Last night, Marilyn and I watched “Being There.” We hadn’t seen this comedy from 1979 in a long time, probably years. What a difference time has made!
I recall seeing “Being There” when it opened. I enjoyed the farcical Hal Ashby film about a mentally challenged man who somehow influences high and mighty power brokers including our Commander-In-Chief and his aides. It seemed like a Capra-esque flight of fantasy in 1979. Couldn’t happen in real life. Our political leaders couldn’t be so naïve or vulnerable. We were caught up with Jimmy Carter versus Ronald Reagan. Many laughed at the notion of an actor becoming President. It wouldn’t happen, we smart folks reasoned with our historical savvy. No way a B-movie actor, revered for his roles as a beloved college football player and pal to a chimp named Bonzo — no way that guy could become the most powerful political figure in the world. So we smugly thought.
Peter Sellers is “Chance.” AKA Chauncey Gardner, a middle-aged gardener. The simple-minded assistant to a wealthy man who dies at the beginning of “Being There.” We don’t know much about Chance except he apparently has the mental capacity of a child. He is a brilliant gardener and likes to watch television. Chance is a sweet-tempered fellow whose world revolves around tending the garden — and watching television. He can’t read or write. He just gardens. And likes to watch …. television.
Through a series of farcical plot twists, Chance becomes the house guest of an elderly, dying business tycoon and political king-maker (Melvyn Douglas) and his capricious wife (Shirley MacLaine). The new benefactors mistake Chance’s observations about gardening as metaphors for Wall Street and fixing what ails our government. The President (Jack Warden), a close friend of the tycoon, thinks Chance — now accepted as the mysterious Chauncey Gardner — is his benign Henry Kissinger. Chauncey’s garden recipes become talking points for the President’s economic directive.
There’s one hilarious scene in the middle of the film where the Black maid who raised Chauncey from infancy — and knows he has “rice pudding between his ears” — rails at her friends and points out that “all you need to become president is to be white.” That was a joke in 1979. Not so funny these days.
In 1979, the movie plot seemed outrageous and outlandish. In those days, many of us didn’t believe Ronald Reagan could be taken seriously. None of us conceived of him as what we called “a president.” We would have deemed it impossible. I still do.
As “Being There” reaches its conclusion, Melvyn Douglas’ tycoon dies. At the cemetery, as he is laid to rest, the tycoon’s pals and the President’s aides quietly share anxiety about the country’s future. They don’t think the President is strong enough to lead the country out of its economic swamp. There’s a final quiet agreement that only one man can save the country, the man with the savvy garden metaphors, Chauncey Gardner.
The man who would be President is seen wandering through the woods and into a lake, staking his umbrella in the water, perhaps divining a miracle. The end credits roll with outtakes of Peter Sellers laughing his way through many retakes of plays on words.
Marilyn and I laughed as the credits rolled by. Then, we looked at each other. Quietly. Very quietly. Through some bizarre upside-down ill-starred event, during the heart of a perfect political storm, Chauncey Gardner became America’s president after all. Not benign — and definitely not a gardener, yet surely as stupid and illiterate.
A gardener would have been a better choice. At least he could have grown a few roses.