Ned Beatty has died, at the age of 83. One of the greatest ‘hey, it’s that guy!’ character actors, Beatty starred in over 160 films, was nominated for an Oscar and two Emmys, and embodied each role with a deceptive ease that made you feel like you and he had just had a nice catch-up at a bar together, right before he sauntered on screen.
From his shocking debut in John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), to Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky (1976), Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men and countless others, Beatty was as much a mainstay of the golden age of the Hollywood new-wave as cocaine and safari suits.
But it was his appearance in director Sydney Lumet and screenwriter Paddy Chayefski’s pitch black procedural satire of TV news Network (1976) that earned Beatty his nomination for the best supporting actor Oscar, albeit for an appearance that lasted all of five minutes and 53 seconds.
It is a performance that has stuck with me, personally, since I first saw it on a DVD rented from Jumbo Video in 2004, one that has informed my own work as a performer, and shaped the way in which I view the world we live in.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Beatty appears at the beginning of the last act of Network as Arthur Jensen, the TV executive, and proceeds to deliver a five minute monologue about the beauty of globalised capitalism, corporate dehumanisation, the vast ‘dominion of dollars’, and the ‘ecological balance’ this system allows.
It is, in every respect, a frightening performance. Beatty looms large at the end of a long conference table, lit like a fiery demon in a world of shadow, oscillating between fire and brimstone preacher, carnival barker, concerned father, and an accountant dryly delivering a quarterly profit and loss statement. We, the audience, curl back in our chairs like the quivering puddle of insanity that is Howard Beale (Peter Finch), unsure whether we are communing with the burning bush or the serpent.
‘I have seen the face of God,’ Finch offers with a stutter at the end of this sermon.
‘You might just be right, Mr. Beale,’ Beatty offers, his hand on Finch’s shoulder, with neither compassion or condescension.
Much has been made of Network and the prescience of Chayefski’s script in how it prophesied the rise of Fox, reality TV, and infotainment. But what critics and audiences in retrospect view as prediction, Lumet, Chayefski, and by extension their cast, saw as already taking place. When reality lapped their satire, Lumet wasn’t shocked.
But it is that presence within a particular moment in history (filmic, political, and economic) that makes Beatty’s performance in particular, oh so timeless.
When Beatty auditioned, he decided to bluff Lumet and Chayefski. Instead of coming and performing the lengthy monologue for them, Beatty decided to pitch them the idea of casting him, as though he were selling them a vacuum cleaner (indeed, he had been a door to door salesman in a past life) and they were simple housewife’s just lying to themselves if they thought an inferior product could do the job even half as well. He performed the cold-hard cynicism of Arthur Jensen’s capitalism itself, and was cast.
They shot his scene in a single day. ‘Never turn down a day’s work,’ Beatty would later offer jokingly, ‘a day’s work got me nominated for an Oscar.’ Lumet had disliked how the original actor he’d cast as Jensen played the monologue for laughs, as though the character were revelling in its absurdity, as if Jensen was in on the fact that big business was essentially a big joke, and was letting Beale in on his little secret. Beatty did the opposite. To his Jensen, this wasn’t a joke. This was the world not only as it was, but as it should be, as it must be.
The tragi-comic irony of Beatty’s embodiment of Arthur Jensen is that it would be the Arthur Jensen’s of this world that would make its Ned Beattys all but extinct.
Jensen tells us: ‘There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. These are the nations of the world today.’
That corporate Borg that Jensen describes so lovingly has now grown beyond even his wildest fantasies. We are living in an age of big business oligarchy that would make Chayefsky blush. This, of course, has effected/was projected by Hollywood itself. Our media is a homogenised gruel. We now live under a regime of Disney/Marvel slush, non-stop reboots and regurgitations, 100 billion dollar toy commercials, where sexless cartoons bounce off each other like the frictionless ball in a game of Pong. Hollywood actors are now branded ciphers, stripped of their identifiable features, smoothed down, more beautiful than the Gods but as sensual as shop mannequins. There is little to no room for true freaks, wild eyed weirdos, or the bucolic everyman—for the character actor, as we once knew them, for the Ned Beattys that were and that won’t be.
We now live in that vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all people work to serve a common profit. All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquillised, all boredom amused. We have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and we shall atone. Those, to quote Arthur Jensen, are the immutable bylaws of business.