When I was 17, my AP English class read Being There as one of our final books of the year. Unlike most things assigned for class, it was an overwhelming favorite, partly due to its petite size (I have no illusions about the fact that its scant 140 pages made it one of the few books the entire class actually finished), but also because of its wit, which somehow still resonated with a group of disaffected teens some 30-odd years after its release. As part of the discussion and as part of end-of-year tradition with high school classes, my teacher wrapped things up by putting on a movie: in this case, the 1979 adaptation starring Peter Sellers.
Both book and movie tell the story of Chance, a simpleton thrust into the real world after his benefactor (so to speak) dies and his house is closed up. He skates by from one interaction to the next, never truly understanding anything or anyone around him while the people he meets deem him brilliant for imparting their own meaning onto his words.
The class, myself included, rejected the film almost immediately. None of us could get past how, well, how old Peter Sellers was. You see in the book, Chance’s youth and attractiveness are repeatedly remarked upon so this 55-year-old, graying actor with the prominent nose didn’t fit the bill.
In fact, we all checked out of the movie so immediately, that this most recent rewatch was truly more of a first watch. I was shocked by how little I remembered of the film. But more importantly, I couldn’t believe how readily I overlooked Peter Sellers’s performance.
Watching Being There, it’s stunningly obvious why Sellers was chosen for the role. Few actors then or now have such complete mastery over their physicality. Sellers controls every muscle deliberately, from the subtlest flicker of the eyes or twitch of the lip to his every studied step across the screen. In order to make Chance feel truly human and not simply a caricature, I think this level of mastery was utterly necessary. I have a hard time imagining someone else fulfilling the part as well, even if (in my mind) they looked the part more.
In going back to the book, I also realized that Chance’s age is never deliberately specified, meaning that other than the emphasis on his handsomeness (and no offense, Peter, but I think we’re all okay admitting you’re brilliant, not a heartthrob) there’s no reason why Sellers can’t work perfectly well in the role. There’s also something to be said for the presumed air of authority Sellers’s appearance gives him. It makes Chance’s seemingly limitless good luck all the more believable.
Looking at Ashby’s adaptation as a whole, and it’s easy to see now the ways it elevates its source material. Like Chance himself, the book is simple and straightforward. In the years since its release, it hasn’t maintained its place in the literary canon the way other satires such as Catch-22 and Animal Farm have. Meanwhile, the film continues to be watched, referenced, and remembered.
I credit the film’s final shot for part of its staying power. The final thing it leaves you with is the sight of Chance walking on water, away from the camera and thus away from the audience. It’s a mesmerizing and powerful image reminiscent of Magritte’s The Son of Man or The Happy Donor, using the same strange mix of realism and surrealism. What I like about this is the way it ties everything together in an instant. It’s a signal that everything about the story we’ve seen is false and impossible, and yet, not that impossible. Someone like Chance could never climb the social ladder so quickly or effortlessly. Someone almost like Chance, though? That’s another story entirely.