The Narrative of the Lovable Simpleton: Self-Actualization in the Late 1970s

Previous article: Part 1

In the late 1970s, two prominent movies about lovable simpletons came out: Rocky (1976) and Being There (1979). However, unlike the Capra iterations, these lovable simpletons seemed to focus more on their self-actualization than on helping other people.

Both films had a lower key approach to the material. The love story and antagonist do not necessarily have the high stakes that other versions of the story do. Despite their similarities, the films have much different approaches to the narrative. Rocky reinforces the narrative as a gritty independent film, while Being There subverted the story to create a social satire.

The Character

In all of these films, a certain number of narrative threads happen surrounding the lovable simpleton:

  1. A Correct Masculine Protagonist: A Christ-like figure, the simpleton rarely has to grow or learn anything. Instead, his journey revolves around other people learning to accept him. He will often begin the story as complacent or happy. Oftentimes, his practical behavior proves right and flies in the face of the antagonists. Also, he is a traditionally masculine character that women find attractive.
  2. A Corrupt Antagonist: The Antagonist will often try to corrupt the antagonist in some way. This character often gives the Simpleton a gift of some sort that calls them to action. They receive this gift based on showmanship rather than hard work. The Simpleton does not necessarily want the gift, but takes it. Later in the story, the inherent goodness of the simpleton will work against the corruption of the antagonist.
  3. Dissatisfied Female Characters: Unless she is a matriarchal figure, almost every female character is presented as an unhappy character who needs to grow. In the love story of the films, a woman will leave behind her old life or dream to move in with the protagonist. The narrative discounts any female character that does not serve the simpleton’s story as infantile, frivolous, annoying, and/or destructive.
  4. Distrust of Unmasculine Males: Most of these narratives present men who do not show traditionally masculine qualities as harmful, annoying, and snobbish. The narrative often justifies the simpleton grabbing or assaulting these characters.
  5. Solution: Oftentimes, the simpleton will not succeed based on their actions, but based on a secondary character stepping in to save the day. Therefore, the simpleton succeeds because somebody loves him.

Almost all the simpletons serve these story functions, but perhaps not in the same way.

‘Rocky’

Heavyweight world champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) chooses down-on-his-luck boxer and loanshark Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) gets chosen to fight the world champion based on his stage name.

‘Being There’

After spending his whole life watching television and tending to plants, Chance the Gardner aka Chauncey Gardiner (Peter Sellers) goes out to see the world for the first time and gets discovered by a dying rich businessman Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas). Thinking he is some sort of genius, the businessman makes him into a celebrity of sorts.

Overview

In this era, the films tend to be told with a more objective camera that watches the characters rather than commenting on their actions. The Camera often views these characters from afar in wide shots rather than cutting in closer. It is not the theatrical style of the Capra films or the more cinematic style of the later versions of this story.

Rocky presents its hero as good no matter what. Everybody sees potential in Rocky, but have never seen that potential fulfilled. His trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) has grown tired of him making a living as a loan shark. The film presents Rocky as somebody who could be great if given the chance.

Being There presents almost every character as clueless to what is going on. The ones who do know tend to be portrayed as unlikable or insensitive.  The film also presents the irony pf the situation in a somewhat subtle way.

A Correct Masculine Protagonist

The 1970s version of the story makes the journey about self-actualization rather than about some great moral struggle. The stories often undercut their character’s simplistic lessons by making the audience question the protagonist. However, the lovable simpletons still make life better for the characters around them.

‘Rocky’

Rocky is structured less like a traditional film and more like a two-act film. Rocky’s journey focuses on him going up against Apollo Creed, but the first half really focuses around vignettes from Rocky’s life. The plot does not even seem to kick in until the second half. The film makes a point early on that Rocky is a sweet lovable character. They show him being nice to pets and dogs. He always says “hello” to a dog in the window.

Rocky opens by introducing the principal protagonist boxing in a church. The opening shot compares Rocky to Jesus Christ. Since this is the first shot of the movie, it tells the audience that this is a movie about a man who goes through hell. Throughout the story, the film makes the point that Rocky suffers. In the first half, Rocky walks away sadly from situations that did not work out. Throughout the story, Rocky also constantly self-deprecates. What he wants to prove with Creed is not that he can beat him, but that he can “go the distance” and prove his worth as more than just his impoverished background. The film does this by making every character the meanest version of that type of character.

In Rocky, the titular character always tries to do the right thing, but keeps getting slapped down. He also does not always believe he knows what he is talking about. Similarly, a primary thrust of the story has people above Rocky underestimating him.

‘Being There’

Chance the Gardner’s arc has to do with him learning to feel and care about others. Throughout the story, all Chance wants to do is watch television and garden. The film opens to Chauncey Gardiner awakening to the sound of television. Chauncey often watches childish programs, like cartoons and children’s shows. Early on, his master dies, but he seems to act like a confused child. The Master’s black maid Louise (Ruth Attaway) scolds him for showing such little emotion, then apologizes to him like he is a small child. She later says to Chance, “you’re always gonna be a little boy, ain’t ya?” His journey has him learning what it means for somebody to actually die.

