Intelligent satire is damn near impossible. Directed by Hal Ashby, i.e. the guy you’ve vaguely heard of who influenced all of your favorite movies, Being There tells the story of a simple-minded gardener’s accidental success moving the highest levels of power. The film is notable for Peter Sellers’s brilliant performance, which balances comedic idiocy with startling human depth. Being There also features one of the most memorable endings in film history, with an enigmatic final shot that leaves the film open to multiple interpretations.
Maybe there’s a bit of autobiography hidden in this film? A Mormon turned 1960’s radical, Ashby took a somewhat roundabout path into filmmaking. He actually won an Oscar for his work as an editor before directing his first film (after the age of 40). With Being There, his seventh feature that some describe as his last true film, Ashby realized the height of his cinematic voice; the film combines the satirical qualities of his earlier films like The Landlord and Shampoo with the off-beat tenderness of The Last Detail and Harold and Maude. The film also features the trademark characteristics of his style, which often convey a sense of bemused detachment. Perhaps tracing back to his days in the cutting room, Ashby often broke the 180 degree rule, which enhances the main character’s inability to have real human connections in the world of the film. In Being There, Ashby uses extreme long shoots for scenes where the viewer might expect a close-up; somewhat paradoxically, this technique heightens the emotion of a scene through distance as opposed to literally being in your (well, okay, the actor’s) face. While Ashby may not be considered as much of a technical pioneer as other New Hollywood filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola or Robert Altman, he still presents a unique cinematic style in films like Being There.
As a new generation of method actors emerged in the New Hollywood era, Peter Sellers experienced something of a creative decline in the 1970’s compared to the previous decade, when directors like Stanley Kubrick and Blake Edwards took advantage of his unique talents as a comedic performer. Chance the Gardener, one of Sellers’s final roles, is arguably his most iconic character (mainly because he played three great roles in Dr. Strangelove). Sellers famously claimed that he was as much of an empty shell as Chance, perhaps joking that he was just playing himself. On the other hand, perhaps he was simply reminding everyone that he had been a self-taught method actor before the cool kids were doing it, going to great lengths to embody characters who were generally, to use the kind word, idiots. While Sellers always strived to preserve his characters dignity while the world laughed at (and, no, definitely not with) them, Being There allowed him the opportunity to play a figure who was too simple-minded to even understand the concept of ridicule, let alone realize his actions could be a subject of embarrassment. In this sense, Chance is both the perfect clown and the ultimate straight man, never breaking from his obsession with television or his botanical truisms. The great trick that Sellers pulls off, however, is to embody while also grasping Chance’s humanity.
Everyone loves a good ending, but how many final shots make you think about the film well after the credits have rolled? There’s probably a listicle out there with the answer – or if there isn’t, someone should get on it. However, Being There certainly deserves recognition for the thought-provoking image of Chance (seeming to) casually walk on water at the end of the film. He also adds a layer of information by synchronizing the audio from the President’s speech to the visual of Chance on the water. As the President declares “life is a state of mind,” it reminds us of the type of gardening platitudes Chance has said throughout the film, and forces us to reconsider them in light of what we are seeing. Sure, the scene may actually raise more questions than it answers, but that’s actually kind of the point. Is Chance some kind of a Christ figure? Is Chance breaking the laws of physics through his blissful ignorance? Or is he actually a being from another world with godlike powers, thus explaining his seeming stupidity and general lack of awareness? Whatever the best interpretation – and it’s definitely not that last one – Ashby clearly intended us to wonder about the meaning behind this scene.