Being There in the Nation's Capital: Hal Ashby's Subversive Take on the Washington, D.C., Movie

By Haspel, Paul | Post Script, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Being There in the Nation's Capital: Hal Ashby's Subversive Take on the Washington, D.C., Movie


Haspel, Paul, Post Script


Being There, Hal Ashby's 1979 film adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski's 1970 novel, is designed as a subversive riposte to the conventions of the Washington, D.C., movie of the kind best represented by Frank Capra's classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Such films typically argue that while there may be corruption among the longtime political insiders of official Washington, the democratic process can be renewed and revitalized through the intervention of an outsider who is pure of heart. Being There overturns and controverts those expectations by setting forth a main character, Chance the gardener, whose innocence stems from mental deficiency rather than purity of heart; by compromising Chance's "outsider" status (he is a D.C. native and resident whose sheltered life inside the estate of a wealthy old man makes him a complete stranger to Washington life); and by suggesting that his movement into the political elite of Washington will exacerbate rather than resolve the problems facing the American body politic.

It is important to acknowledge that Washington is a city, not a genre, and that the city has served as the setting for films that fit neatly within established genre categories, including films that de-emphasize Washington's status as the nation's capital and foreground the experiences of ordinary, everyday Washingtonians whose lives have little or nothing to do with the workings of the federal government. Such Washington films include science-fiction films like Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), horror films such as William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), and coming-of-age dramas like Joel Schumacher's St. Elmo's Fire (1985). Nevertheless, it can be seen that a frequently recurring dramatic pattern in Washington, D.C., films combines the nation's capital as setting with a plot in which an ordinary citizen gains access to the corridors of power and gives American democracy a new birth of freedom by introducing fresh ideas that sweep away entrenched representatives of a corrupt old order and bring about positive change.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is no doubt the best-known of this type of Washington film. The situation of Jefferson Smith, the idealistic newcomer brought to Washington to serve out the term of a recently deceased U.S. Senator from an unnamed Western state, reflects the fears of Depression-era Americans that the nation's leaders in Washington might be too caught up in their own concerns, or too enmeshed in corruption, to respond meaningfully to the concerns of ordinary Americans. As Lawrence Levine points out, Washington-based political films that came out during the Great Depression era reflected "[t]he fear of fascism" as well as "other threats stalking the land in the 1930s" (170). While some of the early Washington films cited by Levine

focused on people already holding power in D.C. politics--William Wellman's The President Vanishes (1934), for example, in which a U.S. President fakes his own disappearance in order to prevent a Hitler-style putsch--more frequent were films that foreshadowed Mr. Smith in its focus on the newcomer who arrives in Washington with good new ideas that will shake up file established way of doing things. James Cruze's Washington Merry-Go-Round (1932), Charles Brabin's The Washington Masquerade (1932), Gregory La Cava's Gabriel Over the White House (1933), and Hamilton Mac Fadden's Stand Up and Cheer! (1934) all featured newcomer protagonists--a freshman congressman, a rural attorney recently elected to the U.S. Senate, an incoming U.S. President, a new cabinet secretary appointed by President Roosevelt--who come into conflict with the established order. Frank Capra's Jefferson Smith may resonate better with modern audiences than his predecessors, but Mr. Smith did not come out of a vacuum.

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The formula of the Washington newcomer discovering corruption continued in other popular films, as in George Cukor's Born Yesterday (1950), in which a naive former showgirl arrives in Washington as the girlfriend of a magnate and discovers for herself the harm that can be done at the federal level by people with money and power.

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