Despite being recommended to me by several friends whose taste I value far more than my own, I'd somehow never gotten around to seeing Hal Ashby's 1979 film Being There until it came out on DVD last week. Usually when a film's been built up to that extent it's a disappointment, but Being There was the opposite. Shit, for its use of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" alone, Ashby's film more or less deserves all of the praise that's been heaped on it ever since it came out. ('79 was a really good year for music in movies—I've been watching The Warriors a lot recently, and tell me the use of music in those opening credits isn't fucking fantastic, too.)
But Being There is pretty great for any number of other reasons, from Peter Sellers' excellent performance to the same bittersweet tone that Ashby also brought to '71's Harold and Maude. Hit the jump to see the details on the "30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition" of Being There.
Well, okay, so there aren't a whole lot of details. The scant bonus materials that I assume make this DVD "deluxe" are limited to one 15-minute-long featurette, "Memories from Being There," and the theatrical trailer. (Oh, and there's an ad for Blu-Ray discs that autoplays when you put the disc in too, which I guess makes sense—according to the press release that accompanied the DVD, there are two additional special features only available on Blu-Ray: "Two recently discovered scenes," an alternate ending, and a gag reel. I'm still adamantly holding out on getting a Blu-Ray player, but if studios keep putting out half-assed DVD releases like this alongside better Blu-Ray releases, it's not like I'm going to have much choice in the matter. Score one for the studios.)
Anyway, grumbling aside: Sellers plays Chance, a goodhearted, simple-minded gardener who, for the first time in his life, is forced to leave his cushy digs when his employer dies. Cast out on the streets of Washington, D.C., the naïve Chance finds himself taken in by an elite Washington power couple (Melvyn Douglas and Shirley MacLaine), and soon, his childlike wisdom and charm make him the toast of the town and, um, a valued adviser on national economic policy. In other words, 30 years after it was in theaters, Being There now feels vaguely familiar, and it's hard to watch it without thinking, in some ways, of Forrest Gump. The difference being, however, that while Forrest Gump is a feel-good confection that's dumb and disposable—the cinematic equivalent of a Hallmark card—Being There sticks with you after its striking final image. It's haunting, but in a good way, and it's sweet, but in a good way, and it's sad, but in a good way.
"The Memories of Being There," meanwhile, is about 97 percent bullshit. Apparently unable to find anybody who was even remotely connected with the film who's either still alive or hasn't turned into a crazy hippie, the DVD's producers have devoted these 15 minutes solely to memories from character actress Illeana Douglas, granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas. Douglas visited the set when she was 12 or 13, and most of her recollections about the film are based on that; she also talks a bit about how she thinks of the film now. Now, I don't have anything against Douglas, but using her as an authority to talk about Being There and its impact? That's a pretty goddamn huge stretch. About the only interesting thing DVD owners will get out of this is Douglas talking briefly about what happened in the film's alternate ending—so if you, like me, are too cheap to go for this Blu-Ray business, at least you can hear Illeana Douglas describe the alternate ending to you. Thanks, Illeana Douglas!
So yeah: great movie, weak DVD. On the upside, this release might inspire a few more people to see the film. I was born in 1980, and still feel like I'm playing catch-up on a lot of films released before then—and I'm assuming a fair number of Mercury readers are in the same situation. I mean, Jesus Christ, are you serious? You haven't seen Being There? Pfft. Come on. Make it happen already.