Elegiac and yet ruefully funny, Hal Ashby’s Being There is at once a profoundly philosophical fable about how we become truly human only in the face of our ineluctable mortality, as well as an incensed satire intent on skewering the mass media’s unhealthy sway among the corridors of wealth and power. It draws much of its emotionally charged effectiveness from the ways these two registers play off each other, whether working in consonance, butting heads in fittingly antithetical fashion, or held in ambivalent synthesis. Being There ultimately discloses its dialectical undergirding, a structure entirely in keeping with its philosophical preoccupations.
The film takes its title from a key concept in the existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger. To exist is to be in the world—and to find our place in the world means confronting the radical otherness of other people. To that end, Being There charts the existential pilgrim’s progress of the childlike Chance (Peter Sellers). Chance’s initial frame of reference extends no further than his well-ordered bedroom and the garden he’s tended his entire life. His every word and gesture comes from imitating the omnipresent TV screen. Following the death of his benefactor, Chance is cast out into the harsh realities of inner-city D.C. by a couple of ruthless lawyers (David Clennon and Fran Brill).
This mock-biblical expulsion from the garden is, ironically enough, a real chance for Chance. Being There cheekily signals the momentous occasion by playing Eumir Deodato’s jazz-funk cover of Also Sprach Zarathustra over Chance’s bootless wanderings. Richard Strauss’s tone poem (an homage to Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical tome) famously appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and, drawing variously on Nietzsche, both films do indeed have something to say about the possibilities of human evolution. In “On the Three Metamorphoses,” Nietzsche claims that, in order to become more than human, the wise individual eventually undergoes a transformation into an archetypal child. By overcoming the solipsism that has ruled him thus far, Chance might just return to a more enlightened state of childlike wonderment in the film’s exquisitely ambiguous final shot.
Chance quite literally stumbles into the world of the one-percent when he steps in front of a limo carrying Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), the wife of moribund billionaire Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas). Eve’s name, of course, only reinforces Being There’s tinkering with biblical tropes—and east of Eden lies the suburban Rand estate, to which they repair for Chance to convalesce. Chance is soon rubbing shoulders with pundits and eventually the President of the United States, “Bobby” (Jack Warden). The only one who notices that, despite his antiquated, expensively tailored clothes, there’s something fundamentally awry with the new guest is resident Rand medico Dr. Allenby (Richard Dysart). But by the time Allenby acts on his suspicions, Chance’s rise to prominence has gone too far to be countermanded.
The film’s wry satire stems from a simple conceit: The power elite who come into contact with Chance project onto his gnomic pronouncements (usually about gardening) whatever they want to hear in them. And so, with a nod and a vague smile, Chance convinces Ambassador Skrapinov (Richard Basehart) that not only is he familiar with Krylov’s fables, he even reads them in the original Russian. This jokey interpolation also draws attention to the fact that Being There ought to be seen as a modern fable. As with any good fable, there’s a tidily wrapped moral, and more than a little textual ambiguity.
When Chance emerges into the media spotlight after being quoted by Bobby, it’s clear that his history and background are as much of a tabula rasa as his personality. Now it’s the turn of the media and the power brokers behind the scenes to mold precisely who they want the public to perceive Chance to be. To be somebody in America, who you are isn’t nearly as important as who they say you are. For Heidegger, as for Being There, to exist authentically requires an acknowledgement of existence’s finiteness. The film is therefore bookend by character deaths. Chance remains steadfastly oblivious to the death of his benefactor, but when Ben Rand passes, he’s legitimately emotional. While this may be an example of existential character formation, things don’t remain clear-cut for long. The film’s twin registers collide in spectacularly dialectical fashion near the end. Chance’s evolution exudes real pathos, and a mournful, crepuscular mood hangs over the film. And yet the increasingly scabrous satire of the final scenes could work to undercut that pathos.
The final image of Chance walking on the water is wonderfully ambivalent. Is this his Nietzschean “apotheosis,” his final transformation? Or is his obliviousness to the situation akin to that of the cartoon characters that were a staple of his TV diet, who are able to run off a cliff until they happen to look down? Being There allows us to see it both ways. After all, as the president intones during his eulogy for Ben Rand, “Life is a state of mind.”
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel channels Godfather-era Gordon Willis for the understated yet sumptuous lighting schemes in Being There. And the wintry opulence of the Biltmore estate that doubles for stately Rand manor—all that burnished wood paneling and Art Deco adornment—stands in stark contrast to the blasted-out realities of inner-city D.C. Criterion's 4K restoration looks smashing overall, marred only slightly by the occasional burst of granular noise. The linear PCM mono track is flattish but sturdy, doing well by the volleys of TV chatter and the more obstreperous musical cues.
Criterion assembles a solid slate of new and archival bonus materials. Far and away the meatiest is the making-of documentary with talking-head contributions from producer Andrew Braunsberg, screenwriter and editor Robert C. Jones, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and editor Don Zimmerman. One of the more intriguing topics concerns the film's disputed authorship: Jerzy Kosiński received sole credit for adapting his own novel, even though, by all accounts, the actual shooting script was the work of Robert C. Jones, who had won an Oscar the previous year for writing Coming Home. Braunsberg says he put his longstanding friendship with the author in jeopardy by pleading in vain with him to share credit where it was due. Arbitrage at the WGA ultimately decided in favor of Kosiński. Kosiński's enigmatic, often evasive, appearance on The Dick Cavett Show takes on a whole new light after watching the making-of doc. Persistent rumors of fakery and plagiarism dogged Kosiński throughout his career, and, though they remain unremarked upon here, Braunsberg and company's anecdotes do little to dispel the notion that, at the very least, Kosiński was perfectly content to claim credit for work that wasn't entirely his own.
In an audio-only extract from his 1980 AFI seminar, Hal Ashby delves deeply into the specifics of his editing techniques, after fielding some preliminary questions about making the transition from editor to director under the tutelage of Norman Jewison. Peter Sellers's TV appearances are amusing enough but also fairly fluffy: On the Today show, Gene Shallitt runs Sellers through a gauntlet of impersonations, and Aussie interviewer Don Lane grills him on the differences between acting in Hollywood and British films. The deleted scenes are slight, adding a few grace notes to the characterizations, while the alternate ending (the ending as originally scripted) concludes on a more naturalistic note. The promo reel pairs Ashby and Sellers for an amusingly "hard-sell" pitch to distributors and exhibitors. The foldout booklet includes an essay by Mark Harris (author of Five Came Back) that outlines Hal Ashby's working style and the film's unintended valedictory quality.
Hal Ashby's plangent fable receives a smashing 4K restoration and a fine brace of bonus materials from the Criterion Collection.