Being There (1979), subtitled "a story of chance," is a provocative black comedy -- a wonderful tale that satirizes politics, celebrity, media-obsession and television. The subtle film's slogan proclaimed: "Getting there is half the fun. Being there is all of it."
The film was directed by director Hal Ashby (already known for Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), and the acclaimed Vietnam war film Coming Home (1978)). The politically-satirical, overly-long film about mistaken identity and the television age was adapted from a 1971 novel by Jerzy Kosinski, with Sellers in a chameleon-like role in his second-to-last film. His role is a forerunner to the mentally-challenged Tom Hanks character in Forrest Gump (1994).
The film had two Academy Awards nominations, including Best Actor for Sellers (his second and last unsuccessful bid - he lost to Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)) for his superb understated performance, and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Melvyn Douglas (his third and last career nomination and second Best Supporting Actor win that defeated Robert Duvall's nomination for Apocalypse Now (1979), among others).The Story
It is a placid fable about Chance (Peter Sellers), a reclusive, illiterate, passive and simple-minded gardener who is well-groomed, fed on schedule, and dressed in custom-tailored suits, has lived his whole sheltered life on the walled-in estate of an eccentric millionaire named Jennings (his father?). His only knowledge of the "real" outside world, an encroaching inner-city ghetto area, is through watching television. His meals have always been prepared by the estate's black cook Louise (Ruth Attaway).
When Chance's benefactor dies, he is evicted by the estate's lawyers and wanders aimlessly and helplessly into the streets of Washington, D. C. As he emerges into the outside world, a version of Also Sprach Zarathustra is heard on the soundtrack. He is confronted by a young urban gang, and threatens to 'turn them off' with a TV remote control channel-changer.
Later in a freak accident, he is struck by a limousine owned by Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine) and bruises his legs. She takes him to her dying, patriarchal, industrialist husband Benjamin's (Melvyn Douglas) home for treatment from her personal physician Dr. Allenby (Richard Dysart) and recuperation. During the trip, he identifies himself as "Chance...the gardener," which is incorrectly interpreted to be his full name - Chauncey Gardiner.
Chance's empty-headed pronouncements and generalizations, delivered dead-pan, are taken to be profoundly intelligent, metaphorically deep, and wisely insightful. He becomes wealthy, is treated as a famous celebrity in the media, and becomes a political advisor for the rich and powerful, including President 'Bobby' (Jack Warden). His new-found popularity leads to talk-show appearances, insider parties, book publisher advances, and the potential to become a presidential candidate.
He offers simplistic responses to the most difficult questions, such as:
First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.
Some of the amusing remarks he makes, almost Yogi Berra-isms, hint that he might actually be insightful:
- On looking out a car window: "This is just like television, only you can see much further."
- On planting seeds: "Spring is the time for planting."
- On economics (actually on gardening): "In a garden, growth has its season...as long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well in the garden."
- On watching TV (his most famous line, misinterpreted by Eve as an invitation to sexually stimulate herself while he watches her): "I like to watch (TV)."
- On death: "I've seen this before. It happens to old people."
The last line of the film is a quote from the late Mr. Rand, read at his funeral: "Life is a state of mind."
The final scene of his walking on water across a lake gives the film a fanciful element, and leaves the viewer debating, wondering about, and struggling to interpret the fable-like story.
In 1979, Peter Sellers played a fictional character, Chance the gardener (Chauncey Gardiner) in the best-selling movie, Being There. In 2015, Ben Carson, a brain surgeon - portraying himself - is a candidate for President of the United States of America in Being Here.
Although one story is fact and the other is fiction, there are some interesting parallels in the tales being told. Sometimes art imitates life and sometimes it's the other way around.
Because of its current nature and substantial media coverage, the Ben Carson Being Here narrative is relatively well known today. The Being There narrative not nearly as well - except among film aficionados. So, let's begin this comparative analysis by taking a quick look (verbally not visually) at the movie.
Key points in the story line and plot for Being There extracted and adapted from Wikipedia and a Filmsite movie review follow:
Chance (Peter Sellers) is a middle aged man who lives in the townhouse of an old wealthy man in Washington, D.C. He is simple-minded and has lived there his whole life, tending the garden. Other than gardening, his knowledge is derived entirely from what he sees on television.
When his benefactor dies, Chance naively says to the estate attorney that he has no claim against the estate, and is ordered to move out. Thus he discovers the outside world for the first time.
Chance wanders aimlessly. He passes by a TV shop and sees himself captured by a camera in the shop window. Entranced, he steps backward off the sidewalk and is struck by a chauffeured car owned by Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas), an elderly business mogul. In the back seat of the car sits Rand's wife, Eve (Shirley MacLaine).
Eve brings Chance to their home to recover. Drinking alcohol for the first time during the car ride home, Chance coughs as he tells Eve his name. Eve mishears "Chance, the gardener" as "Chauncey Gardiner". Chance is wearing expensive tailored clothes from the 1920s and '30s, which his benefactor had allowed him to take from the attic, and his manners are old-fashioned and courtly.
