I was watching the 35th anniversary DVD of Deliverance (inspired by Kim Morgan’s recent interview with the four main guys), and while there is a lot of awesome information in the extensive documentary about the making-of this classic film, I was mostly struck by the section where everyone talks about Bill McKinney, the “mountain man” character who rapes Ned Beatty in one of the most memorable and devastating scenes in the film (and in any film). Director John Boorman talked about how they filmed in sequence and so as that scene approached, the entire cast and crew started tensing up, getting ready for it. He also said that he wasn’t sure how to approach it until he found the location, and something about the light through the laurel leaves and those brown leaves on the ground and the sloping ground told him exactly how to shoot it.
But it was Bill McKinney’s words that have stayed with me.
Sometimes it’s the simplicity of good actors that has reverb. There is some mystery to good acting, although I suppose we all know it when we see it, because it has the stamp of authenticity, whether it’s Charlie Chaplin making dinner rolls dance or Gena Rowlands running out into traffic in Woman Under the Influence. The mystery of acting, however, goes hand in hand with its simplicity and you will find that most good actors speak in very simple terms. You may wonder: “How did you APPROACH this scene, for God’s sake?” But the nuts-and-bolts are usually very simple, and it’s Acting Class 101. One of the first things actors have to learn is to love obstacles, to court obstacles, to seek them out, to embrace them. The only way to play your objective strongly is to play it up against some obstacle. An obvious example is pleading for your life if someone is trying to kill you. Things are very cut and dry in that moment. You don’t need to do much, other than play your objective with every fiber of your being. And if the obstacle is equally as strong (which it always is with good acting), then, boom, there you have your scene. But this is true in subtler situations too which are not necessarily life or death. My great acting teacher Sam Schacht would say to us, when we would get stuck in making a scene happen, “Just remember: Every scene is Fight or Fuck. If you get stuck, choose one of those objectives, and see where it takes you.” I haven’t seen a good scene yet that does not line up with that very simple principle. And good actors truly understand this, in their DNA. If you ask a good actor in an acting class, “What were you working on in the scene?”, the answer will usually be very simple. Or, to add a layer of complexity: even good actors get lost sometimes, even good actors over-complicate things. Actors are, by their very nature, highly analytical as well as deeply emotional, and if you are “lost” in terms of what you should be playing, you can really mess yourself up. A reliable clue is, if you ask an actor what he is working on, and he proceeds to talk for 20 minutes, you know he is lost. I have been there myself. It’s true in writing as well, and I went through that recently when working on my final draft of my script. If a moment was confusing, to an actor, to someone reading it, and I found myself talking for 30 minutes about what the moment meant and was supposed to be …. then that was a strong clue to me that I myself actually did not know what I was talking about. Every moment should be able to be boiled down into a simple statement. Even something like King Lear or Hamlet. Yes, there is much to analyze, but in the end, you can boil those plays down into one sentence. (This was Kazan’s approach to script analysis, too, as well as Clurman’s.)
Actors, as well as directors, need to think along those lines, and the good ones always do. The GREAT ones usually can’t even talk about what they were “doing”, because it’s so intuitive in them, that it is difficult for them to find themselves on a wrong path.
So listen to how actors talk about what they do.
Directors can often go off into thematic language and cinematic language to describe what they were going for, and that makes sense. It is the tools of the trade, and it is how they tell the story.
Not so with actors. Actors have their bodies, their voices, and their capable emotional apparatus.
The truth will always be found in them, and usually on a more simple and more profound level, because they are speaking on the level where the story actually happens.
John Boorman spoke of the location he found, and the “nasty” green light that came through the laurel leaves, and how the location told him how to shoot the scene. This is key information for a movie-lover who loves to understand WHY certain choices were made, who love to pick apart a film and then put it back together with that additional knowledge.
But McKinney, man. McKinney’s words are so deep, and yet so simple, that you understand not only the scene and what this extraordinary actor was going for … but you understand the multiple levels that good actors work on. There he is, saying it in plain view. It is a violent scene, and he is the aggressor. His partner in creating that was Ned Beatty. There had to be total trust between these two actors to create what they did. Not only emotional trust, but physical trust. It is, after all, make-believe. McKinney clearly felt a responsibility towards Ned the actor (“I mustn’t actually hurt him”), and yet he, the character, was fully in the moment of hurting Beatty’s character. This is the magic-trick of good actors, this is the thing that actors say over and over again (“I was in two places at the same time”), and that duality of mind never ceases to fascinate me. Being able to be an actor and a character at the same time. You never TOTALLY lose yourself. On some level, you are still orchestrating the whole thing.
McKinney emerges from the woods like a malignant natural force, and you can see how he zooms in on Beatty as his prey almost immediately. Beatty is nervous and jovial, trying to be a good ol’ boy, and the Mountain Man sees through it. Jon Voight is there, too, but he’s a bit bigger than Beatty and perhaps not as easily dominated. Predators like the Mountain Man sense who is the prey in any given situation, and Beatty walks around like he is prey. When he is in the context of his buddies, that is not as apparent, although he is made fun of by the more alpha members of the group. So even there, his weaknesses are obvious. This is something men understand on a DNA level: who is the biggest dog in the room? I have a couple of guy friends who are big and imposing physically, and while they may be pussy-cats on the inside (and many of them are), they also know that if push comes to shove and something violent went down, they would be called upon to handle it, due to their sheer size. So Burt Reynolds’ character, so imposing, so sexually charismatic, so much an obvious leader, recognizes the weak spots in Beatty’s character and needles him about it.
