In June of 1979 I was in Dallas, Texas visiting one of my best friends, Lauren Linn. We were dropped off at the movies by our moms who wanted some time away from us. Lauren and I wandered into Being There and my life changed.
Starring Peter Sellars in his penultimate performance, Shirley MacLaine and Melvyn Douglas, the Being There is about a simpleton, Chance the Gardener, who stumbles into the world of Politics in our nation’s capital.
It’s a remarkable movie with a genius screenplay by Jerzy Kosinski, based on his short novel by the same name. New York magazine called the stye “deadpan slapstick” which is not far off. It’s a very subtle movie yet at the same time outrageously funny, not in a Bridesmaids / Hangover kind of way but in that the situations that develop are outrageous and then funny. Yet as ridiculous as the situations become in the second half of the movie somehow as movie spirals forward and Chance finds himself higher and higher in the political world, everything remains very down to earth believable. What happens to Chance might indeed be ridiculous yet at the same time everything makes rings true. Which is part of the deft genius of the movie.
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I called the movie life-changing. It might seem odd that a movie so quiet and deadpan could have such an effect but Being There blew me away as much or more so than any action flick that usually gets such a description.
I did something watching Being There I’ve done only once more since… during the final scene something happens that is so surprising yet so perfect I stood up from my seat in the theater and yelled out loud. I haven’t looked at life quite the same way since then. The movie still hits me the same way every time I watch it. People certainly debate the meaning of the final shot and some feel it goes too far but wow do I love the ending.
Of course I love everything about it not just the ending. You might be shocked to see how little things have changed in the years since, making the movie as relevant today as it was in 1979. There are certain movies from years ago, like Being There and Network, that are stunning in their prescience. Technology is different but the inner workings of politics and the media, as well as broader insights into the human condition, are still the same. How you interprets this can be disturbing, comforting or both.
But don’t let the movie having something to say stop you from watching. It is very, very entertaining. Everything works – acting, writing, directing, production design – in a beautifully quiet, understated way that for me becomes very emotionally affecting. Sellers is of course remarkable. Melvyn Douglas is so touching in the movie, playing a decent, good man. He won his second Oscar for this movie which, like Sellers, he filmed shortly before his death.) MacClaine is terrific as always and she is incredibly beautiful in the movie. There is also wonderful supporting work from all the actors, including two of my favorites of all time, Jack Warden and Richard Dysart.
If you are as tired of this political season as am I, check out Being There. It may be a balm to your spirits and I promise you will have a wonderful time.
NOTE: this is the last of my “A Movie for the Political Season” posts. I’ve remained generally mute this year and these movies were a way I could discuss the election without mouthing off.
I was very tempted to include another Hal Ashby movie, however, the brilliant Shampoo, written by two of the greats, Robert Towne and Warren Beatty, with a remarkable cast including Beatty, Goldie Hawn, Julie Christie, Jack Warden, Lee Grant and Princess Leia in her very first movie. Political because it takes place in 24 hours on election day 1968, the day Richard Nixon was elected for the first time, Shampoo remains as hilarious and shocking as anything released today. It also has one of the great tag lines of all time:
Though both are very, very famous, I feel like Beatty and Christie remain very underrated actors. Both are always terrific, all of the time. (It also doesn’t hurt they are two of the most beautiful people to ever walk the planet.) These two great actors starred in three movies together: Shampoo, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Heaven Can Wait. All three movies are as good as they get, with Heaven Can Wait being one of my favorites of all time.
Oh and the only other time I stood up and yelled in a movie theatre? The ending of another huge favorite, War of the Roses. Wow. Just wow.