High school dances were no fun. Everyone in that steaming cesspool of a gym was staring at me and critiquing my moves, or so I thought anyway. Years later I figured out that, actually, no one gave a shit. My classmates were too busy living their own lives to care about my rendition of the Electric Slide. So why did I feel so ashamed? Why could I never cut loose and enjoy myself? I believed I was a terrible dancer, and so, obviously, everyone else felt like that about me too. In that mass of teenagers dancing around me, I thought I was seeing others judging me, where really, I was seeing myself and my insecurities. As I’ve grown older, I’ve started to recognize myself in more and more interactions with people. It’s not at all that others are like me. It’s just that the way I perceive others can tell me more about myself than anything else.
Being There is a film built around the premise that the people around us are mirrors that reflect our deepest fears and desires. The film stars Peter Sellers as Chance the Gardener, a middle-aged man who’s been sequestered within a mansion in Washington D.C. since childhood. Until the death of his patron, he’s spent his life tending the garden and watching television, all while dressed in fine suits from the 1930s. This life is all he’s ever known when he’s expelled from his home into late 1970s Washington D.C. We quickly come to learn that Chance can only interact with the world in limited ways. While he always looks calm and dignified, he’s only capable of speaking literally and truthfully. His topics of conversation are limited to gardening and television. Of course, none of the people Chance meets know about his limits. They instead read meaning into his demeanor and utterings. Rather than seeing a simpleton, they see a great sage, a gentleman, a shrewd political operative, and in one case, a lover of Russian literature. Through a series of unlikely events, this kind of misunderstanding leads him to become a confidant of Benjamin Rand, an extremely wealthy businessman dying from a blood disease.
While misunderstandings lead to many of the jokes in the film, they also serve as a catalyst for profound change in a few characters. These transformations are most visible in Rand [Melvyn Douglas]. From the first moment that we first see him, it’s clear he’s dying. He’s stuck in bed, surrounded by a panoply of beeping and whirring medical devices. He has doctors and nurses attending to him full time. He’s sealed off a section of his bedroom in glass so that he can live in a high oxygen environment. When it’s time for him to leave his room and go to dinner, he needs a blood transfusion. Rand is a man who’s at death’s door but not ready to die. Over the course of the film, though, Rand undergoes a remarkable change. By the end of the film, when he’s suffering from an acute attack of his illness, he decides that it’s time to die and refuses treatment. This transformation is thanks to Chance’s ability to act as his mirror.
While seeing truths about ourselves in the ways we interpret others is a common occurrence, Chance’s blankness makes him special. Since Chance puts people at ease while having little of substance to say, he is a near perfect mirror of the person he’s interacting with. Around Chance, people express the thoughts and desires and fears that have been lurking outside the edge of their consciousness, while all the time believing that they’re being told something by another person. In the case of Benjamin Rand, this phenomenon begins midway through the film when he and Chance are talking to the President [Jack Warden].
When the President asks Chance about his thoughts on the economy, Chance says, “In the garden, growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.” We know that Chance is literally talking about a garden. Benjamin Rand, who’s also sitting in the room, takes the phrase to mean that there are natural rhythms in the world that shouldn’t be interfered with. In this case, he’s talking about the economy. At the same time, though, he might as well be talking about life in general. Indeed, it’s from this point that Rand begins coming to terms with his own mortality. Perhaps in hearing himself talk about the natural seasons in life, he realizes that he is struggling needlessly against the inevitable. We start seeing him prepare for his death, first in subtle ways. When Rand and his wife Eve [Shirley MacClaine] are watching Chance on TV, Rand takes joy in learning that Eve is fond of Chance, as though he’s looking for someone to be her companion when he’s gone. Later, Rand sends Chance to a fancy reception honoring the Soviet Ambassador rather than going himself. Here, too, it’s as though Rand is gradually ceding his former life as a public figure and a companion for Eve to Chance. And then, towards the end of the film, we see Rand lying in bed selling stocks to clean up his affairs before he dies. When the doctor asks him about Chance at this point, he says, “Since he’s been around, the thought of dying has been much easier for me.”
By seeing how Rand interprets Chance, we see his greatest anxieties. We see why he spends his fortune clinging onto life, even when that means suffering. While Chance helps him realize that he’s in the winter of his life, he also relieves Rand of one of his greatest anxieties around death: what’s going to happen to Eve? Even though he didn’t explicitly know it, Rand was prolonging his life because he was worried about Eve’s ability to cope after his death. He says as much to Chance as he’s dying when he utters “I hope that you’ll stay with Eve. Take care of her. Watch over her. She’s a delicate flower, Chauncey.” Over the course of the film, as he grows to trust Chance, Rand begins to recognize him as the person to take care of Eve after he dies. As viewers, we know that Chance is unsuitable to take care of anyone and that Eve likely wouldn’t fare any worse than any other person who’s lost a spouse. Still, Rand interprets Chance and his blank screen of a personality in a way that allays his anxieties. From the start of the film Rand has wanted to die, but it’s only through his interpretation of Chance that he’s able to get beyond his anxieties around death and let go.
The events in Being There are fantastical. In the real world, a man like Chance could never fool so many people and end up in the halls of power. And yet the film speaks to a deeper truth about human relationships. Whenever people communicate with Chance in the film, they see themselves reflected even though they don’t realize it. Those reflections might accentuate anxieties or assumptions or desires that they don’t even know they have. That’s not too different from what happens to all of us all the time. Every time we communicate with someone we think we’re looking through a window, when we’re actually looking at a mirror. Every once in a while, we might even recognize ourselves staring back.