With Steve Martin's The Pink Panther 2 currently at the local multiplex, it's only natural that our thoughts turn, with no small amount of admiration, to Martin's long and versatile career. However, it has also got me thinking about the comedian-actor who originally imprinted bumbling Inspector Clouseau onto our movie-loving consciousness. That's the incomparable Peter Sellers. Thirty years ago, one of Sellers' greatest and most admirable performances -- and his final one released before his death -- hit the screens with Being There. Warner Bros. has just re-released the film on a new "Deluxe Edition" DVD and on Blu-ray. As I watched the Blu-ray edition, it brought back not only all the reasons to remember and lift a glass to Peter Sellers. It also reminded me that Being There, as a movie, is as much a conversation-starter as Sellers' sublime, Zen-like performance in it.
Sellers' turn as "Chance the gardener" would have been a career-maker if he had done it twenty years earlier. But we can be grateful that it came at the end of his career, when Sellers possessed the age and deep experience to imbue believability upon such an unbelievable character -- a 50-ish simpleton sequestered in a millionaire's mansion all his life, raised by television, and forced by circumstances he cannot grasp to enter a world he cannot comprehend. With no identification or even anything we'd call an identity, he is mistakenly given one when his name is misheard as "Chauncey Gardiner."
Chance filters everything he says and perceives through the only two things he knows, gardening and television. During a threatening encounter with a street badass, Chance pulls his ever-present TV remote from his pocket and attempts to change the channel away from the unpleasant image before him. (Who among us can't relate to that impulse?) When Chance responds to basic questions by talking about his garden, powerful men -- such as Melvyn Douglas's dying old "king maker" and Jack Warden's U.S. President -- mistake "Chauncey's" simplistic words for profound insights on the American economy's troubling downturn (a plot thread of renewed currency lately) or any other issue at hand. "In a garden, growth has its season," he says, oblivious. "As long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well in the garden." The president nods, taking serene Mr. Gardiner's words as uplifting wisdom that can move a country. Chance is a blank slate, a Rorschach blot: people see in his peaceful, well-groomed idiocy just what they wish to see. Before long, he is nationally famous as the president's "trusted advisor" and a TV philosopher. Meanwhile, both the CIA and the FBI come to their own conspiracy-minded conclusions regarding his utter lack of background.
It's a chance (hmmm) car accident that leads to this simple-minded gardener being pulled to the heights of Washington D.C. power politics and nationwide talk shows. By the closing credits this blissfully ignorant child-man is being considered as the president's possible successor. The catalyst here is Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), the king-maker's loving young wife who becomes smitten with Chance to the point of attempting to seduce him. It's here where we get Sellers' most famous line from the film, "I like to watch," which provides Eve with a cathartically orgasmic misunderstanding while also giving movie-going audiences a catchphrase that hasn't entirely faded away after 30 years.
And then, of course, there's the final shot. Still amusing and perplexing after all these years, it lifts Being There up a transcendental, biblical, or spiritual rung, or at least starts conversations in that direction. Those conversations can't help but be inconclusive because director Hal Ashby and novelist-screenwriter Jerzy Kosinski refused to reduce the possible answers by spelling it all out for us. (We learn on this disc that the ending was an eleventh-hour idea, replacing the original scene that's among the disc's extras.)
Thanks to its clever script, Ashby's effective directing, humor as dry as a fortune cookie, and above all Sellers' nuanced and restrained performance, this modern techno-fable still works as a satire on ... well, take your pick: our TV- and celebrity-addicted culture, Washington politics, our craving for easy profundity no matter how insipid or mindless... Thirty years on, some of its parts have dated, certainly, but Being There is as sly and entertaining and loaded with satirical interpretation as ever. What we see in it may not be simply what we wish to see -- it's too smart for that -- but hey, we still like to watch.
At the 1980 Academy Awards, Douglas won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Sellers was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role, but lost to Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer. The screenplay won the BAFTA for Best Screenplay and the Writers Guild Award for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe.
Warner Bros.' new release of Being There delivers a clean, vivid image newly remastered from original elements, and fine audio. (The Blu-ray box mislabels the audio as Dolby TrueHD Mono, but it's actually a step up to two-channel TrueHD.) It's a significant upgrade from the previous DVD edition.
Extras are slender, but they're worth a look. In a piece new for this release, "Memories From Being There" (15 minutes), Melvyn Douglas' granddaughter Illeana Douglas tells us about her grandfather's experiences shooting the film, and how Sellers and Douglas had originally met during World War II, which led to Sellers recommending him for the part. We also get two short and inconsequential deleted scenes, plus the original two-minute ending that's more staid and flat than the stroke of "Whoa, man" sublimity that blesses the final cut. A six-minute gag reel gives us the bloopers we also see over the closing credits, plus adds a funny promo interview with Sellers and director Ashby aimed at theater distributors convening at a posh resort. The film's trailer is here too.