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“It’s called acting because you’re doing things,” Ned Beatty would say. “Your job is acting it out, not orating.”

Rudy-faced and roly-poly (as the fella said, he could play anything but thin), Beatty was the consummate actor, a dedicated student of the craft who imbued his roles with personality and depth no matter how few lines he might have in the script. You didn’t see a cop, or a judge, or a shopkeeper when Beatty was on screen, you saw the man, traces of his past, his desires and insecurities, what made him tick. This wasn’t achieved through magic or osmosis; rather, it was the result of imaginative engagement, disciplined preparation, technique and control.

A case in point. One of his most famous roles was the corporate boss Arthur Jensen who reads the riot act to Peter Finch’s Howard Beale in Network (1976). It’s a stunning scene, a five-minute monologue about the true nature of the world today, and, you might think, it was all on the page (take a bow, Paddy Chayefsky).

But if the words were a gift to any actor, Beatty had the chops to make this so much more than a diatribe, to start the speech at full throttle, go into turbo charge, and then, at the flick of a switch, bring it right back down to the ground. He said he harked back to the evangelical preachers of his youth to find the right cadence (he had performed with a gospel group as a teenager, and would record an album of Christian songs in 2006: “In the beginning was the word”). But also this: watch his hands… a furious symphonic semaphore of import and conviction. You could turn the sound off and still feel the heat of the man’s ideas.

Talking about his approach to the part a quarter of a century later, he told me that, with so little to go on about the character’s interior life, he had decided Jensen was a cello player, and Beatty studied the cello in preparation. “Of course most people don’t see it,” he said, “but to this day I still encounter musicians who will ask me if I play the cello, because they picked up on what I did with my hands and my arms in that scene.”

Ned Beatty as Bobby in Deliverance (1972)

Four years earlier, he made his screen debut in John Boorman’s film of James Dickey’s novel Deliverance. This too, featured a scene which transcends even the considerable merits of the movie, in which Beatty is stripped to his underwear, forced to squeal like a pig, and subsequently raped. Few actors then or now would undertake such a scene without concern, but Beatty was fearless. “That scene scared the hell out of people, and it was supposed to.”

By this point he had already racked up more than a decade in regional theatre, in his native Kentucky and Virginia. But Hollywood casting directors caught up quick, and he would notch up four or five screen credits a year from then on out, working like a man who didn’t know how to say no. (He returned to the stage sometimes, too, including an acclaimed stint as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.)

Ned Beatty (with star Brad Dourif, left) as Hoover Shoates in Wise Blood (1979)

If his filmography seems indiscriminate, he was actually a shrewd judge of filmmakers. After working with Robert Altman on Nashville (1975), for example, he observed, “He’s a wonderful director, but one of the worst storytellers I’ve ever worked with. He desperately needs storytelling actors in his films.” (Altman apparently read this comment in a magazine, and phoned Beatty up to tell him how right he was, before offering him a part in Cookie’s Fortune, 1998.)

Other standouts include the hitman in Elaine May’s recently reclaimed Mickey and Nickey; All the President’s Men (both 1976); Hoover Shoates in Wise Blood (1979); Josef Locke in Hear My Song (1992); Bollander in Barry Levinson’s groundbreaking TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets; and Jack, the paternal chief of police who brings unexpected soul and pathos to Jim McBride’s The Big Easy (1986).

For a younger generation of movie fans he was also the voice of Lotso in Toy Story 3 (2010), avuncular but ultimately vicious, a combination Beatty always carried in his back pocket.

The truth is, though, no matter the size of the project or the role, Beatty brought life to everything he touched. As what they call a character actor, he was the genuine article.

Ned Thomas Beatty, actor; born 6 July 1937, died 13 June 2021.

Further reading

Burt Reynolds obituary: a blithe legend

As wry as he was virile, Burt Reynolds wore his stardom with a nonchalance, a fallibility and sense of camaraderie, that made it all the warmer while it lasted, writes Nick Pinkerton.

By Nick Pinkerton

Burt Reynolds obituary: a blithe legend

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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