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Being There: Criterion Collection DVD Review

Being There: Criterion Collection

July 6, 2017

Director: Hal Ashby,
Starring: Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Warden, Melvyn Douglas, Richard Dysart, Richard Basehart, Ruth Attaway,

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DVD Review

Released at the end of the 1970s, Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979), an adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel of the same name, was a last gasp from the idealistic 1960s, a humanistic voice amidst a decade marked by paranoia, fashionable nihilism, and crowd-pleasing summer blockbusters. Ashby’s quiet, unassuming film flew in the face of all this, anchored by a wonderfully unmannered performance by its star, Peter Sellers.

Chance (Sellers) is a simple man content to lead a simple existence with the same daily routine until the man he works for dies. He’s a man-child that doesn’t even understand the concept of death, not letting anything interrupt his rigid daily routine – it’s all he knows. He’s a blank slate that learns how to act and turns of phrases from what he watched on television – his only window to the outside world.

With his employer dead, Chance is forced out on the street, literally, wandering around dangerous neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. By accident, he’s hit by a limo and as luck would have it, the passenger is Eve Rand (MacLaine), wife of powerful industrialist Benjamin Rand (Douglas). She feels sorry for Chance and brings him home with her. This is the beginning of a series of lucky happenstances that he stumbles into until he becomes a trusted confidante of the President of the United States (Warden).

Peter Sellers was known for playing very colorful, larger than life characters in films like Dr. Strangelove, Or I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (1964) and The Pink Panther (1963). For Being There, the usually mannered actor tones down all of his acting tics to deliver a very minimalist performance full of child-like innocence. Chance is not an idiot, just someone that’s led a sheltered existence for his entire life.

Shirley MacLaine turns in a heartfelt performance as a woman coping with her dying husband and finds herself increasingly intrigued by Chance. Melvyn Douglas delivers in a solid performance as a kindly tycoon that befriends Chance. Reliable character actor Jack Warden plays the President who is initially befuddled by Chance’s simplicity.

The beauty of the gentle humor derived from Being There comes from how all of these rich, powerful and supposedly intelligent people that interact with Chance misinterpret his naïveté and inexperience for profound wisdom. They project what they want to hear on him while he only wants to continue his daily routine of tending to a garden and watching T.V.

While Being There was a critical and commercial success, it marked the end of a fantastic run of films for Ashby. Hollywood was changing and wasn’t interested in making his kinds of films or putting up with his controlling tendencies and, coupled with his personal problems, led to a decline in his career, which is one of the great tragedies of cinema.

Special Features:

Not surprisingly, this edition of Being There is a big improvement on the previous Warner Bros. edition from 2009. The colors look sharper, the detail is better and it preserves the grain of the film stock to give it a wonderfully textured look.

“The Making of Being There” features interviews with producer Andrew Braunsberg, screenwriter Robert C. Jones, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and editor Don Zimmerman. They talk about how the film came together, from buying the rights to the book to getting Hal Ashby onboard. Author Jerzy Kosinski was uncompromising and originally wanted to write and direct the adaptation himself but Braunsberg managed to convince him otherwise. Ashby wanted Peter Sellers cast as Chance and didn’t consider anyone else. This is an excellent look at how the film came together by those that worked on it.

“Hal Ashby at the AFI” is an audio excerpt from a 1980 seminar that the filmmaker gave at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He takes questions and addresses things like the film’s famous ending and working with Sellers, explaining how the actor put the character together.

“Jerzy Kosinski and Dick Cavett” is an appearance the former made on the latter’s T.V. talk show in 1979 to promote Being There. As typical with Cavett, this is an in-depth and engaging conversation that provides Kosinski’s take on his involvement in the adaptation of his novel into a film.

“Peter Sellers” features two T.V. show appearances he made promoting Being There. The first is the Today show with Gene Schalit. He talks about his uncanny knack for accents and what film he enjoyed working on the most. Then, he makes an appearance on The Don Lane Show from Australia. Sellers talks about how he got involved in the film and what drew him to the character of Chance.

There are two deleted scenes, an alternate ending and outtakes. The excised footage doesn’t add much and it’s easy to see why it was cut. The alternate ending seems more conventional, lacking the enigmatic wonder of the one that was used. The outtakes were shown under the closing credits and see Sellers repeatedly breaking character.

“Promo Reel” features Ashby and Sellers in a promotional piece for the film. They joke around in this fun piece.

Finally, there is a trailer and T.V. spots.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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Rating: 97%

Website: https://www.criterion.com/films/29009-being-there

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