Thursday, May 4, 2017

Chris' #81: Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979)

Starring: Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Richard Dysart, Jack Warden
Director: Hal Ashby
Writers: Jerzy Kosinski, Robert C. Jones
Release Date: December 19, 1979

IMDB's Synopsis: A simple, sheltered gardener becomes an unlikely trusted advisor to a powerful businessman and an insider in Washington politics.

First Time
Sometime before April 2012; that was the first mention of it on my old blog, so I can at least say that with certainty. If I recall correctly, I watched this when I was going through some of the more notable movies in Hal Ashby's filmography.

Why it's on the List
In my last write-up, I talked about how Catch Me If You Can doesn't acknowledge race and white privilege. Being There, on the other hand, faces these themes head-on in a very frank way. I didn't intentionally pair these two films, but watching them back-to-back felt like kismet. Frank Abagnale Jr. and Chance the Gardner (Peter Sellers) are exact opposites, yet they achieve similar levels of success that oft goes unchallenged.

I can also understand how the character of Chance could be considered problematic to some, but I feel the overall tone of the film is respectful. During my rewatch this past week, I had forgotten what the audience actually learns about Chance. Going off of what Louise (a black cook and former co-worker of his) has to say about him, he's just a simple man who never learned to read or write. I suppose that sums him up quite well, but I do wonder if he has some other disability.

But it is Louise who sees Chance on a late night talk show and proclaims, "It's for sure a white man's world in America." I'm glad that the film bluntly acknowledges this fact and seems to make it reoccurring theme.

I haven't looked this up to confirm it yet, but I have to believe that there are a handful of articles out there arguing that this film predicted the rise of Donald Trump. It's actually pretty humorous, until you remember what a vile scumbag Trump is. But like Donald, Chance is illiterate, is mistakenly seen as a wise & successful person, and even has a brief meeting with the Russian ambassador at one point. Also, Chance proudly admits, "I don't read papers; I watch television." The parallels are a little scary, and I'll need to move on before I get really pissed off. I don't want to associate Peter Sellers' lovely performance with our sack of shit President.

Anyway, I enjoy how meticulous Sellers' performance is. The simple, good-natured energy of Chance is naturally infectious. The level of mystery surrounding him also adds to the character; we, the audience, can understand why people are drawn to him, but we also know something they don't know. There's an improv term called, "finding the game." Here, the "game" is that Chance can only effectively speak to basic gardening techniques, and everyone else applies his/her own deeper meanings to those words.

The comedy in this is very dry. No one is ever intentionally telling a joke; and yet, there are some nice laughs throughout.

I love the sequence where Chance leaves the old man's house for the first time and wanders through the streets of D.C. The use of Deodato's "Also Sprach Zarathustra" over those shots is the perfect match of sight and sound. In fact, the use of 70s music in this is great overall - "Basketball Jones" being another highlight. The rest of the soundtrack is composed of classic piano pieces, which set the right mood for the more somber scenes.

The film does a great job of balancing comedy with heartfelt scenes and solemn moments. You get a little bit of everything in this. The emotional weight is provided by health condition of Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas), and the toll his prolonged death is taking on his wife, Eve (Shirley MacLaine). Rand is "an older man dying on a young man's disease," who just wants his younger wife to be happy and cared for after he's gone.

Ben and Eve have a very loving and earnest relationship - I love the early scenes with Douglas and MacLaine in this. Eve is also a complex, fleshed-out character. She's very sheltered and admits that the only friends she has are her husband's older friends. I definitely pity her in that regard. But like Sellers, Douglas and MacLaine are great in this, especially Douglas. We don't get to spend a lot of time with Benjamin Rand, but it's a treat every time we do.

I also enjoy how big and crazy the ending is. I won't spoil it here, if you haven't seen it, but I do approve. Many see this film as biting political commentary, and while it does effectively make its points, I think the film truly excels because of its more human moments and its poetic musings. As Jack Warden, who plays the President of the United States, finishes Ben's eulogy, he leaves us with the line, "Life is a state of mind." There's a lot of truth to that, and the film has a bigger message than just, "the dumbest, most incompetent people in Washington are the ones in positions of power," relevant and as true as that actually is right now.

Additional Notes/Stats
  • This is the only Hal Ashby film on my list. I have another one on my 200-101.
  • Peter Sellers will make one more appearance on this list.
  • Shirley MacLaine is also great in Terms of Endearment, The Apartment, and The Trouble With Harry, none of which are in my top 100. I'd like to see Postcards from the Edge.
  • 12 Angry Men is probably on my 200-101 list, but this is it for Jack Warden in my top 100.
  • I probably should've put Ninotchka on my list, giving me another Melvyn Douglas movie, but that'll have to go down as an oversight for now. I might look to move that up my rankings. Also still need to see Hud.

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