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Film / Being There

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"Life is a state of mind."

This 1971 Jerzy Kosinski novella is now better known for its 1979 film adaptation, directed by Hal Ashby, starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, and Melvyn Douglas.

Chance the Gardener (Sellers) is a middle-aged, mentally-challenged man who has never been outside of the elegant townhouse he lives in, by orders of its owner "The Old Man". He has only two pastimes in life: gardening and watching television. Not long after the story opens the Old Man is discovered dead. In the aftermath Chance is told by the lawyers who have come to close the house — and who have no record of a gardener employed there, much less living there — that he must leave. Thus, he packs a suitcase of clothes (all hand-me-downs from the Old Man) and his remote control and heads out into the world.

Soon enough, he is accidentally struck by a limousine and his leg is injured. The passenger, Eve Rand (MacLaine), happens to be the wife of an elderly, dying financial titan, Ben (Douglas); since his mansion is now partially set up as a hospital, she invites Chance to recover there. On the ride over, she mishears his name as "Chauncey Gardiner". Though honest by nature, he doesn't realize she's making a mistake, and things snowball from there. Both Eve and Ben take a shine to this ruined businessman (well, that's what they think he is; he has such nice clothes, and is so polite), and the latter introduces him to the President of the United States (Jack Warden). When asked what he thinks of the current economic climate, Chance — confused and grasping at the word "growth" — replies with the quote above. Both men are impressed, and soon Chauncey Gardiner has become one of the most powerful people in America, if not the world...


Actor Peter Sellers was particularly touched by this successful satire; he heavily identified with Chance's fate to be only what others want/need him to be. He was determined to play the role in a film, which took about seven years to get off the ground, as his star had fallen far by the early 1970s. Thus, the latter entries he did in The Pink Panther series were largely to re-establish his bankability and reputation. Between this and director Hal Ashby's own rising star (Sellers was a fan of Harold and Maude and immediately pegged him to direct) by way of films like Shampoo and Coming Home the film finally arrived in 1979. It is a close adaptation of the book, albeit with some significant expansion and, perhaps most famously, a Twist Ending. It is also Sellers' penultimate film.note 


To this day, a politician criticized for being all style/sound bites and no substance or even intelligence is likely to be compared to Chance. Compare and contrast Forrest Gump.

This film provides examples of:

