Monday, September 29, 2008

A Great Peter Sellers Film

I had always heard that Peter Sellers was a much greater actor than the bumbling detective from the Pink Panther movies, but I wasn't really interested in renting "What's New, Pussycat" or "Dr. Strangelove" or any of a number of other films to find out what else he did during his career. (Not, of course, these are necessarily his best work; they were just the first two that came to mind.)

However, after A. and I recently watched the made-for-HBO movie, "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers," and I became curious about the film "Being There." Based on what I learned from the biopic, the novel by Jerzy Kosinski was Sellers' obsession for the last two decades or so of his life and he was determined that the film would be made with him in the lead role. Ultimately, it was made and Sellers was nominated for an Oscar (which he didn't win, although he did take home the Golden Globe and several other awards).

In my opinion, Sellers should have won. "Being There" is an amazing film, and Sellers is fantastic in the role as Chance the Gardener/Chauncey Gardiner. The story of this simple man who goes through life mimicing what he sees on television and learns from his interaction with other people is both very humorous, very biting, and in some ways very sad. A short explanation of why I think each applies:
  • Very humorous: It's Peter Sellers; of course it's going to be funny! He does a wonderful job with his facial expressions, but it's the delivery of his lines and the instances of very subdued physical comedy that give this film its laughs (along with some of the lines delivered by other characters in the film).

  • Very biting: In watching the way Chance progresses through the story, inadvertently gaining more and more fame simply for talking about his garden and repeating other lines and gestures that he has picked up from others, I was reminded of what's going on in Washington now. Politicians from both sides of the aisle referring constantly to talking points, towing the party line, and sometimes not wanting/trying/able to give a straight answer to a simple question -- all of these seemed reflected in the character of Chance who gave his own version of talking points and the party line (with straight repetition) and giving convoluded answers to simple questions (with his constant analogies dealing with gardening and the seasons). By the end of the film, all of this had come together to such a degree that the presidency was being thrown around (I hate to say too much out of the hope that you will rent this film) -- and the irony of comparing this story with a real/the current campaign is very apparent and very cutting.

  • Very sad: Chance spends so much of his life alone, and even as the film progresses and he is surrounded by more and more people he is still alone. The sadness of not knowing how to read or write; the sadness of not knowing what to do when his employer dies; the sadness of not knowing how to deal with real people who are so different from the people/characters he sees on television; the sadness of not knowing how to recognize when he is being loved or how to show love.
Even though this film was made nearly 30 years ago, it is still really relevant and well worth watching. And I think Sellers gives a brilliant performance. On my scale, five out of five stars -- definitely rent this film. I liked it so much that I'm going to buy it and add it to the family film library.

1 comment:

rdl said...

Great review - must see now!