Hal Ashby’s ‘Being There’ is one of the most delightful movies ever created

By Sven Mikulec

In 1979 the great American film director Hal Ashby made one of the most delightful movies ever created. Being There, perhaps the single best performance ever delivered by the wonderful Peter Sellers, is a subtle, benign and extremely insightful comedy that hilariously cuts open the American high society, exposing the rich and powerful that run the country, centering the attention on a single character, a person of small significance mistaken for a man of power and influence. Sellers, as a huge admirer of this film Judd Apatow remarked, “gives a performance that is unparalleled in modern comedy,” but is helped graciously by Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas and Jack Warden. Jerzy Kosinski adapted the screenplay from his own 1971 novel and created a true little masterpiece of excellent rhythm, consistent style and an air of intelligent humor that never descends into slapstick, never tries to benefit from shortcuts and easy jabs at the society. When a film with a premise as absurd as this one manages to entertain you and not allow you to question its logic all the way through, it becomes obvious you’re dealing with extraordinary talent. Being There displays plenty of wit and can be easily seen as a fully functioning critique of the American high society, even though it would perhaps be more accurate to label the human race as the real target of its satire. There’s hardly anything funnier than human nature, and Ashby’s film makes full use of it. Seldom, however, have we seen an exploration of the human condition of this level of style, humor and self-control. Directed by Ashby’s proven hand, Being There is a delightful comedy led by a magnificent cast, and it’s a crying shame films like this are rarely these days. We’ve managed to get a hold of an extremely rare copy of Kosinski’s screenplay—take a look and see for yourself what makes Being There so special.

Here you have a film with the most outlandish premise that is presented with such wit and confidence that you never for a moment doubt it. As it pushes the envelope, step by step, it keeps its reality level and you never for a moment call bullshit on it. All comedy directors should be forced to watch this film so they will learn that comedies can be subtle, riotously funny, meaningful, well acted, and visually gorgeous all at the same time. —Judd Apatow
In a way, Hal was Chauncey Gardner, he had an innocence to him, a child-like quality. There was something about him that was pure. The remarkable thing about Hal and his work, is that it’s still so relevant, the films don’t age. —Robert Towne, who would work on several films with Ashby, including The Last Detail and Shampoo

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Jerzy Kosinski & Robert C. Jones’ screenplay for Being There [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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In the clip below, taken from a documentary on Criterion’s new edition of the film, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and editor Don Zimmerman explain how the protagonist’s naïveté is reflected in the film’s unadorned visual style, which makes consistent use of eye-level angles and long lenses that had the added bonus of giving the actors more room to work.

For the latest installment of his series Anatomy of a Gag, filmmaker and critic David Cairns details the nuances that generate laughter in this almost gagless comedy, including the surprising juxtapositions in Ashby’s editing and musical choices, his evocations of everyone from Stanley Kubrick to Stan Laurel, and the carefully calibrated minimalism of Sellers’s performance.

Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo, Never Let Me Go) worked as a film student on Hal Ashby’s great Being There in 1979. Romanek got to rub elbows with Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine and Ashby himself, and he kept a charming diary of the experience. —Mark Romanek’s Being There diary

Hal Ashby (1929–1988) was always an outsider, and as a director he brought an outsider’s perspective to Hollywood cinema. Whether it is his enduring cult classic Harold and Maude (1971) or the iconic Being There (1979), Ashby’s artistry is unmistakable. His skill for blending intense drama with off-kilter comedy attracted A-list actors and elicited powerful performances from Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail (1973), Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in Shampoo (1975), and Jon Voight and Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1979). Yet the man behind these films is still something of a mystery. In Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel, author Nick Dawson for the first time tells the story of a man whose thoughtful and challenging body of work continues to influence modern filmmakers and whose life was as dramatic and unconventional as his films. Purchase your copy at Amazon.

A short documentary on Hal Ashby made after his death.

Ashby with Jerzy Kosinski courtesy of Photofest. Photographed by Sidney Ray Baldwin © BSB, CIP, Lorimar Film Entertainment, NatWest Ventures, New Gold Entertainment, Northstar Media, United Artists. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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