While portrayed as correct, the film does make Louise into a somewhat unsympathetic character. When the master dies, Louise tells Chance he ought to find a lady, but it should be an old lady due to the “tiny thing” he has. Louise’s race also plays into the commentary later on. Louise raised Chance from birth and knows that he cannot read or write. When she sees him on TV, she points out that all Chance needed to succeed in America was to be white.

Artistic Choices of Character

Chance’s journey plays over a certain number of artistic choices. When Chance first has to go out and fend for himself, a Jazz cover of Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” plays. This music had become famous as a theme in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). This plays over many vignettes. Throughout the story, director Hal Ashby intercuts the story with various television programs that relate to the story.

Whereas some versions play up pious platitudes and phrases of the Simpleton, Being There makes a point that Chance’s phrases and lessons are foolish. They usually have to do with gardening or television. Many of these sorts of actions he learns from television, which pretty much raised him after his master traded it in for a radio.

Corrupt Antagonist

In many of the 1970s versions of the story, the antagonist does not ever seek to destroy the lovable simpleton, as much as they seek to profit from them. This is because the lovable simpleton of the 1970s never really turns on the antagonists to defend his idealism. If he did, the story would simply end. Similarly, the antagonists take a while before giving the simpleton the gift that calls them to action.

‘Rocky’

Of all these films, Rocky probably has one of the least antagonizing antagonist. A self-made man, Creed decides to fight Rocky because of showman-ship reasons. The film portrays Rocky and Creed as a tortoise and the hair type story, where the arrogant Creed underestimates the strong willed Rocky. Apollo Creed decides to use Rocky about thirty minutes into the film, but does not call him until about an hour in. When Rocky first gets offered the job, he turns it down until the promoter convinces him otherwise. He has to decide that he wants to fight Apollo Creed. Rocky never really betrays Creed, but he fights harder than Creed expects him to. Creed also becomes Rocky’s friend in the sequels.

‘Being There’

Like Rocky, the potential antagonists in Being There do not really antagonize. More often, they become enamored with the blankness of Chance and mold him into what they want. Almost every character does this, so the article will focus on the most prominent characters. The call to action occurs when a car accidentally backs into the newly homeless while he watches television in a store window. The car belongs to the businessman. Seeing Chance in pain, Ben Rand’s wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine) picks him up and takes him to her home.  From Chance’s description of getting kicked out of his house, Ben Rand assumes that he is a businessman who attorneys have screwed over. He takes Chance on as an advisor.

Similarly, the film ends on another call to action. Rand dies and the pallbearers at his funeral discuss running Chance for president, as he has no past and people seem to like him.

Dissatisfied Female Characters

The 1970s version of women often portrays the love interest as shy or introverted in some way. Her problem has to do with neuroticism. Their relationship begins as a one-sided relationship. The loveable simpleton brings out a more extroverted side in the woman. In these incarnations of the story, the love interest’s arc relates to a sexual experience.

‘Rocky’

In Rocky, almost every female character in the story either chastises or ignores Rocky. The opening scene has a woman calling Rocky a “bum.” Often the female characters succeed or fail based on whether or not they listen to Rocky.

Adrian

Though Rocky tends to focus on men, it does have one large female role: Adrian (Talia Shire). Adrian begins the film as a shy quiet pet store worker. The film makes a point that Adrian does like Rocky, but is really shy. Unresponsive to Rocky, she does not laugh at his jokes or want him to walk her home. However, the audience sees her often express interest with Rocky from afar. The audience later learns that Adrian’s mother told that she was not pretty, so she should develop her mind.

What the film posits she needs is a man to convince her to change for the better. Therefore, she has her resentful and abusive brother Paulie (Burt Young) and Rocky. The film also makes a point that what Adrian wants is not that important outside of Rocky. She does not seem to have a goal or dreams as much as she has a flaw that Rocky needs to solve.

Rocky takes her out ice skating because Paulie says she likes it. However, he spends a lot of time talking about himself. Later on, he takes her back to his place and they end up making out and presumably having sex. However, Adrian seems really uncomfortable coming up to his apartment and kissing him until he convinces her otherwise. She even recoils a little bit when he kisses her at first.

This experience makes Adrian a more confident person. She even stands up to Paulie and moves in with Rocky. Perhaps more than any other character, Adrian has an arc in the story.

Marie

On the other end of the spectrum is Marie (Jodi Letizia), a teenage girl hanging out with a bad crowd. The main scene where Rocky teaches lessons has him telling Marie not to smoke and hang out with bad kids. He grabs her arm and takes the cigarette directly away from her. He lectures about her reputation and what types of friends to have. However, Marie does not listen to him. The film also presents this scene favoring Rocky. Neither the scene nor Rocky seeks to understand why Marie is behaving the way she is. The audience only sees her briefly again with the group of bad kids, but the story does not build up to something greater in this movie.

