Combustible Celluloid
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With: Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Richard Dysart, Richard Basehart, Ruth Attaway, David Clennon, Fran Brill, Denise DuBarry
Written by: Jerzy Kosinski, based on his novel
Directed by: Hal Ashby
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 130
Date: 12/18/1979

Being There (1979)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Second 'Chance'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jerzy Kosinski adapted his novel into this film as if Peter Sellers had been born to it. It's perhaps the great comic actor's most emotionally moving role; he was nominated for an Oscar for his second time, but lost. And he died the following year, having completed only one more film.

Sellers plays "Chance," a simpleminded gardener working at a Washington DC mansion. When his employer dies, he finds himself out on the street with no knowledge of how to care for himself; the only things he knows are gardens, and how to watch television. (In one famous scene, some thugs are picking on him and he clicks at them with his remote, trying to change the "channel.")

A car accident leads him to the home of Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas), a personal friend and advisor to the President of the United States (Jack Warden). Once there, everyone mistakes him for a soft-spoken genius, interpreting his words as parables, and he quickly becomes the talk of American politics. (Even his name is changed, to "Chauncey Gardiner.")

Likewise, the ailing Ben's young wife, Eve (Shirley MacLaine) takes a shine to him and starts trying to seduce him.

It's a much craftier and darker satire than the very similar Forrest Gump (1994), but it's still flawed. It's far too long, and not especially well-shaped, though director Hal Ashby does use the reserved pace for some very nice moments. And it sometimes grows a bit too obvious in its satire, especially during the final scene.

Douglas was the film's only other Oscar nominee, and he won, for Best Supporting Actor.

Warner Home Video re-released the movie on a remastered DVD in 2009. It comes with a little featurette in which Douglas's granddaughter, actress Illeana Douglas, remembers her grandfather and the film. There's a trailer and several optional language tracks and subtitles.

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