Being There (1979)

“Life is a state of mind.” In arguably his greatest performance, Peter Sellers portrays a simple-minded gardener named “Chance,” who lives a sheltered life watching a lot of television at the home of a mysterious benefactor known to him only as “the Old Man.” After the Old Man passes away, Chance is forced to leave his safe confines and wander aimlessly throughout the streets of Washington, D.C. Through a (somewhat fortunate!) minor accident, Chance ends up at the mansion of wealthy industrialist and Presidential adviser Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas) and his sex-starved wife, “Eve” (Shirley MacLaine). Before you know it, the simple pronouncements of Chance (now referred to as “Chauncey Gardener”) are mistaken for great wisdom: “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.” After the U.S. President (Jack Warden) quotes him in a nationally aired speech, Chauncey becomes an overnight sensation and headed on the fast track to the White House himself. Spoiler alert! In the final scene, Chauncey strolls through the woods during Rand’s funeral and then casually walks on water. A brilliant satire, Being There effectively attacks the superficiality and emptiness of American media culture. Directed by Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude), Being There was based on a 1971 novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosinski (The Painted Bird). Sellers reportedly spent eight years campaigning to get the film made. Most of the filming took place at the 250-room Biltmore Estate, which was constructed between 1889 and 1895 by George Washington Vanderbilt in Asheville, North Carolina. Sellers made only one more film, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980), a critical disaster, before dying of a heart attack at the age of 54 in 1980. Also look for future Grammy Award-winning bass guitarist Oteil Burbridge as “Lolo,” the gang member who tries to get Chance to deliver a message to “that chickenshit asshole Raphael.” The animated film Basketball Jones (based on the Cheech and Chong song) appears on the TV in the limo scene. Douglas won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, while Sellers was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar but lost out to Dustin Hoffman (Kramer vs. Kramer). Sellers was reportedly upset at Ashby for including those hilarious outtakes (“Now get this, honky”) that appear in the film’s closing credits – thereby diminishing his performance and losing him potential Oscar votes.

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