Marie becomes a major character in Rocky Balboa (2006), which takes place after Adrian dies. Now played by Geraldine Hughes, Marie has grown up to be a bartender. Over the course of the film, she becomes with Rocky, who offers her a job. In a way, she becomes the Adrian role of the film.

‘Being There’

In Being There, most every white woman finds Gardiner attractive. However, the closest the audience gets to a love interest is Ben Rand’s wife Eve. The film portrays her as somewhat oblivious in her own way. She loves her husband, but knows that he does not have long left.

Over the course of the story she becomes more attracted to Chance because she has not been sexually satisfied in a long time and he is younger than her husband and his friends. The love scene between them occurs. However, it does not go as planned. Chance says “he likes to watch,” but it refers to television and not Eve. Therefore, Gardiner watches television, while Eve masturbates herself. This experience leaves Eve completely satisfied.

When Chance goes on television, the film portrays every woman as being attracted to him. Ben Rand is a confidant of the president of the United States (Jack Warden). The film portrays the president as impotent. However, when Chance comes on television, his wife wants to make love to her husband. Similarly, the girlfriend of lawyer Thomas Franklin (David Clennon) gives him the cold shoulder when he tells her that Chance is a fake.

Distrust of Unmasculine Men

In both films, the unmasculine man is not as pronounced as in other versions of the story. They exist, but the film rarely makes them as harmful as other versions of this story presents them as. At the end of the story, the simpleton does not really feel that much ill will towards any of them either.

‘Rocky’

In the story, most everybody is a rough working class character. The character who probably fits this role the best is probably Paulie, who resents having to take care of his shy sister.

Throughout the movie, Rocky rarely hurts anybody outside the ring. In fact, he refuses to break somebody’s thumb, even though it is part of his job. When he does come close to hitting somebody outside of boxing, the narrative usually makes the point that the character is being horrible to him or somebody he cares about. One of the only time he actually comes close to assaulting somebody is when he puts his hands on somebody happens when Paulie gets into a heated argument and starts breaking stuff. Adrian yells at Paulie and storms off. Rocky grabs Paulie by the collar, but does not do anything to him after looking into his eyes. Paulie also makes up with Rocky pretty quickly later on.

A smaller example of this comes when Rocky nearly comes to blows with his boss’s driver, who calls Adrian a “retard” and says he should take her to the zoo. His boss, low level gangster Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell), tells him not to get angry and that some people are just hate filled. Like Marie and some of the other characters, the film tells the audience that they are not meant to understand why that character behaves the way they do.

‘Being There’

Almost all intellectuals and experts fall under Chance’s spell. The only people who do not are the ones who know Chance personally, like Louise and Thomas Franklin. The film portrays them as correct about Chance, but not helpful to him. In particular, Thomas Franklin has political ambitions and hates that Chance made a fool out of him. He is portrayed as more befuddled and boring than menacing. He tells Rand’s doctor about Chance and the Doctor tells him to keep everything he knows about Chance to himself.

At the end of the movie, Chance gets a free ticket that Thomas Franklin would love: a potential nomination for the president to the United States. Chance gets nomination to the highest seat in state government not because of experience, but because he is too unknown and likable to be controversial.

Solution

The 1970s version of the story often concludes with a darker ending where the hero loses, but wins in another way.

‘Rocky’

Rocky goes to fight Apollo Creed and loses, but puts up more of a fight than expected. However, despite his loss, he ends up winning because he has Adrian. He has won, not because of the prize, but because he is loved. The film ends with them reconnecting and declaring their love for each other.

‘Being There’

In Being There, Chance experiences an arc based on Benjamin Rand. When Rand dies, Chance learns for the first time how important death is and actually mourns the loss of his new father figure. It represents the first-time Chance shows real emotion for the people around him. At Rand’s funeral, Chance the Gardner wanders off from the funeral as members discuss the political potential of him as a presidential candidate. Like Jesus, he walks on the lake. The film ends on the president saying “life is a state of mind.” This ending apparently was added by director Hal Ashby. The original ending had Eve and Chance running away at the funeral.

Conclusion

The 1970s version of this story focused more on characters fulfilling personal needs rather than serving a greater public interest. However, by doing this, the hero inspires the public.

Both films also won major Academy awards. Both directors had made Oscar winning films, but the narrative of awards season was much different. While Being There was seen as a prestige picture by a director and star on a hot streak, Rocky was an independent film starring a relative unknown made by an independent director. Stallone had held out to play the lead role even though he had little money at the time. Being There won Melvyn Douglas his second supporting actor Oscar, but Rocky won Best editing, best director, and best picture. At the end of the day, Rocky had become a success story not just because of its feel-good approach to the story, but because of its behind-the-scenes story.

Part 3 here.