February 5th, 2009
So much of life is left to luck that most of us don't even think twice about it. Who our families are, our race, our appearance, and all the inherent advantages and disadvantages that come with the lottery known as being born. "Being There," in its own quiet, charming way, illustrates the role that chance has on all of our lives.
Chance, played by Peter Sellers, who has never been better, is a simple-minded gardener. Living his whole life in a nice walled in home with a benefactor and people to take care of him, Chance spends his time watching TV. Which is kind of an understatement. Chance lives for television. His only window to the world are the televisions that he has on in every room of the home he lives in. Everything changes when his benefactor dies and he must leave his home and venture out into the world.
Luckily, he gets hit by the car of a very wealthy woman, Eve (Shirley MacLaine), and gets whisked off to her palatial estate for medical care. One lucky turn after another, and Chance is an honored guest and friend of Eve’s husband Ben (the late, great Melvyn Douglas), a dying financial tycoon.
As if you needed reminding, director Hal Ashby is a genius. Instead of directing you into a certain point of view and forcing you into the story, he stands back, and lets the film happen in front of the camera. His wide shots, still and quiet, lend an almost intrusive air to “Being There.” You feel as if you’re peeking in on Chance and his life and you have no right. When Chance has to leave his only home, his walled paradise, to walk out into the world, Ashby makes you feel the enormity of this step. Chance opens that door and steps out… not into a nice tree-lined street with cobblestones, but an urban hellhole. You're genuinely terrified for this poor nice guy, all alone and unable to function on his own.
“Being There,” and its hero, are mirrors for the viewer. Though only a moron who can’t read or write, because he is a clean, polite older white man in custom tailored suits, everyone Chance meets attributes some quality in him that they desire to find in another person. He’s called optimistic, peaceful, insightful, natural, laconic, cool and detached, and modest. He speaks softly, and whatever he says is interpreted and twisted by whoever he speaks to. When he talks endlessly about gardening, people apply it to the economy and financial crisis. He’s pushed into the limelight, and propped up by the endorsement from Ben, he’s ultimately chosen by the political elite to be the next President.
Likewise, the film itself allows the viewer to see into it whatever they want to see. It could be seen as highly religious, what with Chance leaving his home, a veritable Garden of Eden in the middle of ghetto Washington DC, his meeting Eve, and walking on water at the end. You could also see into it a race study, as is astutely pointed out by Chance’s former caregiver, Louise. You can do anything in this country if you’re a nicely dressed white guy. If he had been wearing rags and been black or Hispanic, would people have treated him as well? Not likely. You could also see a very cynical view of politics in this country, and draw a few similarities to our former President Bush.
Ultimately, the film shows Chance’s growth, and the way he joins mankind. When his first benefactor dies, Chance shows no reaction. No remorse or sorrow. He wants his lunch. He doesn’t know the way the world works. At the end, when his good friend Ben finally dies, Chance cries, deeply upset. Only by joining the world does he become truly human.
Anyway, I could probably go on and on for another few pages about this film, but others have done it better already. Since this is a DVD review, let me say a few words about this new release by Warner Brothers.
On my DVD were exactly two special features. The trailer for the film and a short piece where Illeana Douglas talks about her grandpa. That’s it. I know most of the cast and crew has left this mortal coil, but you couldn’t even get a few words from Shirley MacLaine? I was kinda disappointed, but okay with it. The movie is special enough.
Until I noticed that the Blu-Ray version has 10 minutes of unseen footage, a gag take and an alternate ending. WTF??? Is this some insidious plot to make us all convert to Blu-Ray now? I mean, it’s not like this is high-tech stuff that only Blu-Ray can handle. What a rip.
Anyway, the movie was released this Tuesday, February 3rd. The omission of the actual special features from the DVD release makes me drop the grade of this review a few notches. Still, a magnificent film, which should be a part of everyone’s collection.
My rating: A-