RB score: 9/10
“Being There” is a film masterpiece that is every bit as watchable today, almost 35 years after its release. Because the basic plot of the simpleminded gardener is so well known as to be part of popular culture, I will not rehash that aspect but instead urge anyone who has not seen this movie, to do so as soon as possible as it deserves to be in the library of any film fan. “Being There” is that rare creation that is not only not derivative, it is so well put together and yet without traditional conflicts and resolutions, that the finished product takes your breath away. You can’t watch this without being in conscious awe of what was accomplished by genius director, the late Hal Ashby. Ashby strikes me as someone who was both a benevolent director who often gave his actors free rein and an intelligent, talented film editor (who actually won an Academy Award for film editing) that worked on his films relentlessly in order to put together the best story. Dustin Hoffman graciously acknowledged Peter Sellers at the Oscars by stating that the Best Actor nod should have gone to Sellers (and Hoffman was definitely superb in Kramer vs. Kramer), I’d have to agree because Sellers had to not only act, but really had to live inside this character’s consistent, limited presentment through the whole film and he is in almost every scene! It’s the culmination of what happens with a brilliant director and top notch cast and crew. The movie is so damn brilliant Ashby really didn’t need to bother with the sex-related subplots, but the way they were incorporated into the film did flesh out the messages and did not detract from the whole, due in large part to superb performances. (Shirley MacLaine’s list of awards and nominations should have its own wiki entry if not already in place). A president being impotent… a woman being fulfilled by a relationship that is unconsummated… yeah, no question Ashby was a free thinker and unafraid. Years later we all saw this movie recycled with Tom Hanks for the acting chops, but without the groundbreaking directorial insights….., as Forrest Gump. RB thinks Being There was better by far.
So why in the world was a point even subtracted? The ending. Don’t get me wrong, I admire it. However it is just enough of an internal inconsistency, as they say, to merit a slight deduction. Up until that point the movie has been a different genre and then abruptly changes. As with a League of Their Own, the great ending ambiguity has inspired much discussion and debate. Was Chance really walking on the surface of the water? Roger Ebert was adamant that there was no wooden pier or other structure under the water. Film audiences might perhaps believe in a pier because to not have it would force their analysis to the next level, and so transform the film. It’s like Ashby is saying at the end, This really is a film, this is a play, this is life, so what do you think it represents people? My take, Chance paused and stuck his umbrella in the water and continued walking across the lake, to show us just what people can do when beliefs are suspended. That folks, is not a reflection on the character of Chance, or even of the movie structure. It’s a reflection on all of us as a society and THAT’s why I believe Ashby chose to end the film this way. “He walked on water” is a phrase you are supposed to say out loud in your mind at least, leading one to ponder how Chance was able to be a curious source of strength for people, when he knew so little, Then, the follow up question: how long will this trajectory continue? Really, a mentally retarded man being chosen as a Presidential candidate, how can that be? Because his message is so well received he could do no wrong…. he walks on water! It’s so sad that Hal Ashby didn’t live to a ripe old age so he could have shared more of his insight with the film student in all of us. The brilliant Ashby wouldn’t have cared about his ending being perceived as any kind of structural flaw because it was that much more important, that the audience has to think about things. So 9/10, Hal Ashby, for an A+ movie. There must be some great film discussions beyond those pearly gates!