Last night, I introduced one of my all-time favorite films at the N.C. Museum of Art. Since some friends and family were unable to attend, I decided to post my opening remarks here.
“Now, it’s a clichéd thing to do at a screening of an older movie but – who here has never seen BEING THERE?
That many? Okay, hold on while I cross out the spoilers.
Okay, there used to be a saying – I don’t hear it much these days – that the book is always better than the movie. Now, I think we can all agree that it isn’t always true.
For example, Mario Puzo’s THE GODFATHER, by, is a pulpy airport novel with very little of the gravitas that Francis Ford Coppola and the amazing ensemble brought to the material and made an immortal classic out of it.
There are many movies that are better than the books, but to my mind Hal Ashby’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970 novel BEING THERE makes for one of the best cases. Not that the book is bad, no it’s a fine, witty, well written narrative that shares much of its dialogue with the movie; it’s just that the lead character is so much of a blank slate that he’s difficult to visualize.
But in the hands of Peter Sellers, the character whose name is Chance became fully formed and thoroughly nuanced, despite that the guy is certainly a blank slate whose life is entirely informed by what he has seen on television.
Now, basically the film is a about a simple minded, illiterate gardener whose talk about planting and the seasons is mistaken by many Washington insiders for political wisdom about shifts in the economy. Without any effort of his own, and aided by others’ perceptions of his persona, Chance the gardener unwittingly becomes Chauncey Gardiner.
Sellers had wanted to play Chance since reading Kosinski’s novel in the early ‘70s – it was his dream role. It took him seven years, in which time he made three Pink Panther movies and a bunch of hit or miss comedies, before he could get the film greenlit.
What helped is that the great hippy filmmaker Hal Ashby when approached to direct the project said ‘Sure, I’m interested, but only with Peter Sellers.’ You see, the book’s author, Kosinski, wanted Ryan O’Neal to play Chance. That is a version I just can’t imagine.
Now Ashby was just perfect for BEING THERE. He was coming off a run of some of the best movies of the ‘70s. HAROLD AND MAUDE, THE LAST DETAIL, SHAMPOO, BOUND FOR GLORY, COMING HOME. If you haven’t seen these – get on it.
So Ashby and Sellers, along with a great supporting cast including Shirley Maclaine, Richard A. Dysart, Jack Warden, and most importantly former ‘30s matinee idol Melvyn Douglas, who won the Best Supporting actor Oscar here for his role as Ben Rand, the dying rich billionaire whose world Chance gets wrapped up in.
Now Melvyn Douglas’ character owns a lavish, ginormous mansion that we all know is the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. The Biltmore could be considered a star of the movie itself as its exteriors and interiors dominate much of the movie.
But, it should be stressed that in BEING THERE, the Biltmore was the Rand Mansion and its location was in the outskirts of Washington DC. Movie magic!
Before BEING THERE, the Biltmore had only been in one film, a Grace Kelly film called THE SWAN which was made in 1956, so it wasn’t well known to most of the movie going public. But since BEING THERE, the house or the grounds (or both) have been in a bunch of movies including THE PRIVATE EYES, FOREST GUMP, RICHIE RICH, HANNIBAL, and LAST OF THE MOHICANS.
In a TV interview to promote BEING THERE, Gene Shallit asked Sellers to explain what BEING THERE is about. He said,“It’s Jerzy Kosinki’s comment on power and corruption, and the triumph of the innocent man, as Jesus Christ said, you know, the triumph of the simple man over power, over wealth, over corruption and it’s probably a comment on that because you can’t get a person more simple that Chance.”
Sellers’ masterful performance as Chance, which he said to Shalit was vaguely based on Stan Laurel (of Laurel and Hardy for you kids) sadly didn’t win him a Best Actor Academy Award, which was something he really wanted. Damn you Dustin Hoffman!
Sorry, I like Dustin Hoffman. It’s just he has had decades since then to win Oscars! This was Seller’s last chance.
Now as for BEING THERE having more relevance now than in 1979, it’s tempting to see it as a cautionary tale about imbeciles rising into scary positions of power. Comparisons to BEING THERE started during the George W. Bush era, but op eds about how prescient the movie seem to appear daily.
Maybe Daily Show correspondent Lewis Black summed it up best when he said of the current political climate: ‘It’s like BEING THERE, if the guy was an asshole!’
Lastly, there is one controversial element of the movie I need to tell you about. The original theatrical version of this movie, which is what we’re showing, has some bloopers – you know, outtakes of actors flubbing their lines – during the end credits.
There is another version of the movie that we were hoping to get, that has the credits play with only TV fuzz behind them. This version happened because Sellers hated the bloopers – he even thought they ruined his Oscar chances. Again, damn you Dustin Hoffman!
Now these clips are funny on their own but after the beautiful final shot– they have been criticized as breaking the flow of the film. We debated whether or not to cut off the projector, but we’re gonna let them roll as they are a part of the original motion picture. You can leave and not see them – it’s up to you.
So here’s Hal Ashby’s best film, and Peter Sellers’ best too, BEING THERE.”