' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Ned Beatty

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

In Memoriam: Ned Beatty

I love Robert Altman’s “Cookie’s Fortune” (1999) so doggone much that most days I think my favorite performance of everyone in the cast, with the exception of Julianne Moore (for whom I have, like, seven favorite performances), is their performance in “Cookie’s Fortune.” That includes Ned Beatty, dead Sunday June 13, 2021 at the age of 83. The movie is theoretically a murder mystery in so much as the eponymous matriarch (Patricia Neal) dies as the movie opens. But she dies by taking her own life, a scene that isn’t as sad as it sounds, oddly jubilant in its own way, an early signifier that Altman isn’t playing by antiquated rules, only to have her suicide note literally eaten by her villainous niece Camille Dixon (Glenn Close) and the setting restaged to look like a murder, lest this act ruin their good family name. That we know it’s a suicide, however, wonderfully takes the expected piss out of the mystery, transforming the movie into an evocation of faith, underlined in the Easter weekend setting, faith that all will be set right. That faith comes through most prominent in Beatty.

He is Lester Boyle, lieutenant to the chief of police (Danny Darst), and Altman does not so much establish their easygoing rapport as just pick up in the middle of it as-is, their conversation drifting out the windows of their police cruiser. They are not hapless, not at all, professionals, if laid-back professionals, their demeanors in-tune with the southern heat, though still forced to deal with the inexperienced, overeager newbie on the small-town force, Jason (Chris O’Donnell). When the latter storms into the crime scene, which already has yellow tape and investigators everywhere, with his gun drawn, Beatty’s exasperation is palpable and hysterical, like a parent dealing with a kid, sort of trying to order O’Donnell’s character to do three different things at once, but knowing none of them will take, and finally settling on a stern, if desperate, “just be careful.”  

Beatty’s character is tasked with talking Willis (Charles Dutton), the movie’s main character and the emergent suspect in her “murder”, through his initial grief after he returns home to find Cookie dead. The scene is a perfect duet between two men still trying to process what has occurred. “It’s a tough one” Lester says of Cookie’s death, a line that sounds so inadequate typed out, so simple and small, but which belies the extraordinary depth that Beatty gives it. Like, you can imagine Lester declaring Ole Miss’s loss to Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl as “a tough one”, but in a totally different way than he does here, a modulation of a folksy, all-purpose phrase that meets the moment. 

Lester maintains Willis’s innocence, which is a conflict of interest, I suppose, opening Willis’s cell door and playing scrabble with him over Dr. Peppers, but the generosity of the movie’s tone makes this work nonetheless, a police lieutenant indebted to the law, yes, but also to the law of his fellow man – or, more accurately, the law of fishing. When he’s asked how he’s so sure Willis is innocent, the camera suddenly zooms in on Lester’s face. “Because,” Beatty giving the line a matter-of-fact ring, “I fished with him.” Fishing often yields spiritual metaphors but in Beatty’s hands this line doesn’t need its spirituality explained; you hear it, clear as day.

Another spiritual Beatty performance, of sorts, was his monumental one scene walk-off in “Network” (1976), playing “the corporate communications overlord who comes in to read the riot act to Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the mad prophet of the airwaves,” as Owen Gleiberman wrote for Variety. “In the mesmerizing monologue that follows, Beatty proceeds to explain The Way Things Are,” Gleiberman continues. “He sounds like a Pentecostal preacher (he has said that he drew the performance, in part, from his youthful memories of church), a lawyer for God, and, at several points, God himself. He’s lecturing Howard Beale, but he’s really speaking to all of us. ... Spewing out language so fulsome the words seem to be dancing, Beatty explains that there are no nations, no peoples, no America, no democracy, no Third World; these are all illusions. ‘There is only one holistic system of systems,’ he says, still roaring, but now he’s feeling the music of it. ‘There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and Dupont…Those are the nations of the world today.’ He’s bringing the news of the corporate takeover of our political and spiritual lives, and he delivers it with a sense of mission, in full fulminating cry. But then, at moments, as he reverts to a normal voice, we realize that his whole raging rant has been a performance. That’s what the voices of corporations do. They act. They create their own illusion.” 

Gleiberman goes on: “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. It pours out of him. He has seen the truth — the dark truth, the one television is designed to cover up — and he wants to share it. As Beatty acts, you don’t just listen; you see the new world he’s talking about. He makes the darkness visible.” 

In “Network”, Beatty showed us the darkness. But in “Cookie’s Fortune”, he showed us the light. 

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