He was addicted to his television set. He never read because he didn’t really know how. He held forth on issues because everyone seemed eager to listen. And when he found he could walk on water, his followers were positively thrilled. He wasn’t.
The legendary traits of Chauncey Gardner, protagonist of Being There, seem weirdly relevant today since they mirror those of our present national leader; indeed, the presidency was the career path Chauncey was destined to pursue, albeit hesitantly. The movie, starring Peter Sellers as Chauncey, was released exactly 40 years ago, and went on to join that small pantheon of movies that achieved their own semi-immortality.
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“Being There is a vivid reminder of how ignorance and illiteracy, mixed with attitude, can lead to fame and riches,” commented the New York Times in its 1979 review – one that holds up under scrutiny today.
A bestseller written by Jerzy Kosinski, Being There was lucky to find two admirers with satiric credentials. They were Sellers, the crazed hero of Doctor Strangelove, and Hal Ashby, who’d directed the whimsical Harold and Maude. The eccentric Polish-born novelist resisted the involvement of both Sellers and Ashby, insisting that only he, Kosinski, truly understood the weight of his “socioeconomic cryptofable,” The acerbic Sellers forcefully reminded Kosinski that he was a fine writer but had no idea how to direct, an argument that won the gig for Ashby.
The novel’s storyline: The simple minded gardener at a Washington DC mansion was aghast when the wealthy owner died suddenly. Outfitted in his owner’s elegant suits, and emulating his manners, Chauncey started to make the social rounds, discovering that his off-handed remarks were consistently misinterpreted as metaphoric wisdom. Asked about the economy, he predicted that his garden would bloom that spring. His vague responses to late-night TV hosts were considered shrewdly cerebral. Shirley MacLaine, playing an heiress, found him “so off kilter he was sexy.”
“I like to watch,” said Chauncey, explaining his fondness for both TV and sex.
“The idea was to shoot Being There like a straight-on political drama,” recalls Caleb Deschanel, the Oscar-winning cinematographer recruited by Ashby. “Half way in, audiences would realize the movie was hilarious.” (Robert C. Jones wrote the script with Ashby.)
Sellers, who could literally go nuclear in his comic roles (witness Strangelove), played Chauncey as a man who would never lose his cool—that is, until he and Ashby realized their story lacked an ending. With one week left in the shooting schedule, they confronted an urgent decision: “We understood that Chauncey had reluctantly accepted his fate as a purveyor of wisdom and a leader of mankind, but he never believed a word of it,” Ashby told me at the time. The only way to comically dramatize this, he realized, was to show him accidentally walking on water – a scene that both astonished and amused audiences at the time.
However, neither the scene, nor the movie, won instant applause from prospective distributors. As president of Lorimar at the time (Lorimar financed the film), I showed the movie to Paramount, Warner Bros then United Artists, which finally agreed to release it. The movie opened to excellent reviews but limited marketing support. Sellers and Ashby, both nearing the ends of their careers (Sellers already had suffered a heart attack), found it difficult to explain the nuances of Chauncey, their television hero, to viewers on television. Neither satire nor metaphorical wisdom translated comfortably into the marketing prowess.
Donald Trump today likely would have understood the movie and the character. At least he would have liked to watch.