  • Accidental Misnaming: Chance coughs as he tells Eve his name. Eve mishears "Chance the Gardener" as "Chauncey Gardiner" which becomes his new name for the rest of the movie.
  • Achievements in Ignorance: At the end of the movie, Chance walks on water, seemingly because nobody told him he couldn't.
  • Actor Allusion: Subtle and probably not intentional, but a few minutes after Chance watches Sesame Street, Sally Hayes, played by longtime Muppet performer Fran Brill, shows up in the film.
  • Adam and/or Eve: Eve, who accidentally hits Chance with her limo and invites him to stay at her mansion/hospital to recover.
  • Adaptational Ugliness: This happens with Chance — when you think of a combination of Cary Grant and early-'70s Ted Kennedy, a graying, overweight Peter Sellers is not who comes to mind. (Jerzy Kosinski originally wanted Ryan O'Neal to play Chance.) Still, his appearance is plausible for someone who could be mistaken for a powerful businessman-philosopher, and he is charming and polite enough that his peers being attracted to him is believable.
  • Adaptation Distillation/Adaptation Expansion/Pragmatic Adaptation: The film fleshes out many of the characters and there's a significant addition in Dr. Robert Allenby, but also combines the two maids into one and drops the Russians' attempts to figure out Chance's identity as it only duplicates the FBI/CIA search.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: By modern standards. Chance is generally assumed to be mentally challenged — "stuffed with rice pudding between the ears" as Louise puts it in the film. However, the Backstory the novella gives him implies he was never properly diagnosed as such and it was simply assumed he'd never be able to learn such skills as reading and writing, given that his mother was mentally challenged. This raises the possibilities that he could have been capable of much more than he already knows were he raised in a more understanding time and given professional help, and/or that he is autistic, as suggested in the essay included in the Criterion Collection DVD's liner notes. (In Tropic Thunder, Kirk Lazarus puts it this way: "Infantile, yes. Retarded, no.")
  • Arc Words:
    • "I like to watch."
    • "Life is a state of mind."
  • Asexuality: Chance has no knowledge of sex, nor does he seem interested in it at all. Hilarity ensures when Eve tries to seduce him, but Chance, unbeknownst to her, is much more interested in watching television. He's also oblivious to a gay man propositioning him.
  • Big Fancy House: In the film, the Rand estate — represented by the Real Life Biltmore Estate.
  • Black Comedy: Death, socioeconomic disparities between races (movie only), mental retardation, government spying, extramarital relationships...all treated seriously, and yet it's still funny.
  • Book-Ends: The movie version begins and ends with sequences that revolve around the death of a father figure in Chance's life. The big difference is that Chance feels grief in losing Ben, when he didn't mourn the death of The Old Man.
  • Brick Joke: The message to Raphael that Chance is told to deliver. A brick joke twice over thanks to the Hilarious Outtakes.
  • Camp Gay: Dennis, the man who propositions Chance at the dinner party.
  • The Caretaker: The Old Man and his maids were this to Chance until the Old Man's death. The Old Man was definitely overcontrolling; the book says he warned Chance he would be institutionalized if he ever left the house (worse, as Roger Ebert notes in his Great Movies essay, "Perhaps he is his son."). The movie version suggests the black maid Louise was closer to Chance than anyone else he ever knew. Ironically, she completely resents his success as "Chauncey" because she knows what he really is; she chalks it up to his being white.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The business card the lawyers give Chance when they come to close the house, but only in the movie. Dr. Allenby sneaks into "Chauncey's" closet and finds it in a suit pocket, and uses it to trace who he actually is.
  • Covert Pervert: Subverted. Chance's "I like to watch" is misinterpreted by everyone that he's a voyeur. In reality, he just likes to watch television.
  • Creator Cameo: Hal Ashby as the man by the filing cabinet in the newspaper office.
  • Creator In-Joke: When Chance watches The Thomas Crown Affair on TV. That movie was co-edited by the movie's director, Hal Ashby.
  • Cringe Comedy: The fact that Chance, a mentally handicapped gardener, is mistakenly thought to be an intelligent and important man because of his quiet and polite demeanor creates many awkward situations for those around him, particularly when his non-sequitur comments about gardening or his limited understanding of the outside world clash with the actual situation at hand. In scene after scene, the viewer is lead to think that those around Chance (including power-brokers like billionaire investors and the President of the United States) will finally figure out that they've been deluding themselves about his real identity and nature, but they (mostly) never do.
  • Crystal-Ball Scheduling: With the exceptions of a clip of the President and Chance's talk show appearance, every clip seen on a TV in the film — and there are many, including ones seen in the background — is from a real show/commercial. And most of them were airing, new or as reruns, around the time of the film's making and release. They comment on or underscore the situation at hand or just Chance's personality; others become something Chance adapts to his own situation.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Eve takes Chance's comment that "he likes to watch" entirely the wrong way.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: The movie's set in Washington, D.C., but since the P.O.V. is confined to the townhouse until Chance leaves, and the townhouse is not in the nicest part of town, we don't see any landmarks until he's wandered far. Up to that point, we only get one hint as to the setting: a Washington Post ad on TV. For bonus points, even if Chance recognizes them he is completely indifferent to said landmarks; only the audience recognizes their significance.
  • Ending Memorial Service: The final sequence takes place during one for Ben Rand.
  • Even the Guys Want Him: Chance gets propositioned by a man at a high society party.
  • Everything Is Racist: Louise assumes Chance's success is due to the fact that he's white.
