Review Date: 10-23-08
Release Date: 12-19-1979
Runtime: 130 min.
Period: Contemporary, 1979
Costume Designer: May Routh
Being There is a fascinating journey in to the life of a mentally challenged man, mistaken for a profound thinker. I couldn’t help but make the connection to some films (Forrest Gump, W) that borrowed thematically from this beautiful movie – it’s really worth a look. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s galling at times, and Peter Sellers delivers an elegant performance, worthy of the notice it received when the film was released.
The plot here revolves around the simple-minded man, Chance (Sellers), who has lived in the walled confines of an old home in Washington DC his entire life. He has never ventured off the grounds; he quietly served as the old man’s gardener since childhood, content in his ignorance of the world, and seemingly apathetic to its presence. The only contact he has had with the outside world is with the maid, Louise (Ruth Attaway), and through the television, his best friend and constant companion. In fact, Chance carries a TV remote with him at all times, so he can change the channel if he needs to.
The old man dies, and soon lawyers come in to settle the estate. Chance, still living in the house, is displaced. Rather than worry about where to go, as it seems he is incapable of worry, Chance sets off, suitcase in hand, into the world he has never known: Washington, DC.
It turns out that his stately home is, in fact, in the middle of a run-down neighborhood. Homeless people dot the street, fires burn in fifty-gallon drums. Chance is soon confronted by a gang of street kids, and he reaches into his pocket for the remote control. Aiming the remote at them and pushing the button, he is confused as to why the kids aren’t going away.
He is similarly using the remote, in front of an electronics store, when he steps backward into the street, collides with a limousine and injures his leg. The passenger in the limousine, Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine) whisks him into the limo to take him to her home, where there is a live-in doctor on call, taking care of her dying husband. The home is, by the way, a mansion. Chance is encouraged to stay for a few days while his leg heals, and since he has no other place to go, he readily agrees.
Through a series of misunderstandings, Chance becomes known to the Rands as Chauncey Gardiner. Further, the ailing Mr. Rand (Melvyn Douglas) assumes that Chance is an international businessman, and takes him in to his confidence, befriending him instantly. Chance doesn’t intend to deceive anyone, but his disarmingly simple manner seems to relate a higher philosophical understanding of life to these people.
As the story unfolds, Chance sits in on a meeting with the President of the United States (Jack Warden), impressing him greatly with his “wise” observations, and goes on a nationally broadcast late-night television show. He talks about gardening, but people read his comments as an allegory, a metaphor for the economy, the state of the country, and so on. Each new person he meets has the same response as the Rands: Who is this genius, this philosopher, this amazing mind? In reality, Chance is speaking about the only thing he does know: horticulture – nothing more, nothing less. The public has, in their yearning for something meaningful, imbued his simple speech with greater significance.
In the interim, Eve has fallen in love with Chance. Her dying husband, seeing her infatuation, comes to accept it, and asks Chauncey to take care of his wife after he dies. Mr. Rand’s doctor (Richard Dysart) becomes suspicious of Chance, and starts to investigate Chance’s background. Similarly, the President of the United States, charmed and beguiled by his profound observations on world affairs, begins his own investigation of Chance. Both parties come up empty-handed, as Chance has never left a footprint in this world before he left the old man’s house.
In the end, Mr. Rand dies a peaceful man, content in the knowledge that Chance will take care of Eve, even though he has been informed of Chance’s humble background. Mr. Rand’s pallbearers end the film discussing Chance’s viability for Presidential election. Chance walks away from the funeral, down to a pond on the estate grounds. He attends to a sagging sapling, and then proceeds to walk across the pond, walking on water, in a perhaps Jesus-like moment? Or perhaps he is too simple-minded to realize that one can’t walk on water, but given his extraordinary ability to live outside the realm of normal, walks on water anyway?
