by Greg Carlson
In this column, I’ll go through the high volume of movie-related collectibles that I’ve acquired over the decades, and revisit (or view for the first time) the film(s) associated with the used VHS tapes, promotional T-shirts, scratchy vinyl soundtrack albums, etc., that have filled my shelves and storage boxes.
The Collectible: Being There lobby card (note: this column includes spoilers for Hal Ashby’s 1979 film; stop reading and start renting if you haven’t seen it.)
I came across this lobby card in the back room of a bookstore specializing in film, in between cards for mostly-forgotten ‘70s and ‘80s movies. As a Hal Ashby and Peter Sellers fan, it registered as a legitimate find. As I looked over the text, photo stills, and graphics, I noticed that the layout and choice of images were unlike any other Being There promotional materials and box art that I’ve seen.
For starters, Melvyn Douglas’ character Benjamin Rand dominates the card, while star Peter Sellers as Chance the gardener is represented via a silhouette profile image and photo still in the lower right-hand area (both of them not the iconic images/photos that fans of the movie are familiar with). An interesting layout choice. Were the studio execs hesitant to put comedic actor Sellers front and center for their serious drama? Despite being in several classic films over the decades and winning a Best Actor Award (for 1963’s Hud), was Melvyn Douglas still a big box-office name that could carry a picture in the late ‘70s? There’s no mention of his Best Supporting Actor nomination/win for Being There on the lobby card, so it apparently wasn’t designed for post-Academy Awards promotional purposes.
Although late ‘70s movie-goers looking at the card in the lobby for the first time could be confused as to who the star of the film was, loyal fans of the movie could see a valid point for positioning a smaller, vintage-style photo of a befuddled-looking Chance below Benjamin. Through a series of events, Benjamin has found a confidant and made one last king out of Chance, and Chance is still taking it all in; this below-common man taking in his new surroundings and social circles. Chance is the right-hand man that Benjamin didn’t think he needed.
The other eye-catching imagery on the lobby card is the modified Great Seal (“In Chance We Trust”). When I saw the film for the first time as a 19-year-old college student, I was not familiar with the Illuminati and their appropriation of the pyramid symbol. Nowadays, when an Illuminati-related conspiracy theory could pop up on my social media feed at least twice a week, the presence of the imagery seems pretty blatant. With this in mind, I decided to give Being There another watch.
Although I remember Benjamin’s coffin being led to a pyramid-shaped mausoleum on his estate during my first viewing. I didn’t think much of it. After all, the guy is very, very, very rich. It was during my re-watch where I noticed the eye drawing on the pyramid, and thought it plausible that the filmmakers wanted to show just how powerful Benjamin’s reach was. It’s a brief moment that contains more subtlety than what I got via the lobby card graphics.
In addition to the pyramid funeral scene, the re-watch of the film reminded me of Hal Ashby’s meticulous attention to detail. I can imagine him discussing the positioning of the covered furniture in Chance’s former employer’s house–which sixty-something actors should play the part of Benjamin’s pallbearers, the choice of television clips and commercials to be used as “soundtracks” to certain scenes (you don’t know how hard it was to track down the source of the Basketball Jones cartoon in a pre-Internet era; my only exposure to Cheech and Chong deep cuts was via Dr. Demento). As to be expected, the presence of television looks quaint in this pre-cable, pre-YouTube, pre-flat screen world, and the world of politics and television are noticeably disconnected. Had this film been made in the late ‘80s or later, Benjamin would be openly flaunting his media connections, or have his own cable network.
Of course, any review of Being There can’t be complete without praising Peter Sellers’ performance. He employed some Daniel-Day Lewis-level techniques for this role, bringing a consistent rhythm to every simple speech pattern, dignified walk, and puzzled reaction shot. Chauncey’s early 20th Century wardrobe evokes the silent-era comedians (according to IMDb, Chance’s speaking voice is based on Stan Laurel), who were often dropped into unfamiliar situations and had to use whatever wit they had to save face and triumph. Speaking of comedians, during my re-watch I noticed Chance’s “smirking smile” throughout the film, and how it reminded me of someone. It wasn’t until a week later that I remembered Larry David’s reaction shots on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Could Chance be an influence? Larry portrays himself on Curb as an outsider (albeit an outsider with more brain cells than Chance) who just happened to strike gold, and now wanders carefree through life, bemused at the absurd foibles of the people around him and his surroundings.
Overall, the re-watch was a pleasant experience; it reminded me why Hal Ashby’s ‘70s films are so special. I’m looking forward to viewing the film again when the mood strikes, and the lobby card will definitely be added to my permanent collection.
About Greg Carlson: I’m a huge movie fan who frequents Scarecrow Video on a regular basis. My top three films are (in random order): “Time Bandits”, “Repo Man”, and “Taxi Driver.” In my spare time, I like to hunt for vinyl records and kitschy items old-school-style, via thrift stores and estate sales – eBay and Craigslist are not part of the strategery.