It’s been about 15 years since I last saw a film by Hal Ashby. That would be Harold & Maude, which ended up becoming an incredibly formative film for me. Like, I had always enjoyed a black comedy – but that was one of the first classic film where I had done it so extremely well. With Being There, I went in with no idea of what to expect and came out having watched something that felt incredibly prescient and featuring Peter Sellers at his finest.
It’s hard not to watch Being There and not draw parallels to the current political climate. That’s the power of such a smart satire though, there tends to be an immortal universality to it. The story of a man rising to political prominence through sheer misinterpretation and accident is one we know well, but in Being There the place of prominence is (as the last scene reveals) a nomination to run for office as the President of the United States.
Despite being a comedy, Being There is played nearly completely straight as you would expect from a political biography. I got 20-30 minutes in and was beginning to worry about this not being a comedy that would actually reach me. Then the political elements kicked in. Then, Peter Sellers had both Melvyn Douglas and Shirley Douglas turned up for him to play off – and the film truly took off.
Being played straight is the incredible strength of Being There and none plays it better than Peter Sellers. In the hands of a lesser and less dedicated actor, his role of simple-minded Chance the Gardener would have been borderline insufferable. However, Sellers plays it with such idiosyncrasy and purpose that not only does this feel like someone who could exist but also someone you cannot help support him as he is on the ascent.
In the end, he understands nothing of what is going on and always communicates with a vague honesty. It’s one of those things you hear about the rise of populist leaders, this idea of honesty and speaking plainly – well here is a character who fits the bill but has no ulterior motives because he is unable to operate that way. Not difficult to see how he could be appealing. Man, I didn’t expect something that would be so politically relevant.