Chance Encounter

Sellers heads for the White House in perhaps his finest screen performance

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Peter Sellers and director Hal Ashby both hit autumnal peaks in this immortal comedy from 1979. Based on Jerzy Kosinski’s scathing novel about a mentally challenged gardener who’s mistaken for a profound soothsayer by America’s political elite, Being There does a balancing act between magical fable and caustic satire. Sellers plays the gardener, Chance, a childlike innocent abroad whose accidental encounter with a dying tycoon (Melvyn Douglas) and his sexually frustrated wife (Shirley MacLaine) propels him towards the highest office in the land. Despite a few lapses into clumsy farce, Ashby holds his nerve and delivers an incredibly rare example of mainstream US cinema steeped in intelligence, subtlety and ambiguity. Sellers partly based his Oscar-nominated characterisation of Chance on comic idol Stan Laurel. This timeless fairy tale about faith, hope and delusion is ever more terrifyingly relevant considering the jug-eared goon currently squatting in the Oval Office.

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