Ned Beatty: the good ol’ boy who made playing the ordinary guy look easy

·4 min read

If ever a character actor personified the “good ol’ boy” archetype of Hollywood’s new cinema of the 1970s it was Ned Beatty from Louisville, Kentucky, whose broad, open, good-natured face seemed so often to be covered with a sheen of sweat – either from suppressed guilt, or tension, from discomfort in whatever sweltering southern clime he happened to find himself. His was a smiley face bounded by its prosperous double-chin and nascent combover, a face that lent reality and approachability to the movies: an authentic and worldly presence.

Ned Beatty had the hardest role to play: the middle-ranking ordinary guy: lawyer, cop, official, politician and maybe, effectively, the wingman to the conventionally better-looking male leads, and in his 70s movie heyday this tended to mean Burt Reynolds, with whom he starred in six films, including, of course, Beatty’s brilliant and brutal breakthrough: Deliverance (1972), written by James Dickey and directed by John Boorman, in which Reynolds’s sinister alpha male businessman leads his buddies Beatty, Jon Voight and Ronny Cox on a vacation canoeing trip through the deepest Georgia wilderness only to come into horrible contact with hillbillies playing banjos and bearing grudges.

Beatty actually managed four great performances in four iconic movies of the 70s: Deliverance, Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), Alan J Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) and Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), as well as a recurring comic turn as Lex Luthor’s bumptious sidekick Otis in the Superman movies. It all 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 centre where Woody and the gang find themselves – but is in fact a psychopathic prison gang leader. Beatty maintained a thriving TV career and was also the possessor of a fine singing voice, and even released an album of Christian music, but sadly was dubbed in Hear My Song (1991), playing the real-life 1940s Irish tenor Josef Locke, for which Beatty was nominated for a Golden Globe for best supporting actor.

But Deliverance was where Ned Beatty made his unforgettable and horrible impression – as the hapless Bobby Trippe, a beta male who appears to cringe not just to Reynolds’s macho leader but to the sneering, snarling backwoods dwellers who encounter him in the trackless woodland and sexually assault him while Voight’s character is forced to watch in the gruesome “squeal piggy” scene. It is a deeply shocking moment that perhaps unconsciously coloured the way in which Beatty was cast for the rest of his career, in minor-power roles in which he could be the bully victim turned bully.

In Altman’s Nashville, he was one of many characters in a classic of street-level US politics: he was Delbert Reese, the lawyer and backstage political fixer acting for the rhinestone-suited country singing star Haven Hamilton and also a local organiser for the visiting presidential candidate Hal Walker, basically in charge of the shadowy business of amassing walking-around money for their boy. He is also, needless to say, not especially committed to his marriage and Nashville’s status as a showbiz hub may bring young women within his predatory gaze.

He was another middleman figure in All the President’s Men, but this time the good guy: investigator Martin Dardis, another role that called for loud suits with big lapels and big ties, a guy who was passing on important information to the handsome leads Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

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Probably the strangest and most atypical part of his career was the one for which he got his sole Oscar nomination, for best supporting actor, playing Arthur Jensen, the scowling corporate chairman with power over the TV networks unsettled by the crazed on-air rants that have revived the waning career of newsreader Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch. This was a rare, even unique high-status role for Beatty, playing the actual big chief for once, and doing so in a posher, Waspier accent than he was used to. And Beatty made the most of his extraordinary set-piece scene: a monologue at least as crazy as anything Beale has been delivering, lecturing his news anchor in the shadowy boardroom about the realities of power – how it has nothing to do with democratic nation states and everything to do with internationally traded currency. It’s the kind of speech that would work perfectly well in a modern film, and Beatty plays it to the hilt.

Ned Beatty was the classic character actor who made something very hard look easy: he was naturally at home on screen with an easy address to the camera, who could cede prominence to the leading actor in every scene but whose pure acting knowhow and presence led your eye back to his face. Every movie was stronger, more real, for having Ned Beatty in it.

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