Being There (1979)

Directed by Hal Ashby


Being There is a comedy, but it starts off feeling much more somber and quiet than most comedies, and in the end it feels sharper and edgier than any comedy I’ve seen in a while.  Hal Ashby’s first film, The Landlord, dealt with a protagonist similarly clueless to the protagonist in Being There, Chauncey Gardener (Peter Sellers).  That film, as well as this one, touch on race relations, though Being There only brings this up when a black woman, Louise, who helped raise Chauncey as a boy, notes that all his good fortune boils down to the color of his skin:

“It’s for sure a white man’s world in America. Look here, I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss-ant. And I’ll say right now, he never learned to read and write. No, sir. Had no brains at all. Was stuffed with rice pudding between th’ ears. Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you’ve gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want.”

Chauncey is simple-minded due to an unknown learning disability, but it’s hard to tell because he dresses nicely and speaks coherently.  He is a gardener at an old man’s estate, and when that man dies, Chauncey is on his own for the first time, even though he’s in his 50s.

Chauncey hasn’t left the home in years, maybe ever, so when he leaves the house for the first time (20 minutes into the film), we’re just as shocked as he is by the world around him.  It’s a poor neighborhood near Washington D.C., and up until this point of the film, I would’ve expected the era to be something like 1930s America if it wasn’t for the television set in Chauncey’s room.  Chauncey dresses in the old man’s suits, made in the 1920s, and the home itself is from a different time.  Outside the community is predominantly black, and everything and everyone moves at a pace hard for Chauncey to keep up.

He doesn’t understand the ways the world works because all he’s ever known was the inside of the wealthy man’s home in which he grew up.  It’s unclear who this man was in his life as they weren’t related so far as I can tell.  Out on the streets, Chauncey approaches a black women who he possibly mistakes for Louise and asks her to make him a meal to eat.

That night, in a trance by a television in a storefront window, a car backs up into Chauncey, hurting his leg.  Out of the car pops Eve (Shirley MacLaine), who insists he come home with her to be cared for.  Eve lives in a mansion with her older husband, Ben (Melvyn Douglas), and they both are quickly taken with Chauncey’s kindness and apparent charm.

Ben is one of the movers and shakers in DC, one of those people whose money helped make the President… the President.  They receive a visit from President Bobby (a fictional character), who is intent on meeting with Ben, curious to hear what he has to say about a speech he’s soon to give.  Ben brings Chauncey with him, and when the President asks Chauncey if he agrees with Ben’s advice, Chauncey, utterly confused, refers to gardening, the only thing he knows, and what he says is somehow taken as metaphorical.  Both Ben and the President think it’s genius.

When the President then mentions Chauncey in his speech, as one of Ben’s advisors, the press goes crazy trying to figure out who this man is and how he’s so influential as to speak with the President.  Chauncey talks to reporters, giving them nonsensical, vague answers that, despite a result of his confusion, come off to them as purposefully mysterious.  They take his silence as an indicator of guilt.  Even the President looks into him, but no one can find any information about him.  He’s like a ghost, and many take this to mean that he must be a former FBI agent or a war criminal or who knows.

But in the meantime, Eve falls in love with him just as everyone else around him does.  The people who know of Chauncey, suspect him, but the people who meet him continuously fall under a spell that he doesn’t even realize he’s casting.

There are several occasions when it seems like Ben might be found out, but he never is.  Ben eventually dies, and at the funeral, Ben’s aids suggest that the only chance they have at controlling the White House is through Chauncey, the ultimate puppet.

The film ends with Chauncey literally walking on water, surprising even himself.

It’s hard not to like Chauncey.  He is so kind, so gentle, so simple that he feels like a puppy, and you want so desperately for him to get through life unscathed.  After he’s forced into the rude, wide open world, he is nearly attacked by several people, and it seems certain that this story won’t end well.  But then he’s taken in by Eve, as if he’s a malnourished, forgotten dog given a nice new home.

