial and critical disappointments. This context only adds to Being There‘s elegiac tone. Douglas won the Best Supporting Actor prize for his turn here, and his passing towards the end of the picture is deeply affecting. Even in a chilly movie like this, deaths have resonance (whether they’re on camera, or off).

4/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Being There is available on DVD. It can also be streamed instantly on Quickflix PLAY.

One Response to “Play It Again – Being There”

  1. Bloopers? I saw this on TV years ago and I don’t remember those. Must have cut them out for TV for which I am grateful. Great film (the book is worth a read too). Indeed this is the film that should be thought of as Peter’s last and not The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu.
    Hal Ashby was also great. Reviewing Shampoo anytime soon?

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