Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Just Like Today? Not a Chance

The Academy Awards ceremony of 1980 honored a bold assortment of Hollywood movies from 1979 that touched on major strands of American life. The big winner was Kramer vs. Kramer: Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep both finally won their first Oscars for portraying an estranged couple fighting over the custody of their child. If you liked cinematic razzle-dazzle and the sense of genius at work, another major nominee was Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. If you were leaning toward an epic with contemporary relevance, there was Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam drama, Apocalypse Now. The China Syndrome broached the environmental dangers implicit in nuclear power, while Norma Rae delved into the challenges of the labor movement. But at the moment the 1979 film that strikes me as particularly relevant to our own times is an odd, surreal adaptation of a novel by Polish-born author Jerzy Kosinski. It’s called Being There.

Being There was not a best picture nominee, nor was it recognized for its craft contributions. One of its two Oscar noms was for the film’s star, Peter Sellers, who had personally optioned the material. Sellers was suffering from a weakened heart, and this tightly controlled performance came at the very end of his life.  The other nomination, which resulted in a win, was for screen veteran Melvyn Douglas, whose career went back to the very beginning of talking pictures. He made Garbo laugh in Ninotchka (1939) and tried to talk Mr. Blandings (Cary Grant) out of building his dream house (1948). Douglas won his first Supporting Actor statuette as the deeply principled father of Paul Newman in Hud (1963). In Being There, he played a more urbane guy, the wealthy and powerful Benjamin Rand, close advisor to the American president (Jack Warden). 

At the center of Being There is Sellers as Chance, a man who’s more than a bit of a cipher. Set adrift at the start of the film by the death of his patron, he’s a childlike figure who seems to know about little more than the estate garden he has tended for so many years. He can neither read nor write, and gets most of his view of the world from watching television. But his elegant clothing (cast-offs from his patron’s wardrobe) and his formal manners give the impression that he’s a person of substance. Through a series of mishaps Chance the gardener is transformed into Chauncey Gardner, It is Douglas’s character, Ben Rand, who welcomes him in, introducing him to American politics on the highest level. 

The underlying joke of Being There is that a man who knows little, who can only talk knowledgeably about TV and gardening, is accepted by Rand and his compatriots as a font of wisdom. Representatives of foreign nations start gravitating toward him as well, convinced he has a deep understanding of their culture and language. Booked as a guest on a political talk show, Chance wows the nation with austere Zen-like pronouncements about the state of the world. Soon the President of the United States is feeling threatened by this attractive newcomer to the political scene, and the end of the film suggests that the various powers behind the throne are on the verge of coalescing behind him in the next election.

Upon the original release of Being There, some moviegoers saw it as a metaphor for the rise of actor Ronald Reagan, who was elected to the presidency in November 1980. Today, of course, it’s tempting to make connections to a certain politician who, without pror experience in elected office, has reached the highest office in our land.

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