Ned Beatty made his film debut in 1972 in John Boorman’s classic wilderness survival tale, Deliverance. Of course, that description of the film is narrow and reductive – the film goes far deeper in its depiction of friendship, culture clash, and the nature of masculinity.
Beatty plays Bobby, one of a foursome of friends (along with Jon Voight, Ronny Cox, and a toupee free Burt Reynolds) who go on an ill-fated canoe trip on the Cahulawassee River in northern Georgia. Beatty and Voight get ahead of Reynolds and Cox as they go down river and stop off to take a break and wait for them to catch up. In the interim, two mountain men come out of the woods and attack Voight and Beatty. Voight gets strapped to a tree by his neck and told by one of the rednecks, “You got a right pretty mouth.” But it’s Bobby who suffers the greatest humiliation.
He is told to remove his clothes at gun point. He is then chased around the clearing until he falls over a log. The redneck in pursuit takes note of Bobby’s girth—comparing him to a sow. He takes Bobby’s ear and tells him to “squeal like a pig.” Bobby does as he’s told until the man violates him and Bobby let’s out an awful, guttural moan.
It’s one of the most devastating sequences I’ve ever seen on film, and made all the more so by the complete fearlessness of Beatty’s performance. Beatty leans into the humiliation, making it clear to us how awful and horrific every second of his victimization is. He does not protect his character in the least, and in doing so, he spares the audience nothing. It’s an incredibly courageous performance. To think that this was Beatty’s introduction to filmgoers makes it all the more remarkable. Giving such a naked performance (in every sense of the word) in your first film…well, I don’t know if I have the words.
Beatty would move beyond Deliverance to appear in many films of note over his 41 year career in cinema. A true working actor, Beatty had more than 160 credits to his name before quietly walking away from his profession in 2013. While Beatty was seldom a leading man, and he worked so often that you could make long list of projects he was in and define them as “forgettable,” you can also marvel at the number of top tier films he took part of.
In the ‘70s alone, Beatty played significant roles in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Nashville, All the President’s Men, Mikey and Nicky, Wise Blood, Silver Streak, and Superman. Often his parts were small, but his presence was anything but diminutive.
He was so powerful in what amounted to a cameo in Sidney Lumet’s landmark media satire Network, that he earned his only Oscar nomination (for supporting actor) despite having just a few minutes of screen time. As a corporate suit sent in to straighten out Peter Finch’s “mad as a hatter” news anchor, Howard Beale. The conversation starts out in congenial fashion. Beatty’s Arthur Jensen is almost folksy in demeanor as he leads Beale into a boardroom, sits him at the end of a preposterously long table, and then, he closes the blinds. In that suddenly much darker room, Jensen turns to Beale and bellows, “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mister Beale, and I won’t have it!” What follows that opening line of dialogue is a four and a half minute dressing down of the addled Beale, in which Jensen makes it plain that the world is made up of currency and business, and nothing more. He declares that their are no countries, only corporations (he makes Mitt Romney’s declaration “corporations are people, my friend” seem positively quaint), and that he will use the addled Beale to reach the world, to expand the empire, through the most powerful medium on earth…television. It is a tour de force to end all tour de forces. Beatty takes the prescient words of Paddy Chayefsky and thunders them home like some demented gospel. It’s one hell of a sight.
The ‘80s weren’t quite as good to Beatty, but he certainly had his moments. He reprised his role as the lovable oaf, Ottis in Superman 2. He made strong impressions in The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School, and the underrated N’awlins crime drama, The Big Easy,
The following decade brought forth quality parts for Beatty in Rudy, He Got Game, Cookie’s Fortune, and Life. But his best role of the ‘90s can be found in the delightful Irish sleeper film, Hear My Song, where Beatty plays Josef Locke, an infamous and reclusive Irish tenor, who a failing club owner attempts to lure out of the shadows to save his ailing business. Hear My Song is the kind of film that not many have seen, but that all who have adore. Beatty’s rascally charm is the film’s not so secret weapon. It’s a bit of a larger role for Beatty, and just like everything else he appeared in, he makes the most of his every onscreen moment. I would implore you to seek it out if you’ve never seen it.
Alas, Beatty’s final years on film would not be so fruitful. Quality parts became fewer and farther between (although he was quite good in Sweet Land, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Killer Inside Me, and Rampart). Beatty’s last credit on film is for a bit role in the romantic comedy Baggage Claim from 2013.
I suppose when one thinks of Ned Beatty, the word “character actor” comes to mind. It’s a bit of a backhanded compliment if you think of it. All actors play characters after all. But some play them better than most, regardless of how many minutes they are given to showcase their part. To speak in the vernacular of deep understatement, Ned Beatty was far better than most.
Ned Beatty died today, he was 83 years old.