David Royko Psy.D
My short take on BEING THERE, the 1979 movie directed by Hal Ashby and starring Peter Sellers
This is my brief take on Being There (1979), one of my favorite movies, which I just watched again for the first time in years, this time with my 14 year old son Jake. This is not a review, and I don’t provide a synopsis. If you don’t already know the movie, don’t bother reading the rest, because it won’t mean anything.
Being There, to me, is a movie version of Voltaire’s statement, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”
Chance is a blank slate onto which people project their own needs, wishes and desires, and he becomes what people want him to be--and in the process becomes a version of the second coming of Christ. The only person who doesn’t seem to need a “god” is the doctor, as he is the only one (besides Louise) who sees the truth.
There is Christian religious symbolism in the movie from the opening. Of course, the walking on water at the end finally drives it home like a sledgehammer, but similar allusions are there from the start.
(Disclaimer: I’m not a Christian zealot. In fact, I’m not a Christian at all. Depending on how you want to define it, I'm either and agnostic or an atheist.)
First, the names.
Chance. Talk about a blank slate. He is simply random chance, luck, fate, whatever you like. There’s no direction, intention, idea. He is just Chance, until he begins his transformation and is given the name Chauncey Gardner. So now, his name reflects what he is, a gardener. And who is in his new Garden of Eden? Why, Eve of course!
The opening of the movie depicts Schubert’s Unfinished (8th) symphony on TV, as JC’s work on earth is unfinished. Chance awakens to the music. He is about to begin finishing JC’s work.
Louise, at the breakfast table after telling Chance the old man’s died, exclaims, “Oh Lord, what a morning…” the opening line of a spiritual about JC’s return, that continues “…when the stars begin to fall.”
As Chance descends the stairs into the world to the strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra, he is like a god descending to earth.
The Basketball Jones video in the limo, as (now) Chauncey is approaching the Rand mansion for the first time, is depicting the protagonist expanding to superhuman proportions, his head breaking through the clouds, with Chauncey arriving at the Valhala-like Rand castle.
The men who come into contact with the asexual Chauncey become asexual themselves, and presumably celibate (the president, most obviously). And Eve is satisfied without actually having sex. They’ve become like priests and nuns.
Ben Rand tells his doctor how Chauncey has brought him peace and an acceptance of his impending death.
Rand’s associates, at the end, are planning to elevate Chauncey to the position of the most powerful man in the world, all based on people’s reactions to his simple, and in the eyes of the world, metaphoric “preaching.”
And finally, he walks on water as Rand’s words are intoned by the President, “Life is a state of mind.” Chauncey’s life has become what he is in people’s minds.
I think it’s a pretty sly wink at religion. And, one of the funniest, most entertaining movies I know.