Starring Ned Beatty: these are not words you generally see trailing a film, largely because Ned Beatty isn’t, on his own,  a reason for most people to go see a film, unless you are me. And even I would baulk at watching The Killer Inside Me again, Ned or no Ned.

Beatty (no relation to Warren) was born in Kentucky, where (he told his fellow actors in Nashville) “we don’t hire lawyers, we just hurt people.” Despite this boast, Beatty comes on like a proper Southern gent, the kind of gent who still calls John Boorman – the man who gave him his big movie break, being sodomised by a hillbilly –  “Mr Boorman” and who supported Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign (the legendary Rainbow Coalition) so, as I say, a proper Southern gent, not one of those “Southern gents” who ran over and killed Heather Heyer in 2017.

After a decade in theatre, Beatty made his film debut in 1972 as white pants man Bobby in the super-scary Deliverance, directed by the afore-mentioned John Boorman. I’ve blogged about Deliverance before (see link at bottom*) but since then I’ve discovered, thanks to a Making Of doc I recently saw on DVD, that Bill McKinney, who played the redneck rapist, approached the scene in a “protective”, almost loving manner, “taking care” of his victim/co-actor. Beatty “allowed himself to be violated” says McKinney in the documentary, “and that takes a lot of courage. He’s one hell of an actor.”  Is there such a thing as a nice rape? I suppose it’s a common tactic of rapists, and might be preferable to a violent rape, but it’s still rape, right? Bobby certainly thinks so, and wants his friends (Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds and Ronny Cox) to keep shtum, which they do, killing both of their attackers along the way.

Beatty then landed one of two dozen equal-starring parts in Robert Altman’s Nashville, the stand-out American film of the 1970s, and one of my very favourite movies, up there with Les Enfants du Paradis, Imitation of Life and The Seven Samuraii, all of which  share its demanding running-length (more bang for your buck!). Good news for Beatty: he doesn’t get raped in this one. And good news for film fans too: he delivers the first of many great sleazeball performances as the unprincipled wheeler and dealer Delbert Reese, setting up fund raisers for the shadowy populist politician Hal Walker and making unwelcome advances to Kermit-voiced wannabe singer Sueleen Gay, while at home he struggles to understand his own (deaf) children and has to ask wife Lily Tomlin to interpret. According to Peter Biskind in his definitive history of the 1970s movie brats, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the idea for a family whose patriarch can’t communicate with his own deaf children was based on the experience of Louise Fletcher, who lost the part to Tomlin and never forgave Altman for it. Fletcher had the last laugh though, winning an Oscar for her performance as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Lily Tomlin gets her own back on ratbag hubby Delbert too, bedding the even-more-scuzzy folk singer Tom (played by Keith Carradine).

A year later, in 1976, Beatty cropped up in Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky, a criminally-underrated (geddit?) mob movie, like the bastard child of Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes, who stars with his long-time associate Peter Falk as a couple of small-time crooks on the run from a contract killer, Kinney, played (but of course) by Beatty. Grubby, gritty, rambling and improvisational, Mikey and Nicky is everything I look for in a film, and Ned Beatty, with his Humpty Dumpty figure, makes as unlikely a hit man as Peter Boyle in The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

As Nathan Rabin says, in his 2019 essay on the film**  Kinney “goes about his deadly business with a grudging sense of obligation no different, really, from that of an insurance salesman (and) grouses that, after expenses, he’ll barely make any money killing Nicky.” Rabin says that Mikey & Nicky is “unique in being a major New Hollywood film written and directed by a woman (and only the third woman to direct a Hollywood film in the sound era).” It’s pricey on DVD but currently available to watch for free (with Turkish subtitles) on You Tube.

 

Beatty (initials NB!) then played Lex Luthor’s incompetent sidekick Otis in both Superman (1978) and the 1980 sequel, Superman II, if you like that sort of thing (more men in pants, though at least they are red pants this time). Between the two Superman movies he found time to squeeze in another great performance as an opportunistic PR man for the crazed preacher Hazel Motes in John Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (click on the link below for more on this neglected masterpiece of blackly comic Southern Gothic).

https://planktonproduktions.wordpress.com/2017/11/27/archaeology-corner-brad-dourif/

In the last of his awesome quintet of Southern films he plays yet another dirtbag, this time a corrupt cop in Jim MacBride’s 1987 neo-noir The Big Easy which has Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin in one of the most awkward (but sexy) love scenes in cinema, and a superb supporting cast of wise-cracking detectives, eye-rolling lawyers and Cajun relatives ready to strike up a tune on the accordion at the drop of a crawfish claw.

NB he also worked with Mr Boorman again on Exorcist II: The Heretic, but it was neither man’s finest moment. He also appeared in the TV series Roseanne as John Goodman’s dad, and in Spike Lee’s perfectly decent basketball movie He Got Game. But children (if any are reading) will know him best as the voice of Lots-’O’-Huggin Bear in Toy Story 3.  He is now retired, or retard as they say in the South, which gives us the best joke in Borat The Movie….

Shamefully, NB lives in California, so I’m gonna have to leave you with a reminder of where and what he comes from, Merry Clayton’s mighty fine version of the Neil Young classic, Southern Man, cuz that’s what you are, Ned, and doncha ever forget it!

 

*https://planktonproduktions.wordpress.com/2017/01/20/archaeology-corner-deliverance/

**https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/6155-mikey-and-nicky-difficult-men