Peter Sellers made his mark by portraying bizarre, over-the-top eccentrics that often flirted with ham-fistedness, yet for every masterpiece like Dr. Strangelove, there was a forgettable clunker like The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu. Sellers was in fact a unique talent; a man-of-a-thousand faces who usually disappeared into whatever role he was privileged to obtain. And yet with Hal Ashby’s Being There, his last great performance, Sellers tried something so altogether different that once again, we can’t believe it’s him. This time, however, rather than bury himself beneath pounds of make-up or zany facial hair, Sellers appears practically naked, without so much as an accent to throw us off course. And while I’ll always go back to his trio of madmen in Kubrick’s classic, it is here that I continue to find increased affection. His Chauncey Gardiner is one of cinema’s most lasting creations; a work of such grand subtlety that we stand in awe of the restraint, more so because it’s Peter at the helm. How he refrained from obvious parody is a mystery known only to himself. When his tendency was always to give us a little bit more, he at last challenged us to accept much less.
If there is a guiding theme to the picture, it is one that fits easily into a fortune cookie: “We are as others perceive us.” And yet, despite its apparent obviousness, it resonates deeply for the viewer. In fact, it is one of the few truths that applies to any era and any context. How else could so many of us relate to an obscure period piece like Barry Lyndon? Here we have a supreme idiot — Chance, quite literally a gardener, but through a mistake, is turned into Mr. Gardiner — who is thought to be a brilliant philosopher and budding statesman, all because he lets others do the talking and thrust upon him their expectations and prejudices. He is calm, dignified, and impeccably dressed, so of course he is presumed to be a man of means and the utmost seriousness, even though he has lived his entire life isolated in a grand estate. Everything he knows of life comes from television, which means he is incapable of understanding idioms, allusions, and other subtleties of speech; a massive ignorance which is then taken to be humorous insight into life and culture. But because Chauncey maintains a poker face throughout, no one ever seems to catch on to the reality of his plight: he is, unfortunately, retarded. Or is he? After all, has he not secured the ear of an influential tycoon (Melvyn Douglas, one of the last lions of the cinema) and even become so beloved that the President hangs on his every word?
Again, Chauncey has said absolutely nothing of substance (he speaks of gardens and roots, but rather than metaphor, he is literally discussing the plants and trees under his care), yet because it is already understood that he is wise (how else did he gain the confidence of the rich and powerful?), he could hoot and holler gibberish and still be taken for a deep thinker. Once we come to a conclusion about a neighbor, or a politician, or even a family member, we twist their words and deeds to fit the prior assumption, rather than evaluate anew. So when someone like President Bush yammers like a drunken sot under the spell of a hypnotist, commentators can honestly claim to have witnessed Churchillian poetry because Bush’s “character” has already been catalogued and put away. Being There was not the first to understand this link between appearance and authority, but it certainly nailed it the best without slumming for obvious applause. The world has descended to a collective moronitude because television has eroded the essence of communication, but no sledgehammers are applied to our skulls in the process. A director of Ashby’s talent understood that, and trusted us to flesh out the details.
One of the most misunderstood aspects of this film concerns the ending, where Chauncey appears to be walking on water as he fades into the distance. No, he is not a Christ figure (I’d buy it if someone was willing to say out loud that Jesus was a retard), but rather another figment of our projections. Chauncey’s “innocence” would lead some to believe that he possesses savior-like qualities, but that is far from the film’s endorsement. I interpret that nod to the religious merely the film’s way of admitting that yes, this is how most people would categorize Chauncey, but thinking and believing does not make it reality. We hear the quote “Life is a state of mind,” which would seem to reinforce the idea that we can do anything our little heart desires without restrictions (and therefore fits nicely into the reactionary point of view), but in fact, it speaks to the illusion that we have any control over events. Our talents can be mistaken for faults, and our lies can become the wisdom of the gods; it’s all in who’s listening. Therefore, life as it is lived has little to do with our will, but rather is determined by the conclusions reached by those who create us in images other than our own. And who knew that a few short decades after the film’s release, we’d have a Chauncey for our very own; a man we can misunderestimate all the way down to our pitiful destruction.