Follow TV Tropes


Film / Being There

Go To

"Life is a state of mind."

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

Chance the Gardener (Sellers) is a mentally-challenged middle-aged man who has never set foot outside of the elegant Washington, D.C. townhouse he lives in with his wealthy employer, "the Old Man". Chance has only two pastimes in life: gardening and watching television. Not long after the story begins the Old Man is discovered dead. In the aftermath Chance is told by the lawyers who have shown up to close the house—and who have no record of a gardener being 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, Chance is accidentally struck by a limousine and his leg is injured. Its passenger, Eve Rand (MacLaine), happens to be the wife of elderly, dying financial titan Ben Rand (Douglas); and, since their 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, Chance 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 (Warden). When asked what he thinks of the current economic climate, Chance—confused and grasping at the word "growth"—replies with an intelligent-sounding line about severed roots. Both men are duly impressed, and soon Chauncey Gardiner has become one of the most powerful people in America, if not the world.

Peter Sellers was particularly touched by Kosinski's 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 version, 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 made 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 Situation: The ending. Is Chance really walking on water, or is he walking on submerged stones like Sellers, and unintentionally fooling the viewer like he's managed to fool everyone else?
  • Arc Words:
    • "I like to watch."
    • "Life is a state of mind."
  • 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), intellectual disability, 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.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: In spite of his mental issues, Chance is actually a decent gardener and can tell if a tree is sick. This is otherwise averted; Chance has the image of charm and sophistication, but he's actually clueless about pretty much everything that doesn't involve trees and gardening.
  • 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.
  • Character Catchphrase: Chance has a couple.
    • "I understand." An ironic one, because Chance usually says this in situations where he obviously hasn't the slightest idea of what's going on around him or what is being discussed.
    • "I like to watch". Chance is referring to TV of course, but that's not how others interpret it.
  • Chaste Hero: Due to his mostly sheltered existence and somewhat childlike mind, Chance has no knowledge of sex, and he doesn't seem interested in it at all either. Hilarity ensues 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.
  • 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.
  • Cool Old Guy: Even though he's dying of a rare blood disease, Ben remains mentally sharp, witty, and in good spirits (if just as oblivious about Chance as everyone else). He's also quite pleasant, sincere, and unpretentious in spite of his wealth and power.
  • 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 newsroom of the Washington Post.
  • 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.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Chance's caretakers thought it was a good idea to isolate him from society, but never considered how he would be taken care of if and when they died.
  • 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.
  • Foil: The Rands serve as such to Chance's previous caretakers. Both take care of Chance in different periods of his life, however while the Old Man and Louise were cynically aware of Chance's diagnosis and kept him shut in from the rest of the world, Ben and Eve Rand obliviously see Chance as their intellectual equal and branch him unknowingly into a position of political power and publicity. The Old Man and Louise also make little effort to bond or nuture Chance, believing he cannot grasp it, while Ben and Eve become heavily attached to Chance in a matter of days. Chance is indifferent to losing the Old Man, while his bond with Ben leaves him aware enough to feel sadness in his passing.
  • 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.
  • Friendly Address Privileges: Chance addresses the President of the United States as "Bobby" minutes after meeting him, assuming that if the President's good friend Ben can call him that, so can he.
  • 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 (Thomas Franklin and Sally Hayes) 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.
  • Hidden Depths: While it's mostly subverted with Chance, who is Mistaken for Profound, he does actually mildly develop and mature as the movie goes along, most evidently in his handling of Ben's illness and death compared to the Old Man, implying that Chance wasn't neccessarily mentally ill, and simply needed to be raised in a kinder environment rather than shut in from public eye his entire life.
  • Hilarious Outtakes: Semi-averted. The end credits run over footage of Peter Sellers continuously breaking down laughing while filming a monologue that was ultimately cut from the film. Sellers thought this was a violation of the movie's tone and tried unsuccessfully to have them removed. As it is, the tone of the film (and especially the actor's death soon after its release) 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 one film journal noted 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 loudly moans with pleasure while masturbating next to Chance in bed, having misunderstood his statement that "I like to watch."
  • 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—he asks a woman on the street to give him some food, and after his encounter with the black gang member who tells him to give a message to Rafael, he asks a black male nurse at the Rand house if he knows Rafael. 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 how trapped they are in their own little world.
  • Ironic Echo: Allenby's use of Chance's phrase "I understand."