  • The Film of the Book: A film was made based on the book; it's probably the better-known of the two.
  • Fish out of Water: Chance. Luckily, he adapts quickly.
  • The Fool: Chance is as close to the classic version as it gets. He might be simple-minded, but he has plenty of good fortune to make up for it.
  • Gainax Ending: In the film version only, Chance discovers he can walk on water.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery
    • Good — Ben has no problem with Eve's attraction to Chance because he's dying and would be happy to know she would be taken care of, thus freeing her up to woo the unsuspecting gardener.
    • Bad — (Movie only) The lawyers who come to close the house are a male-female duo who are carrying on an affair behind the back of the man's wife or girlfriend, the credits themselves aren't sure which (who is getting suspicious).
  • Good Morning, Crono: The opening sequence of the movie follows Chance as he's awakened by the TV in his bedroom, and he proceeds to tend to his garden (there's a TV in the greenhouse), watch some more TV in his bedroom, and then go down to the dining room to wait for breakfast and watch more TV.
  • Hilarious Outtakes: The end credits run over footage of Sellers constantly breaking down laughing during a monologue that was ultimately cut from the film. Sellers thought this was a violation of the movie's tone and tried to have them removed. The tone of the film (and especially the actor's death) makes the outtakes seem more melancholy than anything else. It doesn't help that Sellers is lying face-up on a table wearing a dark tailored suit to deliver the speech, thereby resembling a corpse, as a film journal put it in a retrospective article not long after he died.
  • Ice-Cream Koan: Chance's "wise sayings". Unlike most examples of this trope, however, it is neither played for laughs nor because the author is trying and failing to sound deep and wise. In this case, the author is deliberately using phrases that can sound deep and introspective but really aren't. The point is that the people around him, who are big-time movers and shakers, and who should be very intelligent and capable of seeing through the ultimate shallowness of his statements, are the ones who think he's making insightful observations.
  • Idiot Hero: Verging on Deconstruction, because Chance doesn't really do anything heroic but has various admirable qualities projected onto him by the others.
  • The Immodest Orgasm: Eve does this, after having misunderstood Chance's "I like to watch" message.
  • Informed Attractiveness: This is invoked when the senator's wife tells Eve that "He's very, very sexy!" Peter Sellers is probably not traditionally attractive!
  • Innocent Bigot: In the film, Louise is the only black person Chance has ever known until he leaves home. After that there are a couple of episodes that suggest he thinks all black people know each other or serve the same functions as one another. It’s implied he’s absorbed stereotypes from his primary information source: television (which by the 1970s was filled with highly stereotypical images of blacks—on top of Chance’s already distorted perceptions of the relationship between TV and reality).
  • Innocent Inaccurate: Poor Chance is essentially kicked out of his home, left to wander the streets (this is worse in the movie, because the house is in a rundown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.), and becomes a respected political figure through sheer misunderstanding. He doesn't realize — much less understand — this alternating cruelty and kindness, but just goes with it.
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Averted. While this movie is often lumped in with Forrest Gump and Rain Man (as in Tropic Thunder), Chance's mental disability is not key to his success or inspiring others. He's just extremely lucky, and the others are extremely gullible. This aversion is much more prominent in the novel, whose overall tone is somewhat more contemptuous. Chance is intellectually disabled, and the fact that the bourgeoisie see him as anything more reveals their own decadence and degeneracy.
  • Ironic Echo: Allenby's use of Chance's phrase "I understand."
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: The movie's Twist Ending, whopper that it is, tends to be spoiled. Commercials for TV airings of the film, the trailer for the biopic The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (in which it is recreated), and many reviews, including Roger Ebert's essay about the film in his "The Great Movies" series. And don't watch the retrospective featurette on the 2009 DVD release before you watch the movie either, or check the scene selection screen... (at this point, the ending borders on It Was His Sled).
  • Leitmotif: Johnny Mandel's score, adapting two piano pieces by classical composer Erik Satie, boils down to two of these for Chance. One signifies sadness and/or solitude, the other peace and contentment.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: The President suffers from this, a literal reflection of his corresponding political impotence.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Chance fits the trope quite well, save for his physical age and his unawareness of his situation. Eve and Ben have aspects of this, as applied to adults, as well: Eve admits she doesn't have many friends (and they're mostly older than she is), and the Rand estate is apparently only populated by servants and medical professionals. Ultimately, they need Chance and he needs them to fill in the empty spaces in their lives.
  • Madwoman in the Attic: Chance. No one but the Old Man and the maid(s) was aware of his existence before the Old Man died. The novella establishes that he was told he had to remain in the Small, Secluded World lest he be institutionalized, and that his mother was mentally challenged and died in childbirth. These details and the way Chance is able to wear the Old Man's hand-me-downs raise the possibility that he is actually the Old Man's illegitimate son and secret shame.
  • Manchild: As Louise the maid puts it to Chance in the film, "You're always gonna be a little boy, ain't ya?"
  • May–December Romance: Eve is quite a bit younger than her aged husband Ben, but really does love him.
  • Meaningful Funeral: At the end, Ben's...but in an unusual way, in part because it is not meaningful to Chance.
  • Messianic Archetype: Subverted with Chance, who comes across as this but only because he's constantly misunderstood. Double Subverted in the final shot!
