director Hal Ashby
Before Forrest Gump (1994) showed how an American imbecile could fail upwards and reflect back on his nation, there was Chance the gardener, a.k.a. Chauncey Gardiner of Being There. Chauncey’s journey isn’t as epic and historical, but does find him in the portals of power, with a nearly endless future. And where Gump represented an America appreciating their no nonsense dummy as hero, director Hal Ashby refracts a more wry and critical image of those who cannot tell an idiot from a genius.
It’s Peter Sellers in one of his last roles and one that contrasts significantly with many other for which he is known. His Chauncey is understated and subtle most of the time, creating that placid surface upon which the other characters can project and interpret.
Sellers didn’t win an Oscar for his performance, but Melvyn Douglas, who plays an elderly and ailing business man did. Shirley MacLaine is his much younger wife, who discovers Chauncey when her chauffeur accidentally hits him with her car.
The social criticism ripples throughout, touching on race, class, and the structures of power and government in the United States, but it isn’t all-out scathing. Chauncey’s simplicity and honesty engender true feelings of friendship, especially in Douglas’s Ben Rand. That a simple-minded white man can move from the confines of the only home he’s ever known (he’s never ridden in a car before) to the cusp of being primed as a presidential candidate by the old boy power brokers, it’s not such an odd metaphor when his last act is to walk on water.
I’d never seen Being There before but I’ve been working through Hal Ashby’s films. Of the ones I’ve seen now, they are dramatically different in visual style and settings and yet perhaps appreciated best in their subtleties. One other point of interest for me was Chauncey’s love of television. The shows and the commercials he watches is a real throwback to my childhood, a strange time capsule within a fine film.