The Mountain Man does not waste any time. He reaches out and caresses Beatty’s face within 2 exchanges, a truly disturbing moment and one that Beatty plays the SHIT out of, because the character has no way of categorizing that experience. It is completely out of his wheelhouse. It makes no sense.
To a woman, it would make perfect sense. She would know exactly what was happening and what was coming. Beatty, in his interview, made the same point that Reynolds made to Kim: “Women have no problem understanding that scene. They get it immediately.” And watch Beatty’s face as he reacts to the caress. Women know that a gentle caress can be a very violent act. And Beatty’s character feels that violence, he feels it on a gut-check level, and yet he has no experience, ultimately, in classifying the moment. It is so totally “other” that he cannot name the threat, although he feels it.
The Mountain Man escalates the next time he speaks, and reaches out and tweaks Beatty’s nipple. Beatty now understands that something weird is going on, that he is in a whole new landscape, but still, I imagine that being raped is not at all something he fears, not at all something he walks around with the knowledge that “this could happen to me someday”. I read somewhere (and forgive me, I cannot remember where), that every woman on the planet who has not been raped has been in a situation where something goes down, and the thought crosses her mind, “Maybe this will be my rape.” Women who haven’t been raped feel like, “I haven’t been raped … yet.” Outside of prison, this is not a universal male experience, something that men would do well to remember (and the good ones always do). Years ago, I was once walking on a dark sidewalk and it was near my home, so I didn’t feel any threat, I knew where I was and where I was going, and suddenly I heard pounding feet behind me, and my adrenaline spiked through the roof and just as I was about to whirl around and face the threat, I heard a gentle voice say, “Just a jogger, Miss…” and then he passed me by. I called out after him, “Thank you!” It took me a good 20 minutes to calm down, to let the adrenaline fight-or-flight seep out of me, but I appreciated his gentle voice, warning me of his approach from behind. That’s a man who understands that women walk around thinking, “Maybe this will be my rape” and he knew he should warn me of his benign purpose in our brief encounter.
So all of that confusion and shame that is part and parcel of sexual assault goes across Ned Beatty’s awesomely expressive face, and yet it is even more dangerous because he doesn’t understand the threat. Not yet. It is incredible how quickly it all goes down. Within a minute, the rape is under way.
If you are familiar with me and my interests, you will understand that the fact that I have never really asked myself, “Who is that Mountain Man as an actor, and how did he feel about what he was doing in that scene”, is out-of-character and also evidence of how powerful the scene really is.
What a treat to hear the simple, eloquent words of Bill McKinney describing how he approached that scene. And how amazing and evolved that he would say, “I didn’t read that much sex into it.” The thing about sex is, and why sexual assault can so impact a person’s psychology, is that sex is so many things other than sex. It is an associative act. It can express love, it can express desire, it can stave off loneliness, it is a human thing and we all do it. The technical aspect of sex is the LEAST of it, even in moments when you’re basically rutting in a rumpled bed with someone you love (or, hell, don’t love). So rape is not sex, in that respect, although the act is the sex act. This is where it has the most impact. This is where it has a longer shelf-life than other types of assault. And it is so clear in the scene in Deliverance that the act is about power and contempt for the Mountain Man, not about getting his rocks off. It is about destroying the urban interloper who is symbolic of the destruction of their entire region. It is about letting these city slickers know, “This is exactly how much I think of you … this is what you deserve.”
It is the biggest dog in the room lording it over the weakest dog, reminding him who is boss.
It is the ugliest of human emotions, and Bill McKinney embodies it brilliantly.
Jon Voight, in his interview, introduces Bill McKinney, the actor who played the “Mountain Man”:
Bill McKinney was sensational in this part, so intimidating, so deranged. Powerful, physically. Unusual guy. Very good guy. He was a tree surgeon from Los Angeles. An actor, a singer, and a tree surgeon. And somehow they got him for this part.
Ned Beatty said, on filming the scene and working with McKinney:
The scene wasn’t going to be particularly physical the way it was written. But when we came up to start to getting ready to actually doing it, Mr. Boorman said, ‘I just don’t believe it. I don’t believe this guy is gonna drop his laundry and sort of give into this. I want you to run.’ I said, ‘Fine, I’ll run.’ But Bill was great to work with, especially in that regard.
And now, here is what Bill McKinney had to say:
It didn’t bother me that much. It’s all work to me. I am pretty much a contemporary sexual person. But I didn’t read that much sex into it. Interesting thing about it was: even when I was beating him up in the first of it, I chase him up the hill and I’m pulling his underwear and slapping him, I’m thinking all the time about protecting him, too. It’s interesting, thinking back on those things that come to your mind. Although there’s contempt there, I’m still taking care of him. I’m not losing control. And Beatty played it. He allowed himself, as far as I can see, in his own mind and heart, to be violated. It takes a lot of courage. It takes a lot of courage for a man to do that. He’s one hell of an actor.
Well, Mr. McKinney, you seem like a humble man, but I have to say: So are you. So are you.