Being There: Chance at the White House

LIFE IS A STATE OF MIND.

The character of Chance in this movie, the last great one from both Peter Sellers and Hal Ashby, has entered popular culture over the years. As reality-show celebrity and billionaire Donald Trump entered the 2016 presidential race in the U.S., some political commentators made comparisons with Chance. After all, here’s a man who doesn’t really know anything apart from the warped information he gleans from daytime television. I guess the difference lies in the depressing fact that while Trump is a completely self-centered man, there isn’t a bad thing you can say about the gardener. The United States would be better off under President Chance.

Chance (Peter Sellers) works as a gardener for a wealthy old man in Washington D.C. His life is very simple and has been for many decades now; when he’s not tending the garden, he watches a lot of television. When the old man dies, the housekeeper packs her belongings and tries to tell Chance that he’s on his own now. Eventually, Chance leaves the estate, wearing the expensive suit, hat, shoes and coat that the old man gave him many years ago. As Chance is discovering the strange world outside his home, he wanders aimlessly until he’s hit by a car. He’s not seriously hurt, but the chauffeur and his passenger, a woman, drive Chance to her home to make sure that he’s OK. The woman is Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), the wife of business mogul Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas). Rand is a very sick man, but finds Chance appealing and trustworthy…

Mistaken for a wise man
Chance is a man of few words. Because of that, and his (or rather his former employer’s) excellent taste in clothes, he’s frequently mistaken for a wise man. As the story progresses, Chance (whose name is mistaken to be ”Chauncey Gardiner” when Chance tries to tell Eve who he is and what he does) comes close to the most powerful man in the world who starts listening to him. If you’re really looking for it, I guess you can find sage political advise in the words, ”After winter comes spring, then summer”. D.C. turns out to be full of people who admire men in expensive suits who seem smarter; to them, Chauncey Gardiner’s simplicity is refreshing. This very entertaining piece of political satire is constantly in danger of repeating itself a little too much. But Ashby and writer Jerzy Kosinski keep the story varied enough. One of the main points of Kosinski’s novel is criticism of the media, and that’s an ever-present theme in the film as well. Chance is always hooked to a TV set, fascinated by every inane daytime show, and everyone in Washington seems unable to question authority, the President included. When we learn in the final, brilliant moments of the movie what lies in waiting for Chance, we have no doubt that neither the media nor the public will be capable of asking the right questions; as the film veers into pure fantasy in the last scene we are eerily reminded of a false Jesus Christ.

Douglas won his second Oscar as the dying tycoon, but Sellers is the primary asset among the actors; in his most famous, earnest role, he reportedly borrowed a little from Stan Laurel. It’s never over-the-top, but very fitting for the role; amusing, sweet and even moving. It’s been said that Sellers believed the one thing that cost him his Oscar was the closing credits. It is indeed a stupefyingly strange decision to have a bunch of mediocre outtakes playing after such a disturbing closing scene. Sellers allegedly demanded to have them removed, but the studio refused. It’s still a great movie, but just the credits and silence would have been a better idea.

Being There 1979-U.S. 130 min. Color. Produced by Andrew Braunsberg. Directed by Hal Ashby. Screenplay, Novel: Jerzy Kosinski. Cast: Peter Sellers (Chance), Shirley MacLaine (Eve Rand), Melvyn Douglas (Ben Rand), Jack Warden, Richard Dysart, Richard Basehart.

Trivia: Burt Lancaster was allegedly considered for a role.

Oscar: Best Supporting Actor (Douglas). Golden Globes: Best Actor (Sellers), Supporting Actor (Douglas). BAFTA: Best Screenplay.

Last word: “Chance’s clothes all came from 1928 era when the old man had first become ill. They were to look just slightly odd, a bit too short, if you were looking. Peter seemed very happy with [the tailor] Ruben and the fittings. The first day of shooting we shot the scene in the TV studio, and when Peter put on his overcoat it turned out that Ruben had let it out rather than take in 2 inches, but Peter was in a good mood and instead of wearing the coat he carried it over his arm. We were told that Peter could be VERY tricky and that he was very superstitious. He would NOT go on the set if he could see the color purple or green. He had been told by Vittorio de Sica that purple meant a death and green in the theatre is bad luck. He had an English costumer who was his dresser and I would run items by him to see if Peter would allow them on the set. It was a routine to make sure he kept happy.” (Costume designer May Routh, Frocktalk)

 

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