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Being There: American Cipher

Of all the directors whose careers are considered in some way emblematic of 1970s Hollywood, Hal Ashby is the only one whose résumé conforms perfectly to the contours of the decade. His first movie, the cheerful New York culture-clash comedy The Landlord, opened in May 1970. His seventh, Being There, which many consider his zenith, opened in December 1979. And then, with a turn of the calendar, his reputation collapsed. Ashby’s remarkable run behind the camera—which also included Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, and Coming Home—was over, a creative winning streak to be followed by the personal and professional downward spiral that would define the rest of his career, before his death at age fifty-nine in 1988.

Because of that—because Ashby, unlike Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg, seemed to run out of steam at exactly the moment the seventies did—he is sometimes also deployed as a cautionary tale about Hollywood flameouts. In his 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind looks at Ashby in both of these ways; it’s the arc of Ashby’s decline and fall that is used to illustrate the end of the era as well as its excesses. And there’s certainly no question that Ashby lived hard: he had a career-long fondness for drugs (his nickname was Hashby), including, starting in the mid-seventies, a destructive appetite for cocaine; he was a husband at seventeen, a father at eighteen, a single divorced man in Los Angeles at nineteen; and by age twenty, he had remarried and divorced again, with three marriages still to go.

But those details can suggest a kind of anarchic chaos that is belied by both Ashby’s productivity and the lucidity and integrity of his work. Ashby wasn’t an Easy Rider–era wild man; by the time he directed his first film, he had already been in Hollywood for fifteen years, working first as an apprentice editor for William Wyler on three films and George Stevens on two, and then as the primary editor for and right-hand man to Norman Jewison, who encouraged him toward the director’s chair. (Ashby won his only Academy Award for editing Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night.) Jewison saw through clouds of pot smoke and past, as he put it, “a lot of beads and long hair and a long beard” to perceive in Ashby the driven, focused moviemaker who would sometimes stay in the editing room all night to get something right. “He was a hippie,” said Jewison. “But I’ve never seen anyone so obsessed with film.”

Ashby may have been a symbol of the New Hollywood, but his ethos was also rooted in the professionalism and craftsmanship of an earlier era. What he brought to the table from his mentors and colleagues when he finally got the chance to direct was Wyler’s precision and Stevens’s grand-scale humanism, combined with Jewison’s progressive politics and the forward-looking visual style and innovation of cinematographer Haskell Wexler, his close creative partner on several films. What he brought to the table that was all his own was the loose, collaborative spirit of his sets. The atmosphere could sometimes be undisciplined; going over schedule, going over budget, and going over four hours in rough cuts were not uncommon. But it also allowed for strong contributions from other artists—whether on-set rewriters, cinematographers, or actors—who received a collective eleven Oscar nominations for their work for Ashby in the seventies.

In his excellent, deeply researched biography, Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel, Nick Dawson notes that Peter Sellers brought Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Being There to Ashby in 1973, soon after Ashby had finished directing Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail. Ashby liked the novel and the idea of working with Sellers but later said he found Kosinski’s own screenplay adaptation heavy-handed. (Robert C. Jones, who had just won an Oscar for the script of Coming Home, eventually rewrote Kosinski’s screenplay extensively.) At the time, Ashby was focused on the possibility of directing Nicholson in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest—a job that eventually went to Miloš Forman—so he let it drop.

Being There lay dormant for five years, and by the time Ashby brought it back to life, he had matured into a director with a strong, idiosyncratic style. His movies are marked by the use of densely layered period songs; multivoiced, vérité-style conversations; a close attunement to the politics of their times—whether the Dust Bowl era of Bound for Glory or the Nixon years of Shampoo—and an instinct for letting characters and actors breathe life into vulnerable moments that contain comedy, pathos, and tragedy. “There’s no story line or anything like that running through my pictures,” Ashby told film historian Joseph McBride in 1976, “but I try to do films that deal with human relations, with people relating to one another.”

What is striking about Being There, the portrait of a man who relates to no one but to whom everyone relates, is that it represents both a synthesis of many of the qualities in Ashby’s earlier movies and a sharp break from them. The film is initially quiet; its mood is hushed, almost austere. We meet Chance, a simpleminded, middle-aged man-child who has spent his entire life in the Washington, D.C., home of a wealthy, unseen benefactor, as he goes about what is clearly an unvarying ritual. He wakes up, gets out of bed, combs his hair, and prepares to spend his day doing the only two things that interest him—tending to his garden and watching one of the television sets that are present everywhere. Television is a constant in Being There the way music is a constant in many of Ashby’s other movies; he is never careless about the meaning or content of background noise. Here, he views TV as a presence that can take over if you let it—and sometimes, he lets it.

In these opening moments and in many that follow, the cinematography is dark—no sunlight or fresh air has penetrated these cloistered suites of wealth and privilege—and the tone is initially chillier than in most of Ashby’s other movies; Being There is not interested in swiftly ingratiating itself or telling you what it’s going to be. The world you’re watching is private, and Sellers—an actor whom, in 1979, audiences would have watched expectantly, waiting for him to tell them it was okay to laugh—is a placid cipher, giving nothing away.

