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Being There (1979)


If we’re to believe 2004’s The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, the Briton who seemingly defined the term ‘comic actor’ was an angry shell of a man, a vacant vessel who stumbled his way through life. Given that, could there be a more brilliant or appropriate final hurrah for Sellers than Being There?

In his final big role before his death, Sellers brings to life a man called Chance, a feeble-minded and quiet middle-aged gardener in a Washington, D.C. mansion he’s never left. Chance’s life – which consists of tending to the small garden, taking meals prepared by another servant, and watching and mimicking television – is shattered when the patron of the manse passes away and the house is sold, forcing Chance out into the harsh world he’s never experienced.

Via a fortunate accident, Chance finds himself welcomed into the household of another dying tycoon (Melvyn Douglas), this one with a lovely, younger wife (Shirley MacLaine) and some serious political juice. But Chance is no day laborer here; the confused inhabitants of the estate misinterpret the simple horticultural platitudes of the well-dressed stranger as economic wisdom, and the man who comes to be known as ‘Chauncey Gardiner,’ through no determination of his own, falls upward to a position of great fame and power he doesn’t understand or care about in the least. And since he’s lived off the grid for his entire life, the CIA, FBI, the Washington Post, and even the President of the United States find him inscrutable, fascinating, and threatening.

While Sellers made his cinematic fame falling down staircases and engaging in zany mix-’em-ups, this massive departure is the finest performance of his career, eclipsing even his many faces in Dr. Strangelove. In Being There, Sellers creates a character that’s empty, vapid, and with nothing to say, but exuding profundity, calculation, and utter Zen. It earned him his second and final Academy Award nomination for acting.

Beyond Sellers’ and his supporters’ excellent performances, the screenplay, the settings, and the direction are all nearly flawless. Being There does, however, require a certain suspension of belief. A ‘love scene’ that involves MacLaine masturbating on the floor and Sellers attempting a headstand on the bed especially tests the premise of the satire, but its excruciating hilarity trumps any hairs that might be split.

Although more than 25 years old, Being There is a vital statement on our TV reality, on how we develop our heroes, and on how power perpetuates itself. And it’s funny as hell.

The Deluxe Edition (both DVD and Blu-ray) includes two tiny additional scenes, a gag reel, retrospective featurette, and an alternate ending — one which omits the movie’s signature finale.