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Jerzy Kosinski's novel, Being There, was first published in 1971, it prompted Peter Sellers to begin an eight year campaign to bring it to the screen. Kosinski soon found himself bombarded by telegrams, cards, and letters from Sellers signed 'Chance' (the name of the novel's protagonist). Clearly, Sellers connected with Chance, a simple-minded gardener who is mistaken for a man of profound wisdom and insight. Unfortunately, the actor's career was at its lowest point in 1972 and no studio would seriously consider his proposal. Undaunted, Sellers approached Hal Ashby, his first choice of director for the project. Sellers had been a great admirer of Ashby's cult comedy, Harold and Maude (1971) but Ashby wasn't an A-list director yet and had no better chance of getting the film produced. However, the two men struck a deal. Whoever developed some financial clout in Hollywood first would try to turn Being There into a movie.
The turning point came in 1979 when Sellers was reaping the financial rewards of his 'Inspector Clouseau' character, which was successfully revived in 1975 with the release of The Return of the Pink Panther and its subsequent sequels. Ashby had also become a much sought-after director after a string of hits (The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Coming Home, 1978). After Lorimar Pictures agreed to produce Being There in 1979, the rest fell into place quickly. In order to protect his original concept, Jerzy Kosinski adapted the screenplay himself, adhering closely to the book's allegorical tone and chronology. The film locations were divided between Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and the George W. Vanderbilt estate in Asheville, North Carolina. Melvyn Douglas was cast as Benjamin Rand, a wealthy industrialist and advisor to the President and Shirley MacLaine played his wife, Eve. MacLaine had previously starred with Sellers in Woman Times Seven (1967) but her role in Being There was a complete departure from the gallery of kooks she played earlier in her career. Cast as the younger, sex-starved wife of a prominent Washington figure, MacLaine faced the challenge of several difficult scenes which, if not handled delicately, could have exposed her to ridicule; in particular, the scene in which she tries to introduce Chance to the pleasures of sex. Not surprisingly, MacLaine transforms what could have been a foolish and pathetic figure into a sympathetic yet humorous portrayal. For his part, Melvyn Douglas won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar® making him the oldest recipient at the time to win that award.
Yet it was Peter Sellers who earned the greatest praise as well as an Oscar® nomination for Best Actor. When he lost to Dustin Hoffman for Kramer vs. Kramer, Sellers was convinced it was because of the outtakes Ashby included in the closing credits, a ploy which Sellers felt undermined his performance and destroyed the film's mood. Regardless of his anger at Ashby, Sellers still viewed Being There as a major achievement, saying, "My ambition in the cinema, since I came across it, was to play Chance the gardener in Being There. I have realized that ambition, and so I have no more. The older I get, the less I like the film industry and the people in it. In fact, I'm at a stage where I almost loathe them. If all films were like Strangelove and I'm All Right, Jack and Being There, it would be a different thing." Sellers would only make one more film - The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980) - before succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 54.
Director: Hal Ashby
Producer: Andrew Braunsberg
Screenplay: Robert C. Jones, Jerzy Kosinski (also novel)
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel, Dianne Schroeder
Editor: Don Zimmerman
Art Direction: James L. Schoppe
Music: Johnny Mandel
Cast: Peter Sellers (Chance the Gardener), Shirley MacLaine (Eve Rand), Melvyn Douglas (Benjamin Rand), Jack Warden (President Bobby), Richard A. Dysart (Dr. Robert Allenby).
By Jeff Stafford