As ridiculous as it may seem that people would mistake a slow-witted man-child for a political genius, Peter Sellers’ performance makes you see how it is possible. From the get-go, his character wears impeccably tailored suits, in perfect condition. Though the suits hardly look like they are from 1979, they are classically cut and fit him perfectly. As he explains in the film, the suits belonged to the old man, but fit him well, so he wears them. When he leaves his home for the first time, he wears a suit, tie, overcoat and homburg hat, and carries an umbrella and a suitcase containing his yellow silk pyjamas and maybe a few shirts. He has never left the house before, so how would he know what to pack?
The old “suitcase” gag is sometimes problematic for the costume department. Do we take it literally, only costuming the actor in what remains on their body and in the suitcase, or is it a “magic suitcase”, where an ostensibly endless parade of new costumes bubbles up from the bottom? In this film, Chance wears pretty much what he has with him, no magic suitcase. And that is a good thing, because when you deal with subject matter that is this implausible, you need the rest of the world (in the film) to seem real, in order to support the “realness” of the implausible storyline.
When he leaves the house for the first time, a jazzed-up version of the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey plays. It’s a comic moment that was probably funnier in 1979, when the joke was fresh, but it still serves to underline the completely alien experience Chance is having as he steps out into reality. This is a person who is totally unequipped for the world; the silhouette of Chance waddling down the street – overcoat, homburg hat, umbrella, suitcase – is Magritte-like in its surrealism, especially surrounded by urban blight and grime. Well done, costume department.
When Chance is hit by the limo, he meets Eve; she is wearing a long, plush fur coat, and fluffy fur hat. Chance is swept away. She is a vision of wealth and elegance, right out of the TV shows he watches, and he readily accepts her offer of care. Chance has never ridden in an automobile or had an alcoholic drink in his life, and the ride to the Rand estate proves illuminating. The limo is equipped with a cellular phone (in 1979!) and a television, to which Chance gravitates immediately. Chance, looking quite dapper, still in his suit and hat, seems more like a child dressed up for Sunday school than a man, discovering this brand-new world.
At the Rand home, the pair is greeted by exquisitely dressed house staff. There are valets, butlers, doormen, servants, maids, even an elevator operator, all impeccably dressed. This tells us that we are not in an ordinary mansion. We are in the mansion of all mansions; the stakes are much higher. We travel further into the house, and come upon the provisional hospital: doctor, nurses, etc. Mr. Rand is comfortably resting in his hospital bed, wearing a dress shirt. The man still has his dignity.
They gather for dinner at an impossibly long dining table, covered in a floral arrangement as big as a walrus. Dinner at the Rand home is a dressy affair. The doctor and the butler wear tuxedos, Rand wears a smoking jacket and ascot, Eve wears a beautiful red dress with large ruby and diamond earrings, and Chance wears his suit and tie. It is during the dinner conversation that Chance engenders the love and trust of his hosts, quite unwittingly, through his “deep and thoughtful” observations.
The President comes to visit, preceded by his Secret Service agents. These agents are dressed in a very hip fashion, shaggy haircuts, long cool coats. The President arrives, wearing a light colored, conservative-but-still-1970s-cut suit and tie. He has some swagger to him – but it would be difficult to identify a caricature of any then-current or past President in the film. Warden characterizes this President as one who might not be the brightest bulb in the box, riding his exercise bike on Air Force One, sweating it out in slacks, necktie and a cardigan sweater. It is a less-than-realistic, comedic characterization, and yet the costumes play it straight to reinforce the “reality” that this movie needs.
Ben Rand is in bed while he watches Chance as he guests on the late-night talk show. Rand is wearing bedclothes and a plaid robe – it seems perfect, appropriate for the character. In every scene, no matter what he is doing, Mr. Rand comes off as dignified. Melvyn Douglas gave this character real weight and stateliness; it is no surprise that he walked away with the Academy Award for best supporting actor for this performance. His work was excellent, but the costume department supported him in his effort. Had he been shabbily dressed, the gravitas he brought to the character might have been lost.
