Mr. Franklin: It’s that gardener.
Johanna: Yes, Chauncey Gardiner.
Mr. Franklin: No, he’s a real gardener.
Johanna: He does talk like one. I think he’s brilliant.
— Jerzy Kosinski, “Being There,” 1970
I was recovering from a tonsillectomy and watching a late-night television program on which the host interviewed Jerzy Kosinski, author of “Being There,” a novel that had just been published. The author was asked if the story were intended to be an allegory for the U.S. political system. He replied that it was just a farcical story. In 1979, a movie faithfully based on Kosinski’s novel was released. Now, I think that the tale bears retelling.
Peter Sellers played Chance, a middle-aged gardener who has lived nearly his entire life in the guest house of a wealthy man in Washington, D.C. His knowledge of life outside the walls that surround the grounds of the estate is based solely on what he sees on television. When his benefactor dies, Chance is ordered off the premises and wanders aimlessly through the busy streets of the nation’s capital.
Unfortunately, he is ill equipped for the task because he doesn’t know how to read or write, and he has the intelligence of a bright 3-year old. As he strolls past a store that sells television sets, he looks in the window and sees himself on a monitor because there is a closed-circuit camera trained on the street. Fascinated by his own image being televised, he steps backward into the path of an oncoming car and is struck, but not seriously injured.
The wealthy woman (Eve Rand, played by Shirley MacLaine), whose chauffeur-driven limo had accidentally hit him, insists on taking him to her house so that he can be examined by a physician and recover from the incident. When Eve asks his name, she misunderstands “Chance, the Gardener” as Chauncey Gardiner. As they ride, she engages him in conversation.
Chance, who has never been in a car before, is transfixed by the moving scenery and reveals his naiveté by observing, “This is just like television, only you can see much further.” Eve thinks that this must have some deep meaning that escapes her.
Because Chance is dressed in expensive clothes from his late employer and displays manners that he learned from old movies shown on pre-cable television, she assumes that he is an upper-class, well-educated businessman and decides that he should meet her elderly and ailing husband, Ben.
Confluence of consequence
Ben Rand (played by Melvyn Douglas, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal) is a business mogul and a confidant and advisor to the President of the United States. During the discussions between the two men, Ben raises a number of complicated political and economic issues.
“Chauncey,” who hasn’t any idea about such matters, answers with his observations about gardening. Chance’s empty-headed generalizations are taken as being profoundly intelligent and metaphorically complex, and Ben decides to introduce “Chauncey” to “Bobby,” the familiar name by which Ben addresses the president. At their meeting with the President, “Bobby” is intrigued by the frankness of his new acquaintance and seeks his insight into the nation’s faltering economy.
Bobby: Mr. Gardiner, do you agree with Ben, or do you think that we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives?
Chance: As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.
Bobby: In the garden
Chance: Yes. In the garden, the growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again
Bobby: Spring and summer.
Bobby: Then fall and winter.
Ben: I think what our insightful young friend is saying is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, but we’re upset by the seasons of the economy.
Chance: Yes! There will be growth in the spring!
Bobby: Hmmm. Well, Mr. Gardiner, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time. I admire your good, solid sense. That’s precisely what we lack on Capitol Hill.
As Eve guides Chance, who has become a resident at the Rand home, through the political quagmire of Washington, he meets many influential people, and each misinterprets his pronouncements regarding soil, plants, and pests as intriguing metaphors. Within a short time, he is invited to appear on television talk shows and to participate on panels with various scholars. One acquaintance is publisher Ron Steigler.
Ron: Mr. Gardiner, my editors and I have been wondering if you would consider writing a book for us, something about your political philosophy. What do you say?
Chance: I can’t write.
Ron: Heh, heh. Of course not; who can nowadays? Listen, I have trouble writing a postcard to my children. Look, we can give you a six-figure advance; I’ll provide you with the very best ghost-writers, proof-readers…
Chance: I can’t read.
Ron: Of course you can’t! No one has the time. We glance at things, we watch television...
Chance: I like to watch TV.
Ron: Oh, oh, oh. Sure you do. No one reads!
Path to glory
As “Chauncey Gardiner” rises to public prominence, the Secret Service attempts to investigate his background, but can find nothing. Opinion polls show that his “simple brand of wisdom” resonates with an American public that is fed up with Washington and all its political platitudes.
“Chauncey Gardiner” is becoming a well-known name when Ben dies of his various ailments. At Ben’s funeral, the President delivers a eulogy, and the pall-bearers have a whispered discussion, speculating on what would happen if the President were also to die. They ponder a number of possible replacements on the party’s ticket for the next election and agree unanimously that it must be “Chauncey Gardiner.”
The movie ends with Chance wandering through the Rand estate, tending to plants and trees along the way. He steps out onto the frozen lake, homburg on his head and umbrella in his hand, and notices a hole in the surface. He dips the umbrella into the hole to test its depth. Then he continues across the ice. But, from an observer’s point of view, he appears to be walking on water.