Ben's Top Pick for September
If you're like me, you saw Hal Ashby's Being There when you were a kid. And while I like to imagine myself as a fairly sophisticated 12-year-old, it turns out I completely missed what's great about the movie. Mostly it's Peter Sellers, who plays Chance the gardener (aka Chauncey Gardner), but more on Sellers in a minute.
If you don't know, the story comes from Jerzy Kosinski's novel (he adapted the screenplay himself). It covers a week or so in the life of a kind, decent, slow-witted middle-aged man, Chance. He's lived his entire life in the home of a wealthy old man, for whom he tends the garden. He's never left the house. Everything he knows he learned from television. He's like the first Kardashian.
When the old man dies, he's thrust into the outside world with consequences that say far more about us out here in society than they do about Chauncey.
Now on to Sellers, who delivers a performance as textured as any other. Yet the character he plays isn't remotely multilayered. He spends 83 percent of the movie talking either about gardening or watching television, but there's so much subtlety in the way he talks, the moments that pass before he speaks, the timing of his smiles. The brilliance of his simplicity is what allows the other actors--Melvyn Douglas, Shirley MacLaine and Richard Dysart--to shine.
And they do, particularly Douglas, who through an incomprehensible, yet somehow credible set of circumstances, becomes a second father figure to Chauncey in the brief time they spend together after Chauncey is thrust into the outside world.
Most of what I used to think about Being There related to its message: about the power of television, the loss of critical thinking, our mass-marketed pack mentality. And while that may be what Being There is about, it has nothing to do with how the movie makes us feel. Its sweet authenticity is a product of Sellers' relationship with MacLaine--and to a greater extent, Douglas, who won his second Oscar® for the movie, beating out, among others, Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now.
Now I'll conclude with a little name-dropping. I watched Being There again because it clearly matters a great deal to an actress I've long admired but who now has become an actual living, breathing friend--TCM's own Illeana Douglas, Melvyn's granddaughter. And how do I know it matters to her? She named her dog Chauncey Gardner.
by Ben Mankiewicz