BEING THERE (1979) C widescreen 130m dir: Hal Ashby
w/Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Richard Dysart, Richard Basehart, Ruth Attaway, David Clennon, Fran Brill, Denise DuBarry
From The Movie Guide: "Deft fable of innocence's wisdom. Jerzy Kosinski's modern fable gets a terrific translation to the screen due to his tight screenplay, capable direction by Ashby, and a marvelous performance by Sellers, one unlike any other in his career. Simpleton becomes wealthy and famous, but flimsy idea goes on too long. MacLaine is funny as the sex-starved wife who at first is amusedly captivated by Sellers then falls in love with him. [Caleb] Deschanel's stunning cinematography also deserves praise, as does [Johnny] Mandel's very appropriate score. Sellers was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar but lost to Dustin Hoffman for KRAMER VS. KRAMER, while Douglas won his second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (his first came for HUD in 1963). Filmed in Washington, DC; Los Angeles; and at the Biltmore, the Vanderbilts' North Carolina mansion."
Warning! The following article contains information you may not want to know before viewing the film:
From the British Film Institute's international film magazine Sight & Sound (August 2013, volume 23, issue 8, page 112), this article by Thirza Wakefield examines the ending of BEING THERE: "Scripted mid-shoot, the last 30 seconds of Hal Ashby's 1979 film startle the audience into reconsidering its assumptions:
"'Life is a state of mind,' reads President 'Bobby' (Jack Warden) from a prompt sheet at the funeral of his advisor Ben Rand. It's the last line of director Hal Ashby's Being There (1979), one which resounds importantly over the Rand estate where our protagonist Chance (Peter Sellers) has wandered apart from his fellow mourners. To this solemnising voiceover he ambles, dark-suited, by the edge of the pond, pulls a pine sapling free of a fallen branch and, turning to look at the mansion in the distance, steps purposefully out onto the lake. The camera fixes square on the scene as Chance walks 14, 15 paces across the surface of the water then, pausing to look about his feet, bends to try its depth with a black umbrella: three feet deep. Straightening out again, glancing up at the sky as he does so, Chance splashes further out.
"It's a miraculous ending to a secular film: a conclusion that stuns by its bravura and by running counter not to the tone of the film, which is consistently multiform, but to our assimilation of the narrative so far. This marvel of physics --- Being There's first and only supranatural spectacle, compressed into its final half-minute --- raises as many questions as it seems instantaneously to choke, as religion can. As the picture pfffts to black, echoing the film's so many television sets, we have only ourselves to ask: who exactly is Chance and, in the end, does it matter? We first meet Chance (magnificently played by a silver-haired Sellers in his penultimate role before his death in 1980) routinely ensconced at the home where he's lived and worked as a gardener since boyhood. Following the death of his 'old man' employer, he's turned out on the street by callous kid-lawyer Franklin and, for the first time in his memory, leaves the confines of the timeworn Washington townhouse --- with no life experience but that which he's absorbed from TV and 'rice pudding between the ears.' Eumir Deodato's jazz-funk appropriation of the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme, 'Also Sprach Zarathustra,' attends his departure. For Chance, the seedy DC district at the foot of his stoop may as well be the moon: his final frontier.
"Of all the improbable places, Chance plants his flag in the unforgiving soil of the political world and, to our surprise and amusement, meets with great success. Amid the sophistry and subterfuge of Capitol Hill, Chance's seeming 'good, solid sense' shines like a light. Rand (Melvyn Douglas), who is dying and finds comfort in Chance's 'admirable balance,' mistakes straightforward talk of gardens for an allegory on America's small businesses and primes an impressionable President to find in Chance the allied optimist he's been looking for.
"None of these men has an inkling of Chance's peculiar origins; we do, so we laugh at the error of their judgment. That is, until Ashby's ending forces us to re-evaluate what we thought we knew --- everything we supposed we were watching. When Chance walks on water, Ashby permits us to feel what the film's supporting characters have felt all along. Did they ever overprize Chance? Was he always a miracle worker, a Christ figure with the power to dissolve and purge the needs and desires of everybody he meets? In Ashby's ending, we experience his special appeal first hand and unmediated. It's a giddying freedom.
"In another --- not necessarily contradictory --- reading, the film's ending is a farce. Being There's video researcher, Dianne Schroeder, sourced a varied and bizarre selection of contemporary television extracts, gawped at by Chance at intervals throughout the film. So have we switched (on) to TV, Chance's window on the world, in these last 30 seconds and are now watching fantasy? Is Chance any weirder than children's presenter Fred Rogers in full voice; his walking on water any more uncanny than the gutteral baying of a fame-starved wannabe, naked to the waist in war paint, on a 1970s prime-time talent show? Watching Being There today reminds us of Peter Weir's The Truman Show: that film's ending, with Truman ankle-deep in ocean, must have been influenced by the earlier picture and Ed Harris's director's prologue could as well refer to Chance: 'While the world he inhabits is in some respects counterfeit, there's nothing fake about Truman himself.'
"Ashby decided on the ending halfway into filming (it differs from the scripted finale and that of the source novel, both written by Jerzy Kosinski) and fell out with producers Lorimar in trying to get it approved. It's hard to fathom what all the fuss was about. Ashby's invention doesn't change the film or its hero; it changes us, his audience. After all, Chance remains Chance, whether he's walking on water or walking on the ground."