Sunday, August 07, 2011


I’ll keep this one short since, as BEING THERE proves, brevity is the soul of wit. It would be easy to talk about this film within the context of the remarkable career of director Hal Ashby… or actor Peter Sellers… or even actor Melvyn Douglas. I could compare and contrast the film with Jerzy Kosinski’s source novel. I could write about the film as an illustration of Marshall McLuhan’s media theories. (If TV is cool, Chance is Miles Davis…) It would be just as appropriate to examine the film in light of contemporary American politics. I love BEING THERE because it is a technically brilliant piece of nuanced storytelling that offers insight on a wide variety of topics… but, most importantly and above all, because the character at the center of all this sound and fury is so calm and quiet, and always in the present moment.

“Being there” is Chance’s secret. It’s the secret of his charm, his success and his happiness. It’s the secret of Peter Sellers’ comic timing in the best role of his career. It’s the secret of Ashby’s film itself – which delivers a smart and often cynical message with so much childlike innocence and so much heart that it’s impossible for the viewer NOT to be swept away. Life (as Jack Warden’s bumbling President says at the end of the film) is a state of mind, and so is cinema. When I watch BEING THERE, I find myself laughing and smiling almost in spite of myself – because I’m purely and simply thrilled to be present in the moment with these characters. Movies just don’t get much better than this.

A few words from the filmmaker:

"My philosophy is what I like to call preoccupation with the 'human condition,' which can, of course, mean a lot of things. It's basically the relationship between people. I like to do that with entertainment. I just can't get into the idea of pure entertainment. If something is really good, even if someone approaches it with pure entertainment in mind, I think it will have an underlying theme. If I'm dealing with characters that I don't particularly like, I try to be kind with them. If I like the characters, I'm very hard on them."
- Hal Ashby to Tay Garnett (1977)

"I was blessed, very early on - I don't know what it was, but I always had the capacity to see through things real fast, to sit and think about things - that's all it requires for any amount of empathy or compassion, if you sit and think for two minutes about the position of anybody in the world other than yourself, and what they might feel like."
- Hal Ashby to Jordan R. Young and Mike Bruns (1980)

Last week – on a trip to Ashville, North Carolina – I paid a brief visit to the Biltmore Estate, where Chauncey Gardner made his rounds. Here are a few photos: (1) of the front of the house, photo taken from the spot where the funeral scene was shot; (2) of the porch where Chance and Eve have an intimate moment the morning after their... er... intimate moment; (3) view of the Appalachian Mountains from the porch; (4) the conservatory and rose garden (where, as Chance promised, there was plenty of growth in the spring...)

I didn't get a photo of the Spring Garden, but that's where the final scene - in my mind, one of the most memorable scenes in recent film history - was shot. If you haven't seen BEING THERE, stop reading now and go rent it. For the rest of you, here's the director's explanation of how that final scene came to be:

"I had another ending, which I shot. It worked very well. Shirley MacLaine goes after Peter Sellers when he leaves the funeral and goes into the woods. She finds him and says she was frightened and was looking for him. He says, 'I was looking for you, too, Eve.' And they just walk off together... But I was working one Sunday with a writer by the name of Rudy Wurlitzer, who was really interested in the film, and we progressed in the afternoon to talking about it. I said that because of the way Peter was playing this film, I knew what we were going for was a childlike kind of thing. And when Rudy asked me how it was going, I said, 'Rudy, the way it's going with these characters and what's happening with them, I could have this guy walking on water at the end of the film.' Then I said, 'Well, I think I will have him walking on water at the end of the film.' So that's what I did.... One guy in the crew said, 'You can't have him walking on water.' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Well, you know the only person that walks on water.' I said, 'Jesus, or maybe some other godlike figure?' He said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'Well, what is wrong with childlike innocence being godlike?'"
- Hal Ashby to James Powers (1980)


  1. Another great one, Joe. I have fond memories of this film. It's great, too, you got visit that estate. It's pretty grand and palatial. BTW, they used the Biltmore Estate as one of the shooting locations in Ridley Scott's film adaptation of HANNIBAL (2001). Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Michael! I think I actually learned about the Biltmore from HANNIBAL. About ten years ago, I worked for the location manager on that film -- a great guy named Charley Baxter, who also did HEARTS IN ATLANTIS and THE NEW WORLD.