Editor’s note: This piece is on the Far Out in the 70s: A New Wave of Comedy, 1969-1979 retrospective at the Film Forum.
Being There (1979) tells the tale of Chance the gardener (Peter Sellers), a TV addict with an extremely low-level intellect who, through a series of absurd coincidences and by dint of his inherited upper-class raiment, is mistaken for an elite businessman down on his luck named Chauncey Gardner, taken seriously by the president (Jack Warden) on economic issues, and as the film ends is being considered for president himself. Truly, WASP men fail upward.
Hal Ashby directs from a script by novelist Jerzy Kosiński and an uncredited Robert C. Jones (based on the former’s novel) that is incredibly well-calibrated. Every time we think the game is about to be up, Chance says or does just the right thing to let those around him rationalize his word or deed in accordance with their perception of him. Even the failure of the FBI and CIA to find any background information at all doesn’t change the president’s mind, nor are the journalists disillusioned by their own failure to find anything.
The closing scene of Chance walking on water (about which Roger Ebert recounts an amusing anecdote in his review) encapsulates just how fantastical this narrative is. Often, a simple-minded person (which is different from a person with Down’s syndrome) focuses mostly on themselves and fails to pick up on social cues and implied intentions, resulting in an aggravating immovable presence, out of tune with everyone and everything. That the story here is of the exact opposite, with Chance perfectly aware of when others expect his contribution and of that contribution’s general tenor, is nothing short of a high-wire act.
Sometimes, though, maintaining the act requires credibility-pushing reactions from Sellers’s scene partners. Shirley MacLaine, who plays love interest Eve, does a lot of heavy lifting given how Sellers is prevented from giving her basically anything at all to bounce off of; yet despite her overstretched interpretations of Chance’s actions, her infatuation with him is entirely persuasive. The prolonged look of desire she gives him when parting with him after walking him to his room and kissing him good night made me fall in love with MacLaine all over again.