Peter Sellers’ performance in Hal Ashby’s 1979 film, Being There, is quite brilliant. It’s one of eye-watering precision and discipline, and, like all great performances, it feels inevitable; the role could not be played any other way nor by any other actor. It came as a surprise then, to learn that the part was originally offered to Laurence Olivier, who turned it down on a point of principle.
Being There centres on Chance, a simple-minded gardner. He has never been outside the Washington townhouse where he works, and his education has come almost entirely through watching television. When his master dies however, Chance is forced out of the house and into the big, wide world. He is, of course, hopelessly ill-equipped for this sudden change in circumstance – in one delightful scene, he is confronted by a gang of street thugs, and his boredom caused by their patter turns into bemusement when his attempt to shut them up using a TV remote-control fails. The film is a gentle social satire. However, Olivier turned down the role of Chance because of a seduction scene involving the great Shirley MacLaine. The scene in question is inoffensive, and, as one might expect from MacLaine, it’s played with a mixture of farce, silliness* and absurdity. Nevertheless, Olivier objected to it, and declined the project.
Some might say it’s easy for a world renowned actor like Olivier to refuse such work, and that so-called principles are a luxury few can afford – for the vast majority of actors, any work at all is hard to come by, let alone a brilliant leading role in a feature film. Of course such a point-of-view would not be unreasonable. However, might we spin the scenario on it’s head and say that Olivier became who he did, achieved all that he did, because he had principles?
Perhaps the lesson from cinema history here then, is that if we have a clear sense of the work we want to do, and a clear sense of the work we don’t want to do, if we state our principles and develop the strength to live by them, then we will be heading in the direction toward becoming the actor we want to be.
*silliness here, is not a pejorative