If you think this year’s political season has made Americans more jaundiced than ever before, you might consider this much-admired satirical comedy from 1979 as a bit of an antidote.
The story opens as a middle-aged man awakens in his handsomely appointed suite one morning and is told by the maid that “the old man” has died.
The middle-aged man, called Chance, does not react but instead watches television. We have no idea how Chance came to be in this spot or who the old man was, but we learn that Chance always has lived in the fine house and always has been the gardener on its grounds. He also has access to the old man’s handsome, traditional wardrobe of expensively tailored clothing.
Today we might call Chance “differently abled,” but he is more different than that. He has no affect and is slow to speak, choosing his words with care. His demeanor, modest and polite, presumably models the behavior of the old man who has died.
After the maid departs, lawyers come and explain that Chance must leave the home as well. He packs a leather suitcase and, for the first time in his life, steps out the front door of what appears to be a classic townhouse in a now-rundown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
Chance is not prepared for reality on a street. If you have read the source novel or about this film, you know that he whips out his television remote to turn off some trash-talking young men who confront him. This, of course, does not work as he expects.
Fortunately for him, Chance is bumped in the leg by a limousine whose chauffeur apologizes and whose occupant, Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), invites him to her home. When she asks his name, he says he is Chance the gardener, which Eve hears as Chauncey Gardiner. The transformation is complete.
Eve’s house is even fancier than the one Chance left (and looks a lot like the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina). Her much older husband, the prominent, influential Ben (Melvyn Douglas), is dying and under the care of his personal physician. Ben takes a liking to Chance/Chauncey and is the first among many.
There are many things Chauncey cannot do: He cannot read or write and, he cannot manage more than a very polite response to any provocation or event. As he explains repeatedly, “I like to watch television.” Commercials, cartoons, yoga classes, whatever — if it’s on television, he’s happy to watch.
But Chauncey’s appearance and manners appeal to the others in the Rands’ orbit, including politicians and journalists who listen carefully as he describes the seasons of a garden and the tending of plants. They conclude he is speaking metaphorically and sharing great wisdom. His fame spreads, and the story, like any decent satire, dials the level of farce to 11, and then beyond.
“Being There” is bit of a play on the “wisdom of little children” theme. But children have emotions, which Chance does not. His situation cannot be taken literally, happily, and the show’s politicians aren’t nearly as irritating as those we were expected to take seriously in last week’s election.
The film also can be seen as a critique of the television obsession of its period, which looks quaint in retrospect. We advanced citizens of the new millennium are much more absorbed with our cellphones.
The novel and screenplay were written by Jerzy Kozinski, a Polish Jew whose family survived the Holocaust by taking new names and passing as Christians.
Kosinski, an energetic and enigmatic young fellow, arrived in New York in the early 1960s and began writing books, the most approachable of which is Being There.
In addition to writing, Kosinski was a lively conversationalist, popular among New York literati and with television hosts. He also led an exotic, if not publicly exotic, life on the side. We cannot know how much his personality was formed by his challenging childhood, but when Chance says, “I like to watch,” we know that he got the line from his creator.
Kosinski’s first book, The Painted Bird, was described alternately as the story of his own ghastly childhood in the 1930s and 1940s, then as fiction and, finally and by others, as the English version of a similar novel released earlier in Europe. A 1982 article in The Village Voice seems to document much more uncredited writing help from editors and others. Kosinski took his own life in 1991.