When Ben Rand meets him, he assumes these are signs that Chance is an upper-class, highly educated businessman. Chance's simple words, spoken often due to confusion or to a stating of the obvious, are repeatedly misunderstood as profound; in particular, his simplistic utterances about gardens and the weather are interpreted as allegorical statements about business and the state of the economy.
Some of Chauncey's most memorable remarks in the movie in this regard include;
- "First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again."
- "Spring is the time for planting."
- "In a garden, growth has its season...as long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well in the garden."
Ben Rand admires Chauncey, finding him direct and insightful. Rand is a confidant and adviser to the President of the United States, (Jack Warden), whom he introduces to "Chauncey". The President likewise interprets Chance's remarks about the "garden" as economic and political advice. Chance, as Chauncey Gardiner, quickly rises to national public prominence.
After his appearance on a television talk show, he becomes a celebrity and soon rises to the top of Washington society. Public opinion polls start to reflect just how much his "simple brand of wisdom" resonates with the jaded American public.
At Rand's funeral, while the President delivers a speech, the pall-bearers hold a whispered discussion over potential replacements for the President in the next term of office. As Rand's coffin is about to be interred in the family mausoleum, they unanimously agree on "Chauncey Gardiner".
Oblivious to all this, Chance wanders through Rand's wintry estate. He straightens out a pine sapling and then walks off across the surface of a small lake. He pauses, dips his umbrella into the deep water under his feet as if testing its depth, turns, and then continues to walk on the water as the President quotes Rand: "Life is a state of mind."
Life is a state of mind. It was in 1979 for a period of time in Being There with Peter Sellers in a starring role and it has been in 2015 with Ben Carson in a starring role until recently in Being Here.
Carson was able to walk on water for a few months of the Fall. But, as we move into the dark days of December and the primaries loom larger in 2016, it appears that he is slipping into electoral quicksand.
Carson's initial popularity much like that of Chauncey was driven in part by his outsider status and soft spoken pronouncements of a "simple brand of wisdom which resonates with the jaded American public."
His position in the leadership ranks along with Donald Trump is an indication that a fairly large percentage of the American public is definitely in an outsider state of mind. They are absolutely "jaded" and totally fed up with politicians and government as usual.
One of Carson's points of differentiation from Trump early on in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination is that he seemed to be kinder and gentler in his assessments of matters or at least in his presentations and commentary. Then, he began to espouse ideas that seemed to be a little harsher, more judgmental and sometimes just plain weird.
We detailed some of those "Carson-isms" in an earlier blog and will not repeat them all. Here, however, is a sampling of his more outlandish proclamations,"
- "Being gay is a choice...because a lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight-- and when they come out, they are gay."
- "You know I think Obamacare is really the worst thing in this nation since slavery."
- "I personally believe that this theory that Darwin came up with was something that was encouraged by the adversary." (Satan)
These statements probably didn't cost Carson much with his core constituency and supporters. In fact, they may have bumped his numbers up. But, it appears that media scrutiny and increased exposure has cost him quite a lot.
Over the past month, Dr. Carson's polling numbers have declined. Recent polls link his fall from grace with Republican voters to a lack of comprehension in the international relationships and foreign policy arena and a deficiency in terms of leadership qualities.
Unlike Chance the Gardener, Dr. Carson the brain surgeon is not simple-minded. Like Chance though he has worked in a very small space with little exposure to or knowledge of the world outside the medical setting in which he excelled. Unfortunately for him, that limited scope does not translate well onto a bigger platform and a candidacy for the Republican nomination.
While Carson sinks, Trump holds steady and Cruz is rising in the polls in primary states and nationally. What does all of this mean for 2016?
It most likely means that Ben Carson will not prevail and that Being Here as a candidate today will not lead to his being there as the nominee at the Republican convention in August. On the other hand, Trump or Cruz might.
What does that mean? We'll have more to say on the implications of either of them winning as the primary contests roll out next year. For now, we will just share the opinions of Dana Milbank of the Washington Post and Craig Mazin, Ted Cruz's roommate in his freshman year at Princeton.
Milbank titled a recent op-ed piece, "Donald Trump is A Bigot and A Racist. That probably says it all. But, it raises the question for us, is Milbank writing about Trump's best qualities?
Patricia Murphy of The Daily Beastquotes Mazin as saying, "I would rather have anybody else be the President of the United States. Anyone. I would rather pick somebody from the phone book."
If these assessments are valid, with either Cruz or Trump as the Republican nominee, it could mean the Republican Party and - if one of them won in November- the nation would end up Being Nowhere.
From Being There to Being Here to Being Nowhere. Somehow, Being Here just started to sound a whole lot better. (In the interests of full and open disclosure, Frank Islam is on the national finance committee for Hillary Clinton.)