Friday, June 18, 2021

Ned Beatty: Delivering One Great Performance After Another

Moviegoers all seem to have their favorite Ned Beatty moments. My colleague Brian Jay Jones (author of biographies of  Jim Henson, Dr. Seuss and other pop culture heroes) treasures Beatty’s comic appearance as Lex Luthor’s bumbling sidekick in the Superman movies. Others remember him portraying Judge Roy Bean and playing a key role in All the President’s Men. And of course he had one of the all-time memorable screen debuts, in the movie adaptation  of James Dickey’s bestselling novel, Deliverance.  As Bobby Trippe, one of four city-dwellers on a rafting trip in the wilds of Georgia, he suffers an excruciatingly painful comeuppance that viewers will not soon forget.

  Deliverance came out in 1972. It was followed by some 160 film and TV credits before Beatty’s death last week at age 83. Never a leading-man type, the short, round Beatty was prized as a character actor who could play goofy or scary, strong or weak, with equal dexterity. For years he was known as “the busiest actor in Hollywood.” When I was working at Roger Corman’s Concorde-New Horizons Pictures circa 1990, Roger’s wife Julie was filming a screen version of Gary Paulsen’s classic Young Adult novel, Hatchet. (In the film version, the title was changed to A Cry in the Wild, because Hatchet might give some fans of Corman’s horror flicks the wrong impression.)  It’s basically an adventure story about a teenaged boy whose parents have divorced. During his summer vacation, Brian is being flown in a Cessna bush plane to an outpost in the Canadian wilds where his father works in the oil fields. After the pilot has a fatal heart attack and crash-lands the plane, the young boy is stranded in the wilderness, with only his wits and a small hatchet to protect him from danger. The young actor, Jared Rushton, is mostly alone on screen, except for some friendly and some not-so-friendly animals. But I was astonished to see Ned Beatty signing on to play that unfortunate pilot.

 On the day Beatty showed up at our grubby offices, I chanced to meet him in the parking garage and couldn’t resist asking a few questions. Like—why would he want a small role in a Concorde film? Beatty explained, with a twinkle in his eye, that he had eight children to support. (He was ultimately married to four different women, with three of those marriages ending in divorce.) He also confirmed what I had read elsewhere, that Deliverance was originally intended by its studio as a relatively low-budget film. Thus all four central roles were to be played by unknowns with regional acting credentials. Beatty, who hailed from Kentucky and had performed all over the South, was cast, as was the equally unknown Ronny Cox. But when the budget was raised to allow for stars in the two biggest roles, Jon Voigt and Burt Reynolds came aboard, replacing the no-names that director John Boorman had selected. Out of such serendipity are great careers born.

 Perhaps Beatty’s most distinctive role came in 1976, as part of the film Network. In a landmark year for character actors, he was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor, a prize that ultimately went to Jason Robards of All the President’s Men. Beatty’s role is confined to one long speech, a speech of such power and such frightening implications that it remains lodged in the mind. It’s a speech into which author Paddy Chayefsky pours all his vitriol against network television and corporate American in general. Thanks to YouTube we can re-watch it, savoring Sidney Lumet’s staging and Ned Beatty’s dramatic genius.






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