Who is Chance? In the cultural syntax of Kosinski’s work, he is a kind of holy fool, a man who knows nothing yet knows everything, a popular mystical/sentimental trope of the time. In contemporary diagnostic terms, he would be considered to lie somewhere on the autism spectrum. Cultural moralists labeled him the ominous end point of what was, at the time, referred to as “the television generation”—an incarnation of stoic passivity who can express almost no preference other than “I like to watch.” In Sellers’s determinedly controlled, virtually affectless performance, he is all those things and more, and also less—a blank slate, an emotional dead spot, the eternal “little boy” his late benefactor’s caregiver calls him, and also, in a very quiet way, a clown. Sellers is said to have partly patterned his flat, bland speech and demeanor after Stan Laurel, and the immaculate suit and gray bowler he wears while gardening connect him to Laurel’s era of comedy.

As Chance, now quasi-orphaned, emerges into the cacophonous, contentious, teeming real world beyond his doorstep, heralded with a funk adaptation of Also Sprach Zarathustra that serves as a sweet 2001: A Space Odyssey joke—for Chance, this is literally his first experience of outer space—Ashby loosens up the film’s style, and Being There becomes more recognizably his. As Chance walks down a city street in a rough, largely African American neighborhood, he passes a giant graffitied scrawl reading, “America Aint Shit Cause the White Man’s Got a God Complex.” Chance doesn’t notice it—there’s very little to which he isn’t oblivious—but in many ways, it’s the theme of the movie.

Good fortune and Chance back into one another; he is hit by a limousine at a moment when he’s transfixed by his own image on a security-camera monitor in a store window—the most perfect and complete moment of self-realization he can experience. In the car is Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), the much younger wife of a wealthy, ailing industrialist, a genial avatar of monstrous power brokerage played by Melvyn Douglas in an Oscar-winning performance of immense warmth and authority. (According to Ashby, Douglas, then seventy-eight and in his forty-eighth year in movies, brought more inventively out-there ideas for improv to the set than anyone else in the cast.) Eve invites Chance into the limo (where he’s happy because there’s a backseat TV) and thus into their lives—a My Man Godfrey–style twist that, as with the casting of Douglas, gently evokes the screwball-comedy era.

But Being There is after something darker and deeper. As Benjamin Rand is charmed by Chance (now renamed, through mishearing, Chauncey Gardiner) and misinterprets his simple phrases about cultivating gardens and being mindful of the change of seasons as the gnomic, elliptical metaphors of a sagacious man who ought to be in a position of political authority, Being There asserts itself as a parable about innocence, cynicism, and limitless credulity. We invest people with unspeakable power by reinventing them as reflections of our hopes and our vanities, and it is thus terrifyingly possible for us to endow a complete imbecile who watches TV all day with qualities he has never possessed. This idea will never go out of style; as a cautionary tale, Being There is elastic enough to feel as if it is perpetually about our moment, as long as our moment includes campaigns, elections, and politicians. (In 1980, as the film went into wide release, many commentators saw it as a prescient take on the rise of Ronald Reagan.)

In some ways, the movie is of its time; in others, it is sharply ahead of it. Chance is a white man whose success is made possible only by a white world—the message of that briefly glimpsed graffito is rounded out by a later scene in which Louise (Ruth Attaway), the African American woman who helped raise Chance, sees him on TV offering what passes for political commentary. She’s the only character in the movie who knows who he really is. “It’s for sure a white man’s world in America,” she remarks bitterly. “I raised that boy . . . and I’ll say right now he never learned to read and write . . . Shortchanged by the Lord and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now . . . All you’ve gotta be is white in America to get whatever you want.”

Is she right about Chance? Every bit of available evidence indicates she is—until the last shot, a spiritually whimsical note of magic that implies there might be more to him than meets the eye. (MacLaine, among others, disliked the final image, which was conceived by Ashby during production.) That moment, as well as Ashby’s eleventh-hour decision to end the film with a closing-credits sequence showing Sellers repeatedly breaking character and cracking up, suggests that Ashby didn’t quite know how to resolve what he had created in Chance.

But it also holds a key to the lasting power of Being There, which is not its prescience or the architectural integrity of its allegory but its haunting, sorrowful unknowability. What the world is going to make of Chance is the film’s narrative arc; what Chance is going to make of the world is its unsolved enigma. He is a sad, solitary, unreachable figure—The Little Prince Who Would Be King. By the end of the movie, we know ourselves better, but not him.

Being There is, today, a movie with a valedictory quality that its makers never anticipated. Sellers, already seriously ill with heart disease during production, died just seven months after the film’s release; Douglas died a year after him; Kosinski would never have another screenplay produced; and Ashby, though he would complete four more narrative features, was never able to rebuild the reputation he had earned through the seventies. The movie starts and ends with death; it starts and ends with Chance alone; and its final line of dialogue is “All the aims I have pursued will soon be realized. Life is a state of mind.” Let that serve as Ashby’s epitaph in art, as it did in life; the final scene of Being There was the last film clip played at his memorial service.

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