  • Meta Casting: Peter Sellers took this trope into his own hands when he decided he was meant to play Chance. Sellers had often stated that he had no real personality beyond his characters; now he could play someone who has no real personality beyond other people's perceptions.
  • Mistaken for Profound: Chance's "economic statements", which is really just him talking about his gardening work or recalling something he has seen on TV, are misinterpreted as deep metaphors.
  • Mood Whiplash: The Old Man died in his sleep and when Chance goes up to see the body, it's still in his bed. Chance sits down on the foot of the bed, turns on the TV, and the melancholy background music is replaced with a cheery commercial jingle for mattresses; the ad comes complete with the image of a woman sleeping on a bed.
  • Mysterious Past: Played straight and parodied. The novel establishes that Chance doesn't know who his father is; he was told his mother died in childbirth. Parodied in that the CIA, FBI, and so on are trying to track down "Chauncey Gardiner's" background, but can't come up with anything because there is no birth certificate, etc. for Gardiner to be tracked with. Having been isolated so completely from the world, Chance likely doesn't have any of these things anyway. At the end of the film the Washington power brokers who are acting as Ben's pallbearers decide that "Chauncey's" mysterious background will make him a viable presidential candidate, since he won't have any scandals to taint him.
  • No Ending: Famously so. "Life is a state of mind".
  • No Name Given: Chance only knew his benefactor as "the Old Man" (in the film, the lawyers refer to him as a "Mr. Jennings"). We never learn Chance's last name; he introduces himself to others only as "Chance, the gardener". He may not even have one.
  • Oblivious to Love: Justified-owing to his mental issues and isolated upbringing, Chance has little knowledge of love and sex and thus doesn't quite understand Eve's behavior around/with him. Ultimately subverted in the movie, as he admits to Dr. Allenby that he loves her, suggesting that he simply needed a little experience with the emotion and she provided it.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Most of Chance's interactions with others are these.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted: Ben's doctor and the President are both Roberts, though the latter apparently goes by Bobby. For some.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: In the novella, Eve's nicknamed "E.E." after her initials (her middle name is Elizabeth) and everyone refers to her as such. The movie sticks with Eve instead, probably because "E.E." would have sounded strange on screen when spoken.
  • Only Sane Man: Dr. Allenby is the only person who suspects that Chance is not a man of profound wisdom, and is able to learn the truth. He keeps it to himself, preferring to not upset people's perceptions.
  • Orbital Kiss: Basis for a big sight gag. Chance is watching The Thomas Crown Affair on TV and this trope is about to ensue in that film. When Eve enters, needing him, he kisses her the same way that Steve McQueen is kissing Faye Dunaway. When that scene goes orbital, he tries his best to keep spinning himself and Eve around.
  • Parental Abandonment: Chance's mother died in childbirth according to the novella, and the (largely absent) father figure of The Old Man dies early on. Some viewers (including Roger Ebert) have speculated Chance was actually the Old Man's son.
  • Parody Sue: Most of the other characters are affected by Chance's being there; it's just that the traits they cherish in him are ones they believe he has based on their own assumptions. Also, in the book, he's described by a character as resembling a cross between Ted Kennedy and Cary Grant.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: The death of the Old Man sends Chance off on his odyssey.
  • Prophetic Name: Two.
    • Chance was named such, according to the book, because "he was born by chance." The Meaningful Name becomes prophetic when his chance encounter with Eve and the series of subsequent misunderstandings bring him to power.
    • Eve is the first person he spends time with at length outside of the townhouse — and his garden.
  • Punny Name: He's named "Chance" for a reason.
  • Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: Sellers used this trope in creating Chance's manner of speaking; it would have to be completely devoid of realistic diction/inflection because his language development would have been primarily based on how people on TV speak...
  • Recut: The Hilarious Outtakes version of the closing credits was not in the original cut of the film, which ran the credits over television static and a minor key reprise of the "contentment" Leitmotif. No video release of the film includes the original version of the credits, which were last seen in U.S. syndicated TV airings circa 2004.
  • Satire/Parody/Pastiche: Definitely a satire...and it was parodied by MAD as "Being Not All There".
  • Seemingly Profound Fool: The original name of this trope was "Chance The Gardener" for a reason.
  • Small, Secluded World: The Old Man's townhouse is this for Chance; television provides most of his knowledge of the world beyond it.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Thanks to Crystal-Ball Scheduling, this pops up a few times; for instance, you may never listen to Cheech and Chong's "Basketball Jones" quite the same way again without thinking of Chance and Eve first arriving at the Rand estate.
  • Speaks in Shout-Outs: Variation-Chance behaves in shout outs. The handshake he gives the President, his Orbital Kiss with Eve, etc. are things he picked up from television, almost unconsciously.
  • Spock Speak: Chance's manner of speaking, especially his quiet inflection, invokes this trope.
  • Steven Ulysses Perhero: Reversed in Chance's case!
  • Trophy Wife: Eve for Ben.
  • Twist Ending: Only in the film version. In the final shot Chance wanders out to a lake, and it's revealed he can Walk On Water. He's surprised too.
  • Uncomfortable Elevator Moment: Enough in the movie that a Rule of Three running gag results ("Does it have a television?").
  • Un-Entendre: "I like to watch." (He means television!)
  • You Won't Feel a Thing:
    Doctor Allenby: This won't hurt a bit. [Sticks Chance with a needle]
    Chance the Gardener: It did hurt.


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