Eve comes into Chance’s room in the morning to bring him breakfast. Chance is wearing the yellow silk pyjamas we saw in the beginning of the film. Eve wears a ruffled, frilly yellow chiffon peignoir set or dressing gown. Chance is watching Mr. Rogers Neighborhood on TV. She gets into his bed and tries to seduce him, kissing him. Meanwhile, the sound from the TV (a song hilariously called You Are My Friend) blasts away. In his sexual naïveté, Chance is fully entranced by the TV show, rather than Eve.
The color coordination between the two characters in this scene is interesting. When we design this into a film, it usually serves to bring the characters together, or to underline some kind of common path, idea, or goal. But here, her goal is to seduce him, and his goal is to keep watching TV. They are on different planets. The use of similar color in their costumes is curious, but it simply cannot be an accident. I am trying to find May Routh now, so that I can ask her about this myself. Stand by for answers!
Later that night, Ben asks Chance to accompany Eve to a campaign party. Ben is too ill to go, and since Chance is a burgeoning political star, Rand figures it would be good for him. It’s a black-tie event, and when Chance and Eve arrive, the flashbulbs are popping, people are talking – it’s a different level of existence for Chance. He is a bona-fide celebrity.
Once in the party, Eve is revealed in a beautifully simple black slip-style cocktail dress. Shirley MacLaine, forty-five years old at the time, looks simply amazing in this sequence. Her body looks strong, lithe and healthy, her hair and makeup transform her into a much younger woman, radiating new love for Chance. The dress really works for her, as it pares down the trappings of wealth and shows her natural beauty, which is substantial. The restraint on the part of the costume design effort is superb. Less is more, and it really works here.
This campaign party is filled with conservatively, classically dressed Washington-elite types. The costuming is crucial here in order to convey to the audience the ranks to which Chance has ascended. It is also interesting that Chance’s social debut is among high-level politicians. They are mightily impressed with him as a philosopher and statesman. Thus, the implication is clear about Washington DC’s willingness to accept dim-wittedness as wisdom. Sound familiar?
At the party, Chance is mingling around, and he has an encounter with another man who is interested (sexually) in him (Chance). Of course, the other man’s intention is far over his head, but Chance manages to find a way to make something out of their exchange. The dialogue goes like this:
Dennis Watson: You know, I’ve never met anyone like you in Washington before.
Chance the Gardener: Yes, I’ve been here all my life.
Dennis Watson: Really? And uh, where have you been all MY life? [laughs]
Dennis Watson: Ah, tell me, Mr. Gardner… have you ever had sex with a man?
Chance the Gardener: No… I don’t think so.
Dennis Watson: We could go upstairs right now.
Chance the Gardener: Is there a TV upstairs? I like to watch.
Dennis Watson: You like to uh, watch?
Chance the Gardener: Yes.
Dennis Watson: You wait right here. I’ll go get Warren!
This phrase, “I like to watch” haunts Chance later in the evening, when Eve comes by his bedroom once again to seduce him. Mr. Rand has taken a turn for the worse, and Eve is looking for some company; Chance is on the bed watching television. Eve comes in the room, crying, wearing a black see-through peignoir set. She is trying her hardest to get Chance to take the bait, but he flips through the channels, repeating “I like to watch”. Eve takes this mantra as a hint, and launches into an autoerotic session that is so uncomfortable for her, it is sadly hilarious. Meanwhile, Chance, fully dressed, mimics the yoga show on TV, and does headstands on the bed.
In the end, Rand refuses treatment. Background checks on Chance come back with nothing, although it is revealed that his suits were hand-made by a New York tailor in 1928, and his underwear was made from the finest fabric, by a company whose factory was destroyed by fire in 1948. They can ascertain that something is wrong, and it is reflected in his clothing/costume. Rand tells Chance to stay with Eve, and finally, he dies.
This film is stylistically beautiful to watch. It achieves what many films made in the 1970s did not: a certain timelessness. Being There holds up over time, because of smart choices made by the actors, director and design team. Given the similarities to the story of the outgoing Presidential administration, this film is worth another look. You might just find yourself saying, “I like to watch.”