Being There functions prematurely as a final film for both its director, Hal Ashby, and its star, Peter Sellers. Both were near the end of their careers, and it delivers a sense of closure—especially as regards Sellers’ career, at his turn here kind of sums up everything you like about Sellers as a performer. Ashby would go on to make more films, but with diminishing returns (with the exception of the cult oddity neo-noir 8 Million Ways to Die), finally succumbing to pancreatic cancer in 1988. Sellers would only finish one more film, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (he also directed much of the film uncredited), before dying of a massive heart attack at 54.
The plot of Being There has some superficial similarities with Forrest Gump with its hints of magical realism and its fable about a “simple-minded” person escalated up into society and politics. Peter Sellers plays Chance, a gardener who increasingly becomes an unlikely friend and advisor to Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas), who is a sickly businessman. Chance soon becomes an unlikely celebrity as Rand bigs up how great he is to the Washington elite, eventually becoming a celebrity for his “simple brand of wisdom”—but will they find out the new emperor has no clothes, so to speak?
Sellers saw this role as his magnum opus, and while there are probably a handful of other great performances over his long and varied career, this one shows all facets of his range. Sellers originated the project, and struggled for years to get it made. It was only due to successful revivals of his Pink Panther films in the ’70s that Lorimar Pictures finally decided to make the film. Sellers was so committed to this role he even had a facelift because he thought a smoother, unlined face would be more appropriate for the role: take that, Joaquin Phoenix! Sellers’ portrayal of Chance is almost alien-like, and would make an interesting double bill with The Man Who Fell To Earth—which itself wouldn’t have been a terrible alternative title for the film.
The film capped off an extraordinary run of films directed by Ashby in the ’70s. These were almost unparalleled by his contemporaries, starting with The Landlord and including Harold & Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound For Glory and the Oscar-winning Vietnam drama Coming Home. Sellers was a great admirer of Harold & Maude (which is undeniably Ashby’s greatest film) and both films have some tonal similarities. Sellers and Ashby had a generally good working relationship, but it was fractured with Ashby’s insistence of adding a blooper reel after the extraordinary ending, which Sellers blamed for his not winning the Oscar.
Sellers put all his heart and soul into the film, and when it came out he said he had “no more goals in life” now that Being There was completed. The film acts as the final will and testament of Sellers, which is fitting for a film where a final will and a testament closes the film. The final shot is one of the greatest ever in cinema, and will be open for interpretation for the rest of time. Never forget: “Life is a state of mind.”
Criterion has put together a great selection of special features, including a recent making-of documentary, archival audio seminar with Ashby, and TV appearances with author of the source novella, Jerzy Kosinksi, and Sellers to promote the film. The disc also includes deleted scenes, the infamous blooper reel, trailers and more. The transfer was supervised by the film’s cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel, and the booklet includes an essay by Mark Harris.