When Hollywood Made Movies

Chance Gardener & Forrest Gump
Being There Poster
I just watched Being There. Not one but 4 times in order to reboot the mood of its age and when this phenomenal hit of l979 shook the earth.

Melvyn Douglas won an Oscar, Sellers was one of ten nominations, the film got 11 major awards. Superb cast. Peter Sellers (dead a year later) forces himself to be both kind and unfunny. Shirley MacLaine is at her gorgeously whimsical endearing best. Melvyn Douglas, top form. Jack Warden as President, superb and constrained.

I recognize Chance Gardener is Forrest Gump.  In both movies the central figure is a sheltered innocent of limited IQ who manages to draw people of good character to his side. Whereas they may or may not keep him from falling off cliffs, they introduce choices. But it is the hero himself who gently pushes the continuity of his life in absurdly pleasant progress toward ever-expanding emancipation. He seizes one opportunity after another. We discover both are living a more interesting life than can be got by scholarship, luck, Dickens’s touch of unexpected inheritance, and an average brain. The truth is if Gump or Gardener are in trouble they are clever enough not to exaggerate its importance.

In 1979 America was belly-filled reeling with deceptive politicians; Nixon’s 1974 resignation; the country being scolded universally for the sin of existence; repeatedly told we demanded more than we could ever hope for; facing the shaky end of a long and badly conducted war. Worst of all Jimmy Carter was at the helm~~ incompetent and incapable of inspiration.

Being There had the splendid timing of Chaplain’s The Great Dictator in 1940. It resonated big. We reject your master plan, your interference. Leave us alone; we will prosper and we will enjoy life and we know how to do it on our own.

Douglas plays an elderly, virtuous, powerful individualist (MacLaine’s husband in the film), they have taken Sellers in and been enchanted by him. Douglas has died. The funeral is crowded pomp. As they juggle the coffin to it’s final internment, Washington’s political bigs squabble over who to select for the next president. Sellers strays from the noise.

Seller’s/Gardener’s solitude is on target. He has trusted his brilliant survival skills and his individualism his whole life. Chance Gardener remains a man unencumbered by history or credentials.

He does a bit at the edge of the cemetery lake, clearing a dead branch and bucking up a troubled sapling. He surveys the watery expanse then unhesitatingly proceeds on foot across its surface! Momentarily surprised at his new skill he leans over to check the lake’s considerable depth with his umbrella, but ignores the mysterious and continues on his way. There is a voice-over eulogy of Douglas’ words: Life is a state of mind.

Being There, made 33 years ago, gives us a man devoid of expectation, rejecting convention, finding fulfillment. Forrest Gump too, showed us this 18 years ago.

It’s worth loving Sellers and Kosinsky again, and Douglas and MacLaine for demonstrating the promise-rich miracle of the individual who will blaze his own trail.

As MacLaine proudly proclaims at the end of the trailer, “MADE IN THE U.S.A.”  If Hollywood still had courage they’d do more of that, building an audience that loved them instead of expanding disgust for their politically corrected propagandized formerly electrifying celluloid worlds. You just can hardly stand to watch movies these days. Being There  is worth a look.


2 thoughts on “When Hollywood Made Movies

  1. Thanks, Barbara, for bringing this movie to our attention again. Actually, I’m not sure if I saw the film, probably did, but much earlier I did indeed read the book. I recall being puzzled and very much at a loss for words. It was a time when I and many others still had a less-than-favorable notion of America and I could only see the theme no doubt through tinted glasses – as an indictment, a la H. L. Mencken’s observation, to the effect that “you can never underestimate the American public.” A simpleton is considered profound! Then again, maybe he was. The value of a scintillating review like yours is to gently goad me into a reconsideration of the text. Maybe I am mature enough now to tackle it more objectively. Thanks!

    PS – I also devoured Kosinki’s other major work, The Painted Bird, which has haunted me ever since. Once I had a chance to ask Truman Capote about Jerzy Kosinki, but Truman only licked his lips and tossed his head and mumbled something about “Jerry” being “too autobiographical.”


    • Thanks, John. I had no idea there was a book! The illusion of the primitive, the faux idiot-savant has certainly been much embraced by Hollywood, Rain Man et al.
      But what stood out to me about Being There and that at the time I certainly loved was that Chance (and Gump) had a life of no complexity but generally straightforward action and response. How fine is that!
      Gardener was not overseen by any institution, or agency, he was, like Gump, incredibly independent. Which gives hope to the fully functional. Whereas normally the abnormal in our midst are treated to ill-conceived pampering and engineered dependence.

      Not so with the brilliant Ray Charles, or Helen Keller, or Steven Hawkings, or the participants in the recent Olympics. It doesn’t serve any person well to inhibit their own path or growth; it’s mean.

      The point of the movie to me was not that Sellers was an idiot. It’s that he lived a life in which nothing was impossible and nothing would stop him from trying anything. IQ took last place. Pretty spectacular. That was worth admiring. If you do watch it again I’d love to know what you think of it.

      Funny business with Truman Capote, you have led a remarkable life. And I have never seen The Painted Bird, although the title is familiar; but will.


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