  • Kavorka Man: Deconstructed with Chance, who only gains as much attention from the opposite sex (and one dude) is because they project attractive traits onto him. Chance, meanwhile, has no knowledge about sex and he doesn't appear to have any interest at all in it either.
  • 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 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?"
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Chance walking across the pond during Ben's funeral. Since the film doesn't have other surreal or supernatural elements, the simplest explanation is that yet again luck is on Chance's side as he happens to walk over shallow rocks. Alternatively, there's some supernatural process that allows Chance to defy not only logic and social convention but the laws of nature.
  • 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.
  • Meaningless Meaningful Words: This is the running joke of the film: people interpret Chance's literal statements about gardening and television as profound metaphors, resulting in him rapidly and inadvertently becoming one of the most powerful men in the world.
  • Messianic Archetype: Subverted with Chance, who comes across as this but only because he's constantly misunderstood. Double Subverted in the final shot, in which he casually walks on the surface of a lake despite it being deeper than his umbrella.
  • 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.
  • New Media Are Evil: Chance's naïve view of the world is partly tied to his fixation on television, and the moment that solidifies his accidental rise to power is his appearance on a talk show, implying that the bourgeoise's out-of-touch views of the world are just as tied to TV as Chance's naivety is.
  • No Antagonist: Chance faces little opposition in his rise from humble gardener to presidential advisor and the only people who could potentially get in his way, like the doctor and the lawyers, are simply doing their jobs.
  • 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 doesn't really appear altogether that interested in it either) 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, due to people mistaking his simpleton musings about gardening for deep economic or political metaphors, such during his meeting with the President of the United States and his late night talk show appearance. In other instances they mistake his "I like to watch [TV]" catchphrase for a confession about sexual voyeurism. Meanwhile, Chance is too oblivious to what the others are talking about to even realize that he's being misunderstood.
  • 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 neither a man of profound wisdom, nor just Obfuscating Stupidity (which is what Thomas Franklin seems to think) 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.
  • Positive Friend Influence: While it's clear Chance is not the amazing philosopher everyone believes he is, it is also evident that his time under the Rands' generosity and unpatronising kindness have actually let him make some steps in growth as a normal person, after being shut by the Old Man and his staff most of his life left him mentally stunted and homeless in their absense.
  • 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.
  • Rags to Riches: By the end of the plot, Chance has gone from being left on the streets, to a popular celebrity that is potentially set to become President.
  • 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 (not even The Criterion Collection's release), which was last seen in U.S. syndicated TV airings circa 2004.
  • The Resenter: Despite having been the woman who raised Chance, Louise is disgusted that Chance, who she describes as "rice pudding between the ears", can achieve success despite his lack of accomplishment.
  • 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.
  • Shown Their Work: Most of the TV clips used in the film are from shows that would've been actually airing in the dayparts when scenes take place, like news broadcasts, Sesame Street and Captain Kangaroo in the morning, game shows in the afternoon, and movies at night.
  • Small, Secluded World: The Old Man's townhouse is this for Chance; television provides most of his knowledge of the world beyond it.
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: Chance spent his entire life in one house and apparently not a single authority bothered to intervene.
  • 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!
  • Storefront Television Display: Played with. "Chance" is an older man who was forced out of his home which he had never, ever left before. He viewed the world through television, since he had a LOT of them at home. When walking past a store with multiple TVs in the window, he is totally puzzled at seeing himself on one of them, thanks to a camera pointed to the sidewalk. He responds by using the remote control he had with him to change the channel; nothing happens, though it does cycle the channels on one of the other sets. This incident later gets a Call-Back when Chance tells the producer of The Gary Burns Show that he's been on television before.
  • Tin Man: Chance's caretakers view his mental illness as rendering him incapable of grasping human emotions, particularly in view of the Old Man's death which he is completely indifferent towards. It is implied however that their unaffectionate treatment of Chance played a larger part in that and left him emotionally stunted. After he bonds with the Rands, he remains oblivious, but gains sincere attachment to Eve and weeps over Ben's death.
  • Trophy Wife: Eve for Ben. Though their relationship is genuinely loving, the repurcussions of Eve marrying a much older and now-ailing man are in full view, especially as she becomes attracted to the relatively younger Chance.
  • Twist Ending: Only in the film version. In the final shot Chance wanders out to a lake, and it's revealed he can literally Walk on Water. He's surprised too.
  • Uncle Pennybags: Ben is a wealthy man and quite magnanimous, helping Chance after his limo driver accidentally injures him.
  • Uncomfortable Elevator Moment: Enough in the movie that a Rule of Three running gag results ("Does it have a 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.