Being There: “A Film of Endings”

Let’s talk about endings. Being There is the kind of film that conjures up a lot of thought about endings, of one kind or another.

For a start (can we really have a start when talking of endings? Oh well) it’s a popular misconception that Being There was the final film of Peter Sellers’ career. It’s easy to see why such a misconception has taken hold; it feels right to consider that Sellers, a brilliantly gifted, yet troubled performer concluded his somewhat erratic career on the high of the Oscar-nominated performance he gives here as a simple-minded gardener elevated to high office. But right isn’t true, Sellers last movie was, in fact, The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu, a deeply troubled production that was regarded by The Washington Post as both “an indefensibly inept comedy” and a “colossally ill-advised washout”. Personally, I’ve always found the position of The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu as Sellers’ final film, in which he plays both the detective hero Nayland Smith and his diabolical nemesis, the 168-year-old Fu Manchu rather fitting; it’s certainly more in keeping with Sellers’ previous films than Being There is, evoking the spirit of The Goon Show and the corny and now rather offensively stereotypical gang show humour of a post-war Britain that Sellers made his name in. Being There was a one-off for Sellers, the opportunity for arguably one of the most versatile, chameleon-like performers in cinema history to portray someone so utterly vacant; a colourless vessel of indeterminate, seemingly unknowable origin. In many ways, it’s easy to see why Sellers petitioned so hard for the role of the naive and blank Chance (he first expressed an interest in making a film of Jerzy Kosiński’s novel in 1971 and would routinely send the author calling cards advertising his services in any potential adaptation throughout the decade) and why he felt he had so much in common with the character as, beyond the funny voices, the rubber noses and the false moustaches, Sellers felt he didn’t exist as an actual person; “There is no me”, he once remarked. “I had it surgically removed”. It’s his defining statement and it’s interesting to ponder what might have been for Sellers if he had lived a little longer. Whether the Oscar nomination for Being There, along with the raft of actual awards his performance here won, including a Golden Globe, would have led to more respected and interesting work along these lines or whether – as the Fu Manchu film and the prospect of yet another Pink Panther movie he was about to sign up for would suggest – he would simply have reverted to type. We’ll never know of course, as 24th July 1980 was his ending.

Being There wasn’t Hal Ashby’s final film either, but maybe it ought to have been. One of the leading lights of the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s, Hal Ashby outlived Sellers by eight years but, as the freewheelin’ ’70s moved into the high-concept ’80s, Ashby struggled to keep his place. The success of Being There, combined with a difficult relationship with the Lorimar, who helped start up North Star, his own production company, was arguably too much for Ashby, who became more reclusive and his already prodigious drug use began to be a crutch. It was rumoured too that he felt he could no longer eat in public, withdrawing into privacy to sustain himself. The prize opportunity of directing Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie was taken away from him and, despite attempts with his outward appearance to convince Hollywood he was employable (he trimmed his beard, cut his hair, began to wear suits and, most importantly of all, got himself clean), his career never recovered from the deep decline it had found itself in post-Being There. He achieved some success directing concert films for Neil Young and worked on television pilots, but none of the four feature films he made at the end of his career was able to reach the heights of Being There or his previous big hits such as Harold & Maude, Shampoo and The Last Detail.

Of course, no mention of Being There can be made without considering its own ending, which still provokes much comment to this very day. The final scene is of Sellers’ Chance (now known to the world as Chauncey Gardiner, and mistakenly considered one of the architects of contemporary American politics) out walking in the ground’s of his recently deceased benefactor’s wintry estate. As the elite begin their whispered plotting to place Chance as the future President of the United States, the simple soul finds himself walking across the surface of the lake. This miraculous moment is a divisive one for audiences and proves something of a head-scratcher for many. Surely the point of all that has gone before this climax is that Chance has been considered special by those around him, yet that final scene seems to say that he is indeed special, that this simple man whose words have been so misinterpreted is a deity of some kind after all. Doesn’t that ultimately negate the satire?

