Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.
In Peter Biskind’s landmark survey of 1970s American cinema, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the author tagged the latter film cited in its title as the symbolic end of the revered era when directorial power and offhand creative daring were at all-time high in Hollywood. While there’s no reason to strictly adhere to the fairly arbitrary tyranny of the calendar in declaring an end to the cinematic ’70s, it does seem odd that Biskind toddled forward to a 1980 release when there were more than a few candidates with 1979 copyright dates that seemed especially well-suited to the closing statement for the period. For example, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz both represent the cataclysmic end that comes from artistic freedom, albeit in very different manners. And then there’s Hal Ashby’s Being There, which is even better, I think, as the announcement of the ending of era and the accurately cynical forecast of what’s to come.
Based on Jerzy Kosinski’s 1971 novella and scripted by the author himself (with an uncredited assist by Ashby’s regular collaborator Robert C. Jones), the film tells the story of Chance (Peter Sellers), a mentally simple man who is cast out into the world after the death of his longtime employer. Chance served as the gardener for a wealthy individual referred to only as “the Old Man,” remaining strictly within the confines of the mansion with only the television as a conduit to the outside world. Chance watches it raptly and impassively, occasionally changing channels aimlessly, taking it all in without giving an indication that he’s processing it beyond some occasional echoing of broadcast chatter.
The messy process of dividing up the estate leaves Chance wandering the streets, but not for long as fate (and his own inattention) puts him behind a car shuttling Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine) through town, leaving him injured when it backs up on him. The wife of an ailing financial magnate, Eve quickly determines that it’s better to keep this matter under wraps. In the name of discretion, they bypass the hospital and go to the massive Rand estate where the doctors tending to her husband at all times can examine Chance. In short order, Chance is firmly befriended by Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas), who projects shrewd wisdom onto this newcomer’s bland statements of personal fact. Discussion of the simple toils of tending the garden become shrewd metaphors of healing the mounting ills of the nation, inspiring Benjamin to draw Chance into his power circles, including private meetings with the U.S. President (Jack Warden).
Chance’s influence steadily grows. He’s cited by the president in a speech and invited onto a television talk show to share his thoughts. At every turn, his opaque simplicity is a grand asset. “He was very clever, keeping it at a third grade level; that’s what they understand,” one character admiringly observes after watching his television appearance. In Kosinski’s disgusted estimation, emptiness bests complexity in the arena shaped by the corrupt intermingling of media and politics because observers can project whatever they like onto the empty suit in the spotlight. Chance is saying what any given individual wants to hear by saying nothing at all. By the end of the film, the insidious power structure of behind the scenes business titans are scheming ways to exploit this situation, literally plotting these maneuvers over the corpse of one of their brethren. The film presents a caustic evaluation of where the true authority lies in our upside-down democracy, a point that couldn’t be more pertinent over 30 years later. Just ask the people currently occupying the streets.
There are certainly elements of the storytelling that strain plausibility when viewed coldly. Chance’s ascension is drastically accelerated, even considering the added leeway granted by the film’s satiric tone, and the character’s level of naïveté doesn’t totally jibe with his constant consumption of media images. In some ways, however, these weak beams in the structure wind up enhancing the film’s fable-like quality. It lends it a fanciful overtone that shifts it away from the primal anger of something like Sidney Lumet’s Network. It exists on its own plane, one that is perhaps a little more forgiving, somewhat beholden to the cornball populism of Frank Capra even as it slyly savages the hopeful conclusions the earlier director routinely reached.
Given that Sellers made his fame with broadly comic performances, it still remains jarring to see him play Chance with such disciplined reserve. He must have been fighting every well-honed instinct he had to keep the character so even, so sedate, so blank. Naturally, that’s exactly what was required, and even a hint of Sellers’ own whirlwind inventiveness cracking through would have shattered the fragile characterization. The actor had spent most of the prior decade trying to get Kosinski’s story made into a film; that patience and persistence undoubtedly informed his care in the role. He had a conviction to get it right and it shows in the engrossing placidness of his acting.
Ashby was one of the defining greats of the ’70s, though his name isn’t invoked as often as others like Coppola, Martin Scorsese or Robert Altman. He’s more of an afterthought, despite the fact that he presided over smart, important and distinctly different works like Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973) and Shampoo (1975). In some ways, Being There can be viewed as the end of ’70s cinema because it was also the last great statement made by one of the most notable auteurs of the time. While others were brought down by their own hubris, Ashby just made a fast fade into insignificance, badly hampered by the fallout from the hard living of the times. He continued to direct but on increasingly disregarded films that, by all accounts, displayed none of the inspiration that was a hallmark of the very best efforts of the decade past. It was as if the whole world shifted around him and there was no place for the artistry he practiced before. Dogmatic straightforwardness had fully supplanted nuance in the language of cinematic storytelling. Remarkably, Ashby had, in Being There, diagnosed a central cause of his own creative and professional demise.
by Dan Seeger