The average moviegoer will know Peter Sellers solely for his work in The Pink Panther franchise, but devout film fans will know one of his best performances was in Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979). Sellers was a performer who could easily inhabit colourful characters, whether that was the bumbling inspector Clouseau or the deranged Dr. Strangelove, but the character of Chance the gardener in Ashby’s film is a person who almost has no personality to speak of. Yet Sellers’ performance and the situations in which the character is plunged ended up making Being There a memorable send off, as it was Sellers’ last film.
The reason I know it was his last film is because I learned it from watching his biopic The Life and Death of Peter Sellers in which he his portrayed by Geoffrey Rush. In that movie, whether it is 100 per cent accurate or not, Sellers pursues the role of Chance in Being There with great enthusiasm because he saw it as chance to prove he could play something other than a comedic role for which he had become known for. Seeing Rush play Sellers playing Chance before seeing the actual movie makes for an interesting experience, like a dramatic behind-the-scenes. When I did watch Being There when it played on TV I couldn’t help but think about Sellers’ motives to get that role and everything else that was happening off screen.
In the biopic, the character of Sellers says he has no personality, hence his desire to lose himself in the creations he made for the screen. The character of Chance in Being There is similar in that regard, as he has spent his entire life in the home of a millionaire in Washington, D.C. All he does is tend the garden and the only interaction he has with the outside world is through his television. It is easy to imagine a character like that today since even though television is slowly being phased out, screens are everywhere, and human interaction is taking a nosedive.
After the millionaire dies, Chance finds himself wandering the city streets for the first time in years while the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey is playing as though he were an astronaut exploring a strange new world. When a street gang gets in his way, Chance brandishes his TV remote at them and presses on a button hoping they will go away. Normally a person this disconnected from reality would either end up dead or in a mental institution within a matter of days, but that wouldn’t make for much of a movie.
Instead the story veers into political satire when a car belonging to business mogul Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas) and his wife Eve (Shirley MacLane) accidentally hit Chance. The couple does the right thing and take Chance to their home to recover, and while asking for his name they misunderstand it to be Chauncey Gardiner instead of Chance the gardener. Due to his formal clothing and demeanour they also assume he is an upper class businessman, and start to take everything he says as words of wisdom even though he is just spewing out gardening terms. The misunderstanding goes even further when the Rands introduce “Chauncey Gardiner,” genius on all things about the economy, to their good friend the president of the United States (Jack Warden).
Even though Chance is a clueless simpleton, he rises to fame and gets applauses while appearing on national TV, allowing Chance to finally see the other side of the screen. All he does is talk about how to tend the garden, but everyone assumes he is telling brilliant metaphors about foreign policy. Then again, when was the last time you didn’t hear anyone says something on a talk show that was not just a metaphor that could mean anything? If delivered correctly by a person who sounds fairly intelligent, anything can come off as clever.
Compared to just about any role Sellers had previously owned Chance might seem like an easy job, but a restrained performance is just as good as an outlandish one. There is also something slightly endearing about Chance, with his simple love of gardening and naiveté regarding anything that does not take place outside his beloved TV set. He may not be a smart man, but he is certainly not a bad one. It is a great final performance for an actor who in the end proved he could do more than fall down the stairs for laughs.