In his final big role before his death, Sellers brings to life a man called Chance, a feeble-minded and quiet middle-aged gardener in a Washington, D.C. mansion he's never left. Chance's life - which consists of tending to the small garden, taking meals prepared by another servant, and watching and mimicking television - is shattered when the patron of the manse passes away and the house is sold, forcing Chance out into the harsh world he's never experienced.
Via a fortunate accident, Chance finds himself welcomed into the household of another dying tycoon (Melvyn Douglas), this one with a lovely, younger wife (Shirley Maclaine) and some serious political juice. But Chance is no day laborer here; the confused inhabitants of the estate misinterpret the simple horticultural platitudes of the well-dressed stranger as economic wisdom, and the man who comes to be known as "Chauncey Gardiner," through no determination of his own, falls upward to a position of great fame and power he doesn't understand or care about in the least. And since he's lived off the grid for his entire life, the CIA, FBI, the Washington Post, and even the President of the United States find him inscrutable, fascinating, and threatening.
While Sellers made his cinematic fame falling down staircases and engaging in zany mix-'em-ups, this massive departure is the finest performance of his career, eclipsing even his many faces in Dr. Strangelove. In Being There, Sellers creates a character that's empty, vapid, and with nothing to say, but exuding profundity, calculation, and utter Zen. It earned him his second and final Academy Award nomination for acting.
Beyond Sellers' and his supporters' excellent performances, the screenplay, the settings, and the direction are all nearly flawless. Being There does, however, require a certain suspension of belief. A "love scene" that involves MacLaine masturbating on the floor and Sellers attempting a headstand on the bed especially tests the premise of the satire, but its excruciating hilarity trumps any hairs that might be split.
Although more than 25 years old, Being There is a vital statement on our TV reality, on how we develop our heroes, and on how power perpetuates itself. And it's funny as hell.
Run time: 130 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 19th December 1979
Box Office Worldwide: $30.2M
Distributed by: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Production compaines: United Artists, Lorimar Film Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Fresh: 44 Rotten: 2
IMDB: 8.1 / 10
Director: Hal Ashby
Producer: Andrew Braunsberg
Screenwriter: Jerzy Kosinski
Starring: Peter Sellers as Chance, Shirley MacLaine as Eve Rand, Melvyn Douglas as Benjamin Rand, Jack Warden as President 'Bobby', Richard Dysart as Dr. Robert Allenby, Richard Basehart as Vladimir Skrapinov, Ruth Attaway as Louise, David Clennon as Thomas Franklin (as Dave Clennon), Fran Brill as Sally Hayes, Denise DuBarry as Johanna Franklin, Alice Hirson as First Lady, Jerome Hellman as Gary Burns, John Harkins as Sidney Courtney, James Noble as Kaufman