Friday, December 19, 2014

A Case of White Privilege?

"It's for sure a white man's world in America. Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss–ant. And I'll say right now, he never learned to read and write. No, sir. Had no brains at all. Was stuffed with rice pudding between th' ears. Shortchanged by the Lord and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you've gotta be is white in America to get whatever you want."

Louise (Ruth Attaway)

I think "Being There," which premiered on this day in 1979, was Peter Sellers' next–to–last movie before his death by heart attack in July 1980.

For awhile, I believed it was his last movie — that designation actually went to "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu" — and that thought appealed to my sense of order somehow, that he had died after giving what was arguably his finest performance as Chance the gardener.

I suppose, if I had been Peter Sellers, I would have wanted the public to remember me for "Being There," not "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu" — nor the somewhat bizarre posthumous performance he gave via archival footage in the last of the Pink Panther movies a couple of years later.

People do have a way of remembering the last thing a writer, an actor, a musician, an artist of any kind does before he/she dies — as if there is some kind of cosmic significance to it. Sometimes there is a touch of irony, given whatever happened shortly thereafter; other than that, though, I think people attach far too much to last words or last movies or last songs or whatever. And I am just as guilty as anyone else is, I guess. I try not to be, but I'm human and I do fall into that trap occasionally.

If it had been his last movie, though, "Being There" would have been a great way for Sellers to go out.

"Being There" was a comedy that equaled nearly every comedy Sellers ever made — and surpassed most. I say nearly because, frankly, it's darn near impossible to match what Sellers did in "Dr. Strangelove." I will go to my grave believing that.

Take that one out of the equation, though, and "Being There," with its subtle and understated symbolism, is, at the very least, equal to any other comedy Sellers ever made. Why do you suppose that was so?

On the occasion of Sellers' death, film critic Roger Ebert observed, "If Mr. Sellers was correct in saying that he had no personality of his own to portray, then perhaps his performance in 'Being There' was his most autobiographical."

I think Ebert was on to something there.

"It was a virtuoso performance," Ebert wrote, "made all the more difficult because Mr. Sellers had to sustain a single note throughout the movie."

That was pretty much what Ebert wrote when "Being There" hit the theaters.

"Being There," Ebert wrote in his review about seven months before Sellers' death, "begins with a cockamamie notion, it's basically one joke told for two hours, and it requires Peter Sellers to maintain an excruciatingly narrow tone of behavior in a role that has him onscreen almost constantly. It's a movie based on an idea, and all the conventional wisdom agrees that emotions, not ideas, are the best to make movies from. But 'Being There' pulls off its long shot and is one of the most confoundingly provocative movies of the year."

That sums it up pretty well.

The story was simple, really. A mentally handicapped individual, Chance (Sellers), had been living in the Washington, D.C., home of an older man who died — Chance grew up there, actually, but I don't recall that his relationship with the old man was ever explained — and Chance had to find a new place to live so he found himself outside in the world, which created plenty of fish–out–of–water scenarios — perhaps the best of which came when Chance was approached by a group of young thugs, apparently intent on causing trouble for someone. Chance, who had a TV remote control with him (everything he had learned, other than how to tend a garden, he had learned from watching TV), repeatedly clicked the remote while aiming it at the leader of the gang.

Not surprisingly, neither the gang leader nor any of his associates disappeared when Chance did that.

Chance was rescued from the streets of Washington by the wife (Shirley MacLaine) of an elderly, wealthy and ailing industrialist (an Oscar–winning performance by Melvyn Douglas) who also happened to be a friend and confidant of the incumbent president (Jack Warden).

Ebert was spot on when he wrote that "Being There" was based on the premise that Chance didn't understand that the world wasn't like the comfortable and predictable existence he had led before the old man's death. As Ebert observed, "life isn't television," and the only thing that Chance knew, besides television, was gardening. Listening to him talk was an exercise in doublespeak — actually, that should be doubleperception. When he spoke, people heard what they wanted to hear. "[H]is simple truisms from the garden," wrote Ebert, "are taken as audaciously simple metaphors."

Presto! A movement to nominate him for president was under way — and he hadn't even had to lift a finger. (I thought of Chance and "Being There" a lot when Ross Perot's nascent presidential campaign was being launched in 1992.)

"There are wonderful comic moments," Ebert wrote, "but they're never pushed so far that they strain the story's premise."

A satire that poked fun at all sorts of things, it rose to an entirely different level near the end when, after viewers had seen the political kingmakers promoting his candidacy while serving as pallbearers for Douglas, Chance was elevated to an altogether different — but clearly recognizable — realm.

Sellers received a Best Actor nomination for his performance. He lost, in the "Kramer vs. Kramer" wave, to Dustin Hoffman.