If Hal Ashby’s satire “Being There” (1979) had been made any time during the past few years, there would have been no mistaking the real-life analog to its protagonist, Chance the gardener: a simpleton who gains access to presidential power despite having learned most of what he knows from TV. But the film, now streaming on Hulu, was released over 40 years ago. Now we can simply marvel at its prescient attack on media and political culture, and on the ways vapid punditry can pass as homespun wisdom.
With his placid facial expressions and his gentlemanly manner, Peter Sellers’s Chance isn’t a malevolent figure so much as a cipher to whom ill-intentioned people can attach their ambitions. Chance has spent his life tending the gardens at a D.C. townhouse, but when his wealthy benefactor dies without leaving him any claim to the estate, he finds himself outside the property for the first time. After a twist of fate puts him in the company of a presidential adviser (Melvyn Douglas) and his wife (Shirley MacLaine), Chance’s inane mutterings about the finer points of gardening, like “stimulating growth,” are mistaken for political insight.
Such a scenario, we now know, is not as outrageous as it sounds.
Sellers’s talent for comic obliviousness was honed in the Pink Panther films as his Inspector Clouseau bungled his way to the bottom of mysteries — a testament either to blind luck or to good instincts masked by incompetence. Masterfully directed by Blake Edwards, the second and best of the series, “A Shot in the Dark” (1964), is part whodunit, part upstairs/downstairs farce, with Clouseau investigating the murder of a chauffeur at a country estate. Clouseau is absolutely convinced that the prime suspect, a pretty blonde maid (Elke Sommer), is innocent of the crime, even as other staff members are murdered and she seems the likely culprit each time. Is he a blithering idiot for continually releasing her from jail? Maybe not. SCOTT TOBIAS
Like this email? Forward it to your friends, and let them know they can sign up here.
Tips and advice to help you live a little smarter Since you receive Watching, we think you’ll like the Smarter Living newsletter as well. Every Monday, get a weekly roundup of the best advice from The Times on living a better, more fulfilling life. Sign up here.