#40 - Being There (Hal Ashby)



“Life is a state of mind.”


Peter Sellers was a force of nature, and even saying something outrageous like that doesn’t seem to do the man justice. Still his roles speak volumes, and although I am not the biggest fan of his “Pink Panther” movies I cannot deny the talent Sellers displayed in those films. But his greatest achievements are the two films he did with Stanley Kubrick* and this film, “Being There” by Hal Ashby.

Sellers himself said that the role of Chance the gardener in “Being There” is his dream role and considering the sheer quality of the performance in the film it is hard not to sense a primal connection that Sellers had with this part. I personally think that here he has given one of the best and certainly most unique comedic performances ever to be put on film.

Chance looks like a man of considerable repute, always in a formal attire and well groomed. This respectable appearance combined with his calm, reserved and kind nature gives him an aura of confidence and wisdom. Or at least this is how he appears to everyone around him as they take him to be a man of great importance, even though we the audience know that he is not more than a mere gardener, and a strange one at that.

Some might say that he lacks intelligence, but I wouldn’t agree with this. I do think that his isolated life has blessed him in a way with quite a unique perception of life itself, because it kept him very much unspoiled by the outside world. And although his nature can be easily seen as inane he is actually constantly in the moment, present and aware, and his mind does not seem to ever wander which means that it needs consistent stimulation from the outside in one way or another. That might explain his love of TV.

Actually at one point in the film there is a rather impressive display of Chance’s memory, where he remembers a rather trivial event in detail from a few decades ago. But then again because of Chance’s isolated life maybe what we would perceive as trivial was a big event for Chance, making a memorable impression on him. It is not clear.

But anyway, this disparity between this meek nature of the character, his respectful appearance and his interactions with other “normal” people are a source of some sublime deadpan humor, but without the underlining cynicism and sarcasm. Sellers project genuine innocence and honesty that believably comes across as something very calculated and wise to the characters surrounding him, who are misjudging Chance’s nature and are interpreting his gardening tips as profound parables.

However the film is presented as a rather bleak drama about life and death (it starts and ends with the death of Chance’s father figure) and it wears this disguise rather well, but once you’re in on the joke the comedic brilliance of Sellers seems even more profound.

That does not mean that the film doesn’t have anything to say, actually there seem to be deep themes in the film on life as we live it, as well as a political and religious subtext. But I was so enthralled with my viewing last night that I just merely noticed these themes**. So I am very much looking forward to returning to “Being There” and further exploring the thematic aspects of this fantastic film.


*”Lolita”, where he is an absolute scene stealer and “Dr. Strangelove”, in which he gives three bravura performances.

**Politics: the impotent president; the whispering men under the all-seeing eye, deciding Chance’s future. Religion: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”; the last shot of the film. Life as we live it: Heidegger’s “question of being”; Chance helping Ben accept death and helping Eve find sexual fulfillment; The last line of the film.


Peter Sellers - Chance
Shirley McLane - Eve Rand
Melvyn Douglas - Benjamin Rand
Jack Warden - president "Bobby"
Richard Dysart - Dr Robert Allenby

Being There on the IMDb

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