For me, Being There is a satire, yes, but it is also an allegory. We know this to be the case because Chance’s utterances about gardening are taken by the establishment to be wholly allegorical; the garden as metaphors for the economy, the seasons an allusion to its natural ebb and flow. But this is all simply a projection they place upon Chance’s words and upon Chance himself as they look for answers and reassurances for their actions and beliefs. For his part, Chance is oblivious; as the title Being There suggests, he is ingenious to the world around him and therefore the complete opposite of the other characters and the wider society as a whole. Ultimately it is in the relationship the others have with Chance that showcases Being There as a satire upon religion itself. Mankind searches for God, projecting Him in all aspects of their life, looking to him for reasoning in the same manner in which the characters Chance inadvertently and unconsciously finds himself impressing and influencing. Note how at ease his benefactor, Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas), claims to feel in his final days, because he now has Chance by his side. Like a man reconnecting with his faith in God, he is no longer afraid of death or angry with it. He simply accepts the natural order of it. The decision to show Chance performing Christ’s miracle of walking on water is the film’s way of addressing that its whole purpose is to address that this blank slate of a man was only what others perceived him to be. Of course, there is also another more cheeky take on that ending. To say that someone “walks on water” is to suggest that someone is incredibly fortuitous. How fortunate is Chance who, in the space of little more than a week, goes from being a homeless man insufficiently prepared for the world outside the cloistered abode he once knew to become a national celebrity and key political player, courted by women such as Rand’s widow Eve, played by Shirley MacLaine? The answer, of course, is very fortunate indeed – so fortunate, that he can walk on water. It is here that the satirical elements of Kosiński’s screenplay (it’s interesting to note that the novel does not feature this wholly cinematic scene) and Ashby’s film really hit home. The central message of the film appears to be that, when it comes to modern America, if you are a white, well-spoken and well-dressed male, you will not only be accepted by an elite that looks just the same, you will also be able to thrive and prosper within it. Even Chance, a guileless naïf with no comprehension of society beyond what he sees on TV, knows how this aspect of the world works. Just look at the scene when, on his first day on the streets of Washington, he approaches a maternally built Afro-American figure and asks her if she will prepare lunch for him. As Ruth Attaway’s Louise, the person whose job it was to provide Chance and everyone else in the big house with his lunch later proclaims when witnessing his unbelievable rise to political prominence on TV; “It’s for sure a white man’s world in America. Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss-ant. And I’ll say right now, he never learned to read and write. No, sir. Had no brains at all. Was stuffed with rice pudding between th’ ears. Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you’ve gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want.”

Finally, there’s the other ending of Being There to consider. The decision to play over the end credits a series of outtakes known as ‘the Rafael outtake’ has become just as controversial and oft-considered as Chance’s impossible walk.  Sellers himself was extremely disappointed by this inclusion and, try as he might, he could not get Ashby or the film’s producers to reconsider this decision. In the end, Sellers believed that it was this that cost him his Oscar. Whilst playing blooper reels over your closing credits was not unusual in this period of American films, we have to face facts that it was an unusual decision here; after all, Being There isn’t some ‘good ole boys’ caper from Burt Reynolds. So what was Hal Ashby thinking?

Sellers had argued that to close the film on the footage of him and his fellow cast corpsing as he repeatedly fails to get through a page of dialogue, robbed Chance of his mystique, as well as the mystique audiences, will have felt from the whole narrative of the film they had just watched. I have to say I agree with Sellers but equally, I believe that Hal Ashby must have known what he was doing too. Was this blooper reel his way of showing the fallibility of his star? If we are to believe that the main thrust of Being There is allegorical as I outlined earlier, of exploring what we project on the world we see around us, is this not then shattering those perceptions? A final tweak on the nose from the director perhaps.

An alternative closing credit sequence does exist however, one that features a TV screen full of the kind of ‘waves’ that appear on an ‘unoccupied’ channel. This too is apt, chiming not only with Chance’s obsession with TV but also with the unoccupied nature of Chance himself. Ultimately, it’s just another ending to consider from Being There.

 

BEING THERE IS OUT NOW FROM THE CRITERION COLLECTION

Mark Cunliffe

Mark's first experience at the cinema was watching the 1982 Cannon and Ball vehicle The Boys In Blue. Despite this ignoble start, he has nurtured a love of film and television ever since. He is a critical essayist for Arrow Films and his work appears in the DVD/Blu-ray releases of Stormy Monday, Day of the Jackal, Jake Speed, Children of Men and the Alec Guinness movie The Prisoner. He has also appeared on the Talking Pictures podcast and is currently contributing to a book about 1980s TV, film and pop culture.

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