Being There is one of those movies that once you watch, you have to watch again. So it’s a fitting choice to kick off our new periodic Throwback Thursday series, in which we revisit older films.
Peter Sellers is Chance, a reclusive gardener who has never stepped foot outside the estate of his wealthy employer. He has no social security card, no ID, no history. And aside from his employer and household staff, his only social interaction has been with the TV, which makes him more than a little odd. When his employer dies, Chance is forced to leave the estate and find a new home. But to do so, he must interact with the real world of 1970s Washington D.C.
History being a cyclical beast, the world of Being There isn’t so different from today. Tensions are high between black and white communities, poverty and wealth are bedfellows and the country has no faith in its leader. With his knowledge of the world being limited to episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Chance shouldn’t last a minute outside.
But Being There is a satire, so Chance’s simple speech and mannerisms, in addition to his inability to talk about anything except gardening, make him a perfect sounding board for the egotistical D.C. elites. Upon him they project everything they want him to be. They even change his name when Shirley MacLaine, as Eve Rand, the wife of an influential business mogul, hears his name incorrectly and calls him Chauncey Gardiner. Through a series of similar misunderstandings, Chauncey Gardiner becomes a political pundit whose literal words about gardening get mistaken for political metaphors. By film’s end, Chance/Chauncey is being seriously considered to replace the president. All the while, Gardiner simply thinks he’s having a conversation about gardening.
Chauncey Gardiner remains one of film’s most memorable characters and was even recently compared to Donald Trump as an inexperienced man catapulted to power (that’s where any similarity ends). In one of his most subdued roles, Sellers is sympathetic as a kind man who unwittingly reveals how we see in others what we want to see. This is illustrated in the film’s last shot which, in itself, makes the film worth watching again.
Being There reminds us that “life is a state of mind” in which there is no difference between reality and perception. And the reality is, Being There is a timeless masterpiece.