Peter Sellers in Being There

The 1979 film Being There—which received a superb new Blu-Ray release last week from the Criterion Collection—feels more funereal than virtually any other movie comedy I know. Set during winter and shot with clear, chilly precision by Caleb Deschanel, it generally looks like an Ingmar Bergman psychodrama; the jokes, albeit funny and perfectly timed, seem oddly out of place. The film is also structured around death: it begins with the death of one character and ends at the burial of another, whose rapid demise influences much of the onscreen behavior in the second half. Peter Sellers, who gave his last great performance in Being There, died about a year after it was released. Moreover, the movie marked the end of a seven-film winning streak for Hal Ashby (director of such New Hollywood classics as Harold and Maude and The Last Detail), who would never again make another commercial or critical success before his death in 1988 at age 59. Not just the swan song for a number of talented filmmakers, Being There might be considered the death knell for New Hollywood itself.

Whereas Ashby’s previous films had been about rebels and outsiders, Being There tells the story of the ultimate conformist—a man who says only what other people want to hear. The film is a fable of sorts. Sellers plays Chance, a childlike man who has spent his entire life in isolation, living in the mansion of a wealthy person who has employed him as a gardener. At the beginning of the film, Chance’s benefactor dies; after an awkward visit from a pair of lawyers, who shut down the home, Chance leaves the estate for the first time in his life. All he knows of the world (apart from gardening) is through watching television, which he does compulsively. He has no social skills, although he’s soft-spoken and eager not to start trouble. When he winds up in the home of a dying presidential adviser, Chance is mistaken for a socialite, and his blank discourse is accepted as political wisdom by a number of important people, including the president.

Adapted from a novel by Jerzy Kosinski, Being There is clearly a statement about the malign influence of television in American life. Chance is the product of TV, and he finds his apotheosis there—first when the president quotes him during a press conference (wrongly assuming Chance’s aphorism about gardening to be about the U.S. economy), then on a late-night talk show, where his laconic shyness is mistaken for wit. Television has made him a passive consumer of images, someone who doesn’t want to interact with others. Yet in a culture dominated by television, he fits right in. Consider the way Sellers’s costars (such as Jack Warden, Shirley MacLaine, and Melvyn Douglas, who won an Academy Award for his work here) play off him: they pretend that Chance knows what he’s talking about, then respond with a kindness and faux-understanding that makes them feel better about themselves. He’s a mirror for their own emptiness and desire not to upset people.

Sellers and Melvyn Douglas in Being There

The President’s on-air citation of Chance’s nonwisdom can be read as a metaphor for any time that televisual blandness has overtaken genuine thought in modern politics. Kosinski, who left communist Poland to become a writer in the U.S., saw how political discourse could be replaced by empty sloganeering; he also saw the potential for that in his adopted country. Many have called Being There, both the book and the film, a premonition of the Reagan revolution, which came to power, in part, on the strength of Reagan’s ability to communicate on TV. The deathlike air of the film certainly connotes the end of something big, while the humor comments on the timeless human desire to be deceived by something that sounds good. These opposing elements give Being There an enduring complexity, although sometimes it’s too bleak in its outlook to be laugh-out-loud funny.

The film has at least one layer of meaning lacking in the novel—it can be read as a veiled personal statement from its star. Sellers first got his hands on the book in 1972 and had wanted to make a movie of it ever since. He thought that he was a perfect fit for Chance, in large part because he saw the character’s blankness as a reflection of his own. Sellers remains the cinema’s greatest chameleon—his filmography contains literally dozens of performances that show the actor transforming his speech and his body language so thoroughly as to seem a different person. In Being There Sellers inhabits the role of Chance with otherworldly calm; his voice is flat and accentless, a bit like HAL 9000’s in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and he moves with a gardener’s fastidiousness. And yet there’s also a sweetness about Chance that makes him likable despite his lack of empathy. Included in the Criterion Collection release is a 1980 Today show interview between Sellers and Gene Shalit. At one point Shalit refers to a recent Time magazine profile that argued Sellers had no real personality. “Nope, there’s nothing there,” Sellers responds, with perfect comic timing. It’s a poignant footnote to his performance in Being There.

In its deep cynicism about American media and politics, Being There may also have a renewed topicality in 2017. The film’s penultimate moment finds a D.C. insider proposing the idea that Chance runs for president himself. I suspect that when Mark Caro presents the film at the Music Box in May as part of his ongoing “Is it Still Funny?” series, at least one audience member will want to discuss what a Chance the gardener administration might look like and whether it would be preferable to the one that’s currently running the country.