"I like to watch." This is the prophetic mantra uttered by a man named Chauncey Gardiner (Peter Sellers). When Gardiner is befriended by socialite Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine) after a minor traffic accident, he becomes the beloved friend and confidant of her dying husband, Benjamin (Melvyn Douglas). Since Benjamin Rand, a multi-industrialist and self-proclaimed "kingmaker," pulls the strings of the incompetent President Bobby (Jack Warden), Gardiner is immediately thrust into the role of presidential advisor. But Chauncey Gardiner is really Chance the gardener — a man-child cast adrift when the estate that housed him closed after its wealthy owner died. Only two things exist in Chance's peanut-sized brain: TV and gardening. According to the maid who raised him, Chance is "dumb as a jackass," but his compulsion to explain everything from national economic policy to the larger questions of life in terms of gardening fuels his meteoric rise in the world of high society and politics.
This absurdity is the heart of director Hal Ashby's 1979 film Being There. Empty-headedness is mistaken for a Zen-like genius, because people all see in Chance an idealized version of themselves. At a party for the Russian ambassador, when he giggles at the sound of a joke told in Russian, he is rumored to speak seven languages. And because he utters short sentences between long silences, he's deemed wise.
But it's really his wardrobe that gets him accepted as a fellow member of the elite. His clothes are very dignified. When he walks up to a cop on the street and tells him to water a tree that's dying, the cop looks at Chance, assumes that he is a big shot, and meekly agrees. If I'd done that, I'd have ended up in jail. No one knows his clothes are hand-me-downs.
I also love how he's always looking for a TV to match the remote control he carries. In one of the great moments in comedy history, a gang of taunting street youths doesn't fall for his childish gardening rhetoric and threatens him with a knife; he points his remote control at them and tries to change channels. Melvyn Douglas, who won a supporting-actor Academy Award for his performance in Being There, died shortly after it was released. Peter Sellers, who manages to invest the idiotic Chance with a surprising poetic dignity, was nominated for best actor.
Being There is at the Michigan Theater on Monday, December 11.
[Review published December 2006]