Release: 6th January 2020
In one of his most finely tuned performances, Peter Sellers (The Pink Panther) plays the pure-hearted Chance, a gardener forced out of moneyed seclusion and into the urban wilds of Washington, D.C., after the death of his employer. Shocked to discover that the real world doesn’t respond to the click of a remote, Chance stumbles haplessly into celebrity after being taken under the wing of a tycoon (Oscar winner Melvyn Douglas), who mistakes his new protégé’s mumbling about horticulture for sagacious pronouncements on life and politics, and whose wife (The Apartment’s Shirley MacLaine) targets Chance as the object of her desire.
Many consider Peter Sellers to be one of the greatest minds in the history of comedy. They would, of course, be right. But what Sellers is often forgotten for is his nuance and brilliance as an actor. Being There became arguably Sellers greatest example of his acting ability, but also sadly his last, as within a few months of the film’s release Sellers had passed away. To this end, Being There has long been immortalised as a lasting testament to the man identified as Chance.
Hal Ashby’s seventh picture has long been considered a work of utter brilliance. At once a straightforward fish-out-of-water comedy and also a strong critique of America’s social and political climate, Being There may be based upon a questionable source (Jerzy Kosinski’s novel has been accused of plagiarism) but it truly does awaken the heart and mind to a ludicrous world of misunderstandings.
Restored here from a 4K transfer, the film looks as rich and deep as the themes it houses. Blacks roll off nicely, while the improved colour grade makes the film look brand new. There is some grain from time to time – especially in the opening sequence – but this is far from a travesty.
Being There is a film littered with hidden meaning, which often times serves as a distraction rather than manageable subtext. One might find themselves regularly stepping out of the film to try and decipher it, and this is not a great place to be. But it is a good problem to have, especially in a film that capped of a decade of cinema synonymous with artistic merit. Over time, as the legacy of Peter Sellers has solidified, it is the final shot that has become the most iconic of the film, and one where meaning has mutated beyond any and all original intent. For that is not Chance we see walking off as an apparition floating on water, but rather the final images of a true master of his art. Chance may have touched the lives of the American people, but it was Peter Sellers himself who changed the world.
Film Grade: B
A true glut of material exists. Being There lends itself to a lot of evaluation, but what Criterion do is focus on the legacy of Ashby and Sellers. This is a wonderful collection of material and you’d be hard pushed to want more. Particular highlights include a new documentary and some archival interviews with Sellers.
Special Features Grade: A-
Simple minds achieve great things. It is a sentimental idea that has resonated through cinema, but lives its best life here.