Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Birthday Take: Peter Sellers in "Being There" (1979)

Scene from Being There
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Peter Sellers
Born: September 8, 1925
Died: July 24, 1980 (54 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor (nominated) for Being There as Chance

The Take

There is a moment that comes very late in Being There that Peter Sellers has gone on record as hating. It is a moment when, during the credits, he is seen performing a scene while flubbing the lines. He claims that it breaks the authenticity of the character. This may be a scene in which the audience laughs and has a good time, but it does raise an interesting question that inevitably adds to the mystery of Sellers. This was among his last films before his passing the following year. After all, this is an actor who has made an impact in comedy specifically for playing eccentric characters with a precision that most actors before or since don't have. He is a perfectionist, and his films reflect a craft akin to Daniel Day Lewis living on sets and risking his physical health for the sake of a role.

Is there really any merit in seeing an artist with such an allure practicing his craft? Would us seeing Lewis prepare for Daniel Painview in There Will Be Blood make the role any better? These are tough questions, as the magic of film is both wonderful and too desirable to learn the tricks of the trade. It's why there's countless making of featurettes. In a way, it's the question on if there's too much information out there. It benefits artists wanting to adapt their craft to a style, but it also ruins the allure and mystery for people just wanting to see an actor embody a role. In fact, that process is often too mundane for print. But Sellers has something romantic about him that has made his films like Dr. Strangelove and The Pink Panther into masterpieces of his craft. 

Even then, I personally consider Being There to be a possibly more exceptional work. It could be that director Hal Ashby was capable of bringing out the best in his actors, fusing Sellers' role as Chance with comedy and drama. It could just be that it served as another great film on par with Network in which the exploration of TV culture became about deeper obsessions. We understand more about ourselves because of it. Meanwhile, it is also indicative of why Sellers was great. He is speculative and nuanced, making Chance feel like a real character, even if he comes from a heightened world. We sympathize with him as he enters the final chapters of his life and becomes a more complex man.

I am not the biggest fan of Sellers, so I cannot comment on how much it summarizes the actor's career or if it challenges it in any significant way. However, it is one of those roles that not only embodied what he did best, but showed some growth. While Dr. Strangelove may be his career highlight because of the multiple roles he played, I do think that there's something focused and comical, human about Being There. While it unfortunately marked the end of Ashby's run of great films, it also served as a fond farewell to an artist, taken too young. Even if the ending is a little bleak with all things considered, it still is heartfelt, honest, and just as mysterious as the actor himself. 

So, do we need that blooper reel on the end of Being There? It will likely remain open for debate. I for one don't see the entire value of it, as Sellers career was always about surprising us. To know that he was as flawed as you or me is to get some harsh truths. Maybe he has a lot of private matters that were conflicting, but I don't see that in his films. He portrays a perfectionism that comedy rarely asks for. As a result, I think that his films in general have aged better than many of his contemporaries. Was he always the best? I don't know. However, I don't think that showing me getting into character is quite the same as just witnessing him in action. Knowing less makes everything better. It's something that I wish this generation of journalism understood. But for now, we can look to the past and wonder because even if there were shady actors, they at least were able to keep it private.

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