“Hidden Strata”: Remembering Ned Beatty

Ned Beatty

From 1972 to 2013, the affable face of Ned Beatty, who has passed away at the age of eighty-three, seemed to be everywhere. A welcome presence with whom audiences connected immediately, the actor appeared in more than 160 films and television movies and episodes throughout his career. As word spread on Sunday that he was gone (accompanied by clips, quotes, and images), two of his performances emerged as cultural milestones.

One of those performances is Beatty’s first in a feature film. Born and raised in Kentucky, he’d been acting in theater for more than fifteen years when he landed the role of Bobby Trippe, one of four suburban business types who decide to canoe down a river winding through the wilderness of northern Georgia in Deliverance (1972). During an encounter deep in the woods with two mountain men, Billy is forced at gunpoint to strip and “squeal like a pig” before one of the hillbillies rapes him. “Decades later,” wrote Tim Grierson in Mel last year, “we still cannot tolerate the image of Bobby, helpless and scared, being raped. And so, we try to nullify its impact through parodies, pop-culture references, and funny T-shirts. Turns out, though, none of that works. Watch Deliverance now and ‘that scene’ retains all its horror and power. The characters don’t want to talk about it, and neither do we. That’s why it still haunts all of us.”

In a 1989 opinion piece for the New York Times, Beatty noted that he couldn’t count the times he’d been told to “squeal like a pig” by complete strangers. “I suppose when someone (invariably a man) shouts this at me I am supposed to duck my head and look embarrassed at being recognized as the actor who suffered this ignominy,” he wrote. “But I feel only pride about being a part of this story, which the director John Boorman turned into a film classic. I think Bill McKinney (who portrayed the attacker) and I played the ‘rape’ scene about as well as it could be played. It was my first film, and my best.”

Beatty’s Arthur Jensen, chairman of the Communications Corporation of America (CCA) in screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), has been the other performance most cited on social media since Sunday. Beatty appears for all of six minutes, but his delivery of an entire Weltanschauung in a single monologue scored him his only Oscar nomination.

In the scene, Arthur Jensen summons Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a television news anchor who has gone off script and publicly railed against one of CCA’s impending deals, into a dark and cavernous conference room. From one end of the seemingly mile-long conference table, Jenson bellows at Beale at the other. “You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples,” he thunders. “There are no nations. There are no peoples . . . There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon.” Beatty then cuts the prophet-of-doom tone to more quietly and intimately savor the harsh truth he’s revealing. “The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime.”

For Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, “the beauty of Beatty’s performance is that he’s like a banker singing an aria. It’s an ecstatic piece of over-the-top acting in which Beatty seems to be making up what he’s saying on the spot, because that’s how much he means it.” But the Beatty performance that “means the most” to Gleiberman is his Del in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975). Del is “the hustling lawyer husband of Lily Tomlin’s gospel singer, and Beatty makes him at once glad-handing and slow-moving—a get-along guy with prying sly eyes and a hunger that won’t speak its name. At home, they have two deaf children, and Del has never even bothered to learn sign language; in the scene where his kids are trying to speak to him, Beatty makes that dereliction casually heartbreaking.”

The following year, Beatty played a hit man in Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky (1976). “Cinema is full of colorful hit men,” writes Nathan Rabin in the essay that accompanies our release, “but Beatty and May upend expectations by crafting a portrayal that bears no trace of the pyrotechnics of his Network performance, making his gunman as unremarkable as possible. He’s just an ordinary guy with an unusual occupation, who goes about his deadly business with a grudging sense of obligation no different, really, from that of an insurance salesman eager to make his quota.” Roderick Heath finds that the role “deftly exploits Beatty’s excellence at playing superficially bland characters harboring hidden strata of weirdness, sharpened to a wicked point when the man’s true nature emerges in the climax.”

The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw suggests Beatty’s performances over the following decades “accumulated into an ambiguous image: the folksy good guy or the compromised bad guy, his characters blandly accustomed to the minor privileges of power and authority that they have built up over the years. Beatty superbly put all this into one of his greatest late roles: his voiceover for the creepy Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear in Pixar’s animation Toy Story 3 (2010), who seems like a kindly grandpa toy at the day center where Woody and the gang find themselves—but is in fact a psychopathic prison gang leader.”

In an appreciation for the Chiseler, Jim Knipfel nails the threat underlying Beatty’s affability. “He may have played his share of military figures, cops, political hacks, religious hucksters, office managers, and salesmen,” writes Knipfel, and “he may have been in everything from intense dramas and black comedies to superhero, horror, and family films, but at heart he’s usually the same old Ned Beatty, an amiable, easygoing schmo.” Knipfel pictures Beatty at a backyard barbecue, where he “would have no problem keeping the conversation rolling, dropping in the occasional ‘Boy, this corn sure is somethin’ special, ain’t it?’ for good measure. Of course at some point during the afternoon, after getting you alone in the garage under the pretext of seeing your new fishing rod, he’d make it perfectly clear (in those very same tones) why it would be in your own best interest as well as those of your family that you make the delivery by midnight or the deal was off. That was to be expected, though, even before you invited him over.”

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