Being There

(1979, Peter Sellers and Shirley McLaine)

My all-time favorite, Jerzy Kosinski’s screen adaptation of his 1971 book is a send-up of fatuity in American politics, television and celebrity.

Peter Sellers is the handsome but feeble-minded Chance Gardener, so named because he tends the flowerbeds of the moldering mansion where he is employed and has lived from childhood to middle age.

Isolated except for what he sees on TV and mistakes for reality, Gardener is evicted upon his elderly employer’s death and ventures into the world wearing one of the dead man’s badly dated but elegant suits. He also carries a TV remote control with which he tries to “change the channel” whenever he blunders into uncomfortable situations.

And these are many, because everything that happens to Gardener thereafter stems from peoples’ misjudgement of him based on his impressive appearance and their misinterpretation of his state of mind, which he expresses through oracular-sounding metaphors such as: “All is well—and all will be well—in the garden.”

Street toughs threaten Gardener, taking him for rich, and he escapes them only to be hit by a limousine carrying one of the wealthiest men in the U.S. The mortified mogul thinks Gardener must be eminent also, mishears his name of Chance for the upper-crust “Chauncy” and puts his palatial estate at Gardener’s disposal to recover. There Gardener is tended by his rescuer’s much younger and lovelorn wife (Shirley McLaine). She tries to seduce him, while her husband sees in Gardener a pliable and TV-genic puppet that he and other movers and shakers can maneuver into the confidence of the U.S. President as an advisor and unwitting tool of their own interests.

By the film’s end, this man with a very low IQ has gathered fame as a philosopher and is headed for the White House—propelled by people who, unlike Gardener, are not just simple, but simpleminded.

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