I realized I was under the same spell as everyone else, at least for part of the time, but then once Chauncey is given power you kind of pull back, realizing that’s not such a great idea and what he says isn’t as profound as they think it is.  That’s only because we know where Chauncey started from.  We’re given a glimpse into his life early enough to be in on the joke, able to laugh at the characters around him as they transform from welcoming to cult-like, following everything Chauncey says as if he’s Jesus.  When he walks on water at the end, it’s a clear sign that, to them, he is Jesus.  There are so many moments in which you expect Chauncey to be found out as a fraud, but in the end we realize there was never any danger of him being exposed.

This film feels like a harsh social commentary for a few reasons.  The first is that Chauncey is utterly, hopelessly dim, and he gets anything he could possibly want (even though all he really wants his a tv set) because, as Louise observes, he’s white.  People bend over backwards to accommodate him and hear what he has to say because he’s white and looks the part, even though they would tell you it’s for other reasons.

Then, we see that Chauncey has become the perfect Presidential candidate, and this paints a picture of the President as nothing more than a puppet for the people with the money, who elected him, to pull the strings.  In fact, there’s a sequence in which we see just how much the President is bothered by not knowing who Chauncey is.  As everyone scrambles to look into this ghost of a man, the President struggles to perform in bed with his wife (or mistress?).  The President in Being There might be as clueless as Chauncey is.

I’ve seen three other Hal Ashby films before this one: The LandlordThe Last Detail and Shampoo.  When I thought about these films, I realized I respected, even liked all of them, but I didn’t always enjoy watching them.  The Landlord might be my favorite, if only because the social commentary was a surprise, it was laid on thick, and the humor is obvious.  The Last Detail and Shampoo feel more subtle, but the characters are so odd and peculiar (mainly Warren Beatty in Shampoo), that it’s hard to get a handle on what’s really being discussed.

Either way, Ashby always seems to have a firm point of view in his films.  Being There is probably the most heavy-handed of these films, but that’s only because it seems like you have to dig into his other films to understand what he’s really saying.  I suppose, one way to look at it, is whether or not the protagonist in his films understands what’s going on?

Beau Bridges’ character in The Landlord is hopeless.  He’s dumb and wealthy, and that family wealth affords him opportunities that he doesn’t fully know what to do with.  At the end, when a black woman he impregnated gives him a heavy speech about why their baby should be raised white (for the opportunities), Beau seems to completely misinterpret what she’s saying.  He still thinks he’s in a comedy, even when the film has taken a darker, more dramatic turn.

Then in The Last Detail and Shampoo, the main characters (Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, Randy Quaid) seem so interested in things that don’t matter, but at the end they are forced to reevaluate their lives in a way that drives the point of the film home.

I don’t know what I’m getting at here.  It’s a work in progress theory that feels like it’s falling apart the more I type.  It just seems like Hal Ashby likes to fill his films (at least these four) with characters who have no hope of understanding what’s really going on.  There are political, racial and gender politics at play in these works, and his characters just don’t get it.  Then, if they ever do finally get it, it’s only because they had something taken away from them, like Beatty losing his ex-girlfriend to the older man in Shampoo or Nicholson and Young becoming more disenchanted with their profession when they take the kid (Quaid) to jail even though he’s become a friend of theirs.

So his characters either lose something or gain something.  If you lose, you’re given the gift of wisdom and perspective, even if you can’t appreciate it because it’s painful.  If you win, you don’t really gain anything because your life just goes on as it did before.

So even though Beau Bridges has a new child by the end of The Landlord (and a reunion with his old girlfriend) and even though Chauncey has a comfy new life, neither character actually gains anything.  You can picture Chauncey waking up the morning after the funeral and turning on the tv as he always does, unaware that his life has changed in such dramatic ways.


So I guess my working theory now, about Hal Ashby films, is that it’s all about varying degrees of awareness, though that might not be descriptive enough to mean anything.

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