Being There is a 1979 American comedy-drama film directed by Hal Ashby. Adapted from the 1970 novella by Jerzy Kosinski, the screenplay was written by Kosinski and the uncredited Robert C. Jones. The film stars Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Richard A. Dysart, and Richard Basehart.
Douglas won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Sellers was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. The screenplay won the 1981 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Film) Best Screenplay Award and the 1980 Writers Guild of America Award (Screen) for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium. It was also nominated for the 1980 Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay.
Being There was the last film featuring Sellers to be released in his lifetime. The making of the film is portrayed in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, a biographical film of Sellers’ life.
Chance (Peter Sellers) is a middle-aged man who lives in the townhouse of an old, wealthy man in Washington, D.C. He is simple-minded and has lived there his whole life, tending the garden. Other than gardening, his knowledge is derived entirely from what he sees on television. When his benefactor dies, Chance is forced to leave and discovers the outside world for the first time.
Chance wanders aimlessly, wearing his former employer’s expensive clothes. Chance passes by a TV shop and sees himself captured by a camera in the shop window. Entranced, he steps backward off the sidewalk and is struck by a chauffeured car owned by Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas), an elderly business mogul. In the back seat of the car sits Rand’s wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine).
Eve brings Chance to their home to recover. Drinking alcohol for the first time in the car ride home, Chance coughs as he tells Eve his name. Eve mishears “Chance the Gardener” as “Chauncey Gardiner”. Chance’s clothes are tailored clothes from the 1920’s and 30’s, which his benefactor allowed him to take from the attic, and his manners are old-fashioned and courtly. When Ben Rand meets him, he assumes from these signs that Chance is an upper-class, highly educated businessman. Chance’s simple words, often due to confusion or stating the obvious, are often misunderstood as profound; Ben Rand finds him direct and insightful, qualities which he admires. Chance’s simplistic utterances about gardens and the weather are interpreted as allegorical statements about business and the state of the economy.
Rand is also a confidant and adviser of the U.S. President (Jack Warden), whom he introduces to “Chauncey”. The president interprets Chance’s remarks about how the garden changes with the seasons as economic and political advice. Chance, as Chauncey Gardiner, quickly rises to national public prominence. He becomes a media celebrity with an appearance on a television talk show and soon rises to the top of Washington society. He remains very mysterious, as the Secret Service men are able to learn almost nothing about his background. Public opinion polls start to reflect just how much his “simple brand of wisdom” resonates with the jaded American public.
Rand, dying of aplastic anemia, encourages Eve to become close to Chance. At his funeral, while the president delivers a speech, members of the Congress hold a whispered discussion over potential replacements for the President in the next term of office. As Rand’s coffin is about to be interred in the family mausoleum, they unanimously agree on “Chauncey Gardiner”.
Oblivious to all this, Chance wanders through Rand’s wintry estate. He straightens out a pine sapling and then walks off across the surface of a small lake. He pauses, dips his umbrella into the water under his feet as if testing its depth, turns, and then continues to walk on the water as the president quotes Rand: “Life is a state of mind.”
Principal filming occurred at the Biltmore Estate, the largest private home in America, located in Asheville, North Carolina.
Incidental music is used very sparingly. What little original music is used was composed by Johnny Mandel, and primarily features two recurrent piano themes based on “Gnossiennes” No. 4 and No. 5 by Erik Satie. The other major piece of music used is the Eumir Deodato jazz/funk arrangement of the opening fanfare from Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, in the scene where Chance leaves the house and ventures out into the world for the first time.
The film opens with Chance watching a televised performance of Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8.
The film opened to positive reviews and helped revitalize Sellers’ comic career after he landed many movie flops, except for the Pink Panther movies. Film critic Roger Ebert mentions the final scene in his 2005 book The Great Movies II (p. 52), stating that his film students once suggested that Chance may be walking on a submerged pier. Ebert writes, “The movie presents us with an image, and while you may discuss the meaning of the image, it is not permitted to devise explanations for it. Since Ashby does not show a pier, there is no pier — a movie is exactly what it shows us, and nothing more.”
Sellers won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for his performance in Being There. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor as well at the 52nd Academy Awards, but he lost to Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer. Hoffman, upon receiving the award, remarked that he refused to believe that he had beaten Sellers, or any of the other nominees.
Melvyn Douglas won his second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance.
The film is ranked number 26 on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list, a list released by the American Film Institute in 2000 of the top 100 funniest films in American cinema.