A sheltered man with an unconventional mind lives a golden-spoon life far removed from the poverty right outside his not-so-humble abode. Some may call him simple, but his distinct perspective is a direct result of his only access to the outside world: obsessive television watching. Almost everything he knows about life has been gleaned from the boob tube. Through this small-screen understanding, he dupes his way into the highest offices of America, convincing the country he’s someone that he’s not.
Don’t worry: this is not yet another think piece about Donald J. Trump.
Though enlightening essays could easily be written about how Being There — whose premise is above — speaks to our current political moment, I was actually more taken with the inverse of that analytical equation, specifically how the conditions of today change the movie’s tone.
I first saw Hal Ashby’s second best flick (first: Harold and Maude) exactly 10 years ago when a local theatre in San Diego screened it as part of a retro-comedy festival. Sitting with an audience who predominantly looked old enough to have giggled at these hijinks since its original 1979 theatrical release, we uproariously laughed throughout, largely at the antics of Chauncey Gardner (or Gardiner, as it appears in screenwriter Jerzy Kosinski’s original novel), played by comic genius Peter Sellers (of The Pink Panther’s Inspector Jacques Clouseau fame). After spending the previous seven years cracking jokes at the expense of the bumbling buffoon in the White House, Being There’s governmental scenes felt like hilarious indictments of Washington D.C.’s questionable intellect.
Watching the film now, however, is not such a joyous affair. At a recent screening attended by about 15 Being There virgins, it played to them less like a comedy and more like a tragic rumination on the gullibility of the American populace. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still funny, just in a far darker register. As so many comedians working today can attest to, humor relies heavily on exaggerated distance from its subject, the sort that Ashby and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel mine to great effect by often placing the camera (and thus viewer) away from the characters. Chauncey Gardner may have commented on George W. Bush back in 2007, but they were by no means directly comparable, and the ending’s suggestion that Chance may one day be the most powerful man in the world played like heightened satire.
If only that was still the case.
The men who brainstorm his Oval Office potential at the end remark on the positives of his politically-unblemished past. One even mentions the sky-high ratings of his recent television appearance. A few scenes earlier, Chauncey admits in an interview that he watches TV instead of reading, and the reporter celebrates his everyman quality. With these painfully relevant attributes swirling in my head, the iconic walking-on-water finale adopts scary implications basically unfolding on a national scale right now. Since Chance is not aware of the limitations of his own reality, his belief in the real-world possibilities of all onscreen images symbolically free him from corporeal restrictions. He can be whoever he wants to be, and do whatever he wants to do.
10 years ago, this allegorical representation of the American Dream felt optimistic. Now, it feels like a scarily prescient warning, one from the year before the country first elected a celebrity: Trump’s idol, Ronald Reagan. Since Americans so want to believe in the unchecked freedom individually bestowed to them by their country’s Dream, they’ll force themselves to see whatever they want to see in others to justify seeing in themselves whatever they want to be and do (a bicentennial license plate shortly after he enters the world is a cue to how the tale focuses on the core of America). That’s how Chauncey — and Trump — scaled society’s ladder.
Though Being There could be criticized nowadays for closing on such a dangerously hopeful note, the controversial outtakes over the credits subtly suggest a more complex takeaway contrasting that implied message of the final image. Actors may be the clearest living embodiments of the be-whoever-you-want-to-be notion, yet these series of bloopers reveal the hard work required to become someone else. Transforming into another person may look easy on the screen, but in real life, it’s as hard as keeping a straight face is for Sellers.
If only Americans had heeded this advice last year.
Since I also want to end on a lighter note, I must point out that I found my newer audience’s compassion for Chauncey rather touching. Looking back on my 2007 viewing, we were offensively close to laughing at mental difference. In recalling how people described the character to me over the years, some awful words were utilized: “simple-minded,” “stupid,” “retarded,” “mentally handicapped/incapacitated.” Our newfound empathy for people like Chance — undoubtedly aided by the educational stories about their struggles proliferated through such means as his beloved television — shift the yucks to be at the expense of everyone else around him. We recognize how easily they’re seduced into believing their self-created fictions. In a way, we’re laughing at ourselves, though always with a pitch-black awareness of this behavioral trend’s potential repercussions.