It was in January 1978 that the legendary comedian Peter Sellers appeared as a guest of The Muppet Show where he was invited by host Kermit the Frog to “just be himself,” a request which Sellers was unable to comply with: “But that you see, my dear Kermit, would be altogether impossible. I could never be myself. You see, there is no me, I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.”
First coming to fame as star of radio who played numerous characters on The Goon Show before moving to such films as Dr. Strangelove, What’s New, Pussycat? and The Party before establishing his long-running role as Inspector Jacques Clouseau, Chance, the gardener, whose only notable characteristic was simply being there, could not have been more different to these parts, nor in some ways could he have been more attuned with who Sellers really was away from the cameras.
Based on the slim 1970 novel by Jerzy Kosiński, also credited with the screenplay though his three drafts were rejected and the shooting script was finally written by Robert C Jones, Being There was directed by Hal Ashby, his followup to the multi-Oscar nominated Coming Home whose screenplay had also been written by Jones. Originally released in 1979, it has now been remastered on Blu-ray for the Criterion Collection.
A blank tableau, untouched and unaffected by the world beyond the garden he tends in Washington, DC, the death of his rich benefactor sees Chance turned out on the street, illiterate, simple-minded, and unable to fend for himself, when serendipity involves him in a minor accident with the car of the kindly Eve Rand (Irma la Douce‘s Shirley MacLaine) who insists on taking him home to be tended to by the medical staff who care for her terminally ill husband.
Misunderstanding him to be “Chauncey Gardiner,” and that his fall on hard times has been the the result of a business misadventure, through the connections of Ben Rand (The Changeling‘s Melvyn Douglas) he comes into the circle of the President of the United States of America who quotes Chance on national television, leading to his “wisdom” being sought by businessmen and ambassadors as he is feted across the town.
“It’s for sure a white man’s world in America,” the former housemaid Louise comments seeing him on television, one of the few who knows that beneath his “gift of being natural” that Chance is a fool upon whom others project their own hopes of insight and grandeur, that his being there is a position he has neither worked for nor is capable of handling, a warning which echoes ominously four decades later.
With the leisurely pacing typical of Ashby, it is unusual to see Sellers in such an underplayed and unguarded performance; a frequently difficult individual, the accompanying documentary emphasises how uncharacteristically cooperative Sellers was on set, such was his regard for the director and his connection with the project which was to bring him his second nomination for an Academy Award, one of his final roles before his death at the age of fifty-four in the summer of 1980.
The 4K digital transfer of Being There supervised by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel who discusses the challenges of lighting to simultaneously capture performers, the grand Biltmore Estate of Asheville, North Carolina and Chance’s omnipresent television shows which fill the void of his mind, there is also an archive audio conversation with Ashby, two television appearances with Sellers promoting the film, the second more entertaining as he was possibly more relaxed being interviewed via satellite than in person, a television appearance by Kosiński and deleted scenes.
Being There is available on Blu-ray from Monday 6th January as part of the Criterion Collection