Nearing the end of his career, after a decade of desperately bad films and threadbare Pink Panther sequels, Peter Sellers redeemed himself with one last major turn in Being There. A year later he was dead, aged 54.
At first sight, this is one of those movies wherein the pronouncements of a simpleton are seen as a fount of true wisdom. But Hal Ashby’s film takes a more ironic, ambiguous slant on the idea - at least until the controversial final shot.
Chance (Sellers) is gardener to a rich man in Washington DC, knowing no more of life than what he sees on TV. When the old boy dies he’s evicted, but he gets taken in by an elderly political wheelerdealer (Melvyn Douglas) and his much younger wife (Shirley MacLaine).
Renamed Chauncey Gardiner, his naïve horticultural remarks are taken for Zen-like sagacity and he becomes a celebrity. Sellers often claimed he lacked any personality of his own, so Chance gave him an ideal role.
It’s a one-note performance, true, but impeccably judged - a bleak, even scary portrayal. His love scene with MacLaine, for instance, is less funny than desolate: Chance can’t reciprocate her emotions because he doesn’t know what emotions are.
The title’s ironic: Chance isn’t there, or anywhere. He’s a void. This is an exceptional comedy - but a desperately sad one. Disappointingly sparse extras.