In late December 1979, United Artists unveiled Being There, starring Peter Sellers. The 130-minute comedy was nominated for two honors at the 52nd Academy Awards, winning one for Melyvn Douglas in a supporting role. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Jerzy Kosinski’s delightful parable of a simple-minded man whose naivete is mistaken for great wisdom elevates Being There into one of the most charming motion pictures of the year. The film, which Kosinski adapted from his own novel, is a Lorimar presentation of a North Star International Picture, which is being distributed by United Artists. It’s a wonderful holiday treat.
Peter Sellers, in a remarkably restrained and beautifully shaded performance, stars as a mentally retarded man who has been sheltered all his life and who is suddenly thrust into the world on his own. As he is wandering around the streets of Washington, he is struck by Shirley MacLaine’s limousine (which bears the license plate MS) and she takes him back to the palatial estate she shares with her dying husband (Melvyn Douglas). There, his simplicity is mistaken for directness and this man whose only experiences have been watching TV and gardening is praised for possessing the gift for being natural. He not only becomes a presidential adviser, but also a prime candidate for office.
Hal Ashby’s direction is perfect in realizing the offbeat humor and gentle satire of the piece, which explores the influences of TV, as well as the susceptibility of media, business and political leaders in seeking new directions and imagery. He makes it all seem very believable, and he progresses the story with sensitivity and an affectingly warm sense of natural comedy. He has also drawn especially adroit performances from his entire cast.
Sellers has never been better and he embellishes the detached, childlike innocence of this character with perfect style and timing. It’s a deceptively simple performance, but it is essentially the core and substance of the film. MacLaine adds marvelous presence and stature to the role of his benefactor, whose affection gradually turns to desire. It’s a glamorous characterization and MacLaine develops it most appealingly. Douglas is quite good as her husband, who gives Sellers his new start in life, and Richard Dysart is impressive as the family doctor. Jack Warden provides some funny bits as the President, whose anxiety over this newly discovered statesman makes him impotent with his wife (Alice Hirson).
Featured roles are nicely filled by Richard Basehart, as a Russian diplomat; Ruth Attaway, as a black maid who had earlier taken care of Sellers and who, when she sees him on TV, remarks to her friends that it’s definitely a white man’s world, and Dave Clennon and Fran Brill as two attorneys who initially evict Sellers from his sheltered existence.
Jack Schwartzman was executive producer and Andrew Braunsberg was producer of the film, which is enhanced by Michael Haller’s attractive production design, Caleb Deschanel’s atmospheric photography and John Mandel’s lovely musical score, which includes an adaptation of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” arranged and performed by Eumir Deodato, as Sellers first enters the outside world. May Routh’s costumes effectively add to the characterizations. — Ron Pennington, originally published Dec. 17, 1979