Peter Sellers will probably always be remembered (correctly) for his comedic chops. Audiences fell in love with Sellers in the “Pink Panther” films, where he cemented his reputation as a comedy star. Films like “Dr. Strangelove,” where Sellers performed as three distinctly hilarious characters, still endure as comedic high points in American film.

But there was also something sad about Sellers. I read recently that he thought of himself as a blank slate, someone with no personality who only came to life when he could wear the skin of another character. This blank quality served Sellers well in “Being There” (1979), in which he played a man with no personality but enough virtue on the surface to be appealing.

This character is Chance, a gardener living in a massive estate. Chance lives a life of quiet obedience and routine; he wakes in the morning to images on the television, is served his meals at the same time every day and docilely tends the plants in the garden. We find out he has never left the house or had much social interaction beyond the housekeeper (Ruth Attaway) and the old man who owns the estate.

We never learn Chance’s relationship to the old man, or much about the reason for his condition. We simply observe him in his state of perpetual infancy, only experiencing the world through television and the patterns of his routine. Speaking in a flat monotone, dressed in suits he inherited from the old man, he is quiet and detached.

Chance’s world changes dramatically when the old man suddenly dies and he is evicted from the house. With no one to take him in, he wanders the streets aimlessly, bemused by a world he has experienced only through pictures. He is accosted by a gang of hoods who hurl threats and insults at him. His only response is to point his remote control at them and change the channel. He seems surprised when they don’t go away.

Chance’s luck changes through a quick twist of fate; while looking at a television through a department store window, he is hit by a car owned by a rich heiress (Shirley MacLaine), who insists he come back to her home to recuperate. She is married to a dying mogul (Melvyn Douglas) who immediately takes to Chance, who is polite, even-tempered and always pleasant.

Chance only understands the world through the simplicities of gardening, and when the mogul asks him questions about financial matters, he responds with platitudes about tilling the soil until a plant can grow. The Douglas character is friends with the president (Jack Warden), who visits his home regularly. When the president asks him about the state of the nation, Chance responds “spring, summer, autumn, winter…then spring again.” The simple message so inspires the president that he mentions Chance in a speech on the economy, and soon the media are buzzing about his background and role in the president’s administration.

“Being There,” made in the pre-Regan era of the late ’70s, still resonates as a political satire. Chance is accepted by mainstream society because he is quiet, well-mannered, even-tempered and speaks in platitudes that fit nicely into media sound bites. While his gentle exterior houses no substance, this matters very little to his audience. They enjoy his simplicity and pleasant demeanor.

By the end of the film, Chance is being considered as a candidate for president (for which party is not specified). “Being There” presents a situation that is thoroughly implausible, but some of its reflections on political candidate-making still resonate today. As we consider the candidates vying for the GOP nomination, do we think more about their message or their surface qualities? Does a person’s substance matter as much as how they make you feel?

While the film poses interesting questions, it engages them by far-fetched means. No one in the film seems very interested in Chance’s past or the reasons why he seems to be encountering everything for the first time. No one pays much attention when he gets a telephone call and doesn’t understand the concept of speaking with someone who isn’t right in front of him. MacLaine and Douglas, two actors who radiate intelligence, are asked to be oblivious to Chance’s oddness, something that robs their characters of credibility.

I was fascinated by Chance’s character and thought he could have been explored in more interesting ways. I wanted to learn more about his past and the reason for his condition. Sellers plays him as sweet and agreeable, and he is a pleasant protagonist to follow, but the story’s fish-out-of-water conceit makes his journey seem trite and frivolous. There was a deeper meaning to be mined from this character.

The film’s director, Hal Ashby, was no stranger to displaced loners; in “Harold and Maude” (1971), his hero was a young man sleepwalking through life, disconnected from his loved ones and obsessing about death. That film was spare and intimate in the treatment of its characters, approaching them with simplicity that helped you empathize with their pain. I wish Ashby had tried to approach Chance in a similar way rather than playing his behavior for comedy.

The film works mostly because of Sellers, who seems to be relishing Chance’s quiet, subdued energy. He moves slowly and innocently through the film, radiating an undeniable sweetness. Chance is a man at peace, understanding the world through simplicity because that is all he knows. I pitied the character in many ways, but I also envied the patient way he deals with life. I suppose the less you know, the simpler life can be.

Editor’s Note: This will be the last Golden Oldies column. I have thoroughly enjoyed bringing it to you and using it as a way of exploring older films. Thank you very much for reading.

Reach Dennis O’Neil at 270-887-3237 or doneil@kentuckynewera.com.

 

Editor’s Note: This will be the last Golden Oldies column. I have thoroughly enjoyed bringing it to you and using it as a way of exploring older films. Thank you very much for reading.

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