PALM BEACH, Fla. — On a humid Florida morning, four old Hollywood friends gathered at a Palm Beach hotel and waited for a civilized ride into the past.
The lobby was empty except for the actors — Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Ronnny Cox — and a small entourage, so the reunion was witnessed by only a few professionally disinterested bellhops and the bare-bottomed cherub who watched from a fountain.
By IMDB’s accounting the quartet has more than 500 screen credits among them. Of course, seeing the four together brings one specific film to mind, a film with a one-word title that is tangled in complicated history, scorched by taboo and drenched in emotion: “Deliverance.”
“Ah, here we go ... a van, not a canoe this time,” Voight said as an awaited shuttle arrived.
The two battered old canoes used in the 1972 film were nearby; the pitted shells are prized artifacts at the Burt Reynolds & Friends Museum in nearby Jupiter. There was a camera crew and makeup teams waiting on this January day too, all of it arranged by Warner Bros. to film a reunion conversation at the museum for a lavish 40th-anniversary Blu-ray edition (it arrives June 26 with a 42-page book and new commentary by director John Boorman).
“We’ve made an awful lot of movies between us, we’ve done a lot of things, but that one was different, that one was ‘Deliverance,’” said Cox, who went on to portray abrasive authority figures in “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Robo-Cop.” “It’s the one that strangers usually ask about. The reactions? They’re all over the place.”
But nostalgia is complicated with this movie, more even than last year’s milestone anniversary for “A Clockwork Orange” or the 2010 theatrical repossession of “The Exorcist” to promote a new Blu-ray edition, two other early-1970s films that pushed the envelope for cringing cinema and, like “Deliverance,” earned Academy Award nominations for best picture. “Deliverance” was not about the devil, nor was it set in some dystopian future. It was about four Atlanta businessmen who approach a weekend camping trip with varying degrees of hubris and find themselves in a backwoods nightmare.
Pummeled by nature and terrorized by two psychotic mountain men, the movie’s defining scene is a sexual assault at gunpoint. Voight’s character, an empathetic everyman who loathes his own timidity, is tied to a tree by his neck while Beatty’s character, a doughy insurance agent, is made to strip before he is sodomized. The protracted scene spares no one — not the victim, his friend, the actors or the audience.
There were only thin smiles as the actors stood over the battered old boats that their characters paddled into the Southern darkness. After a while, watching the stars together was like watching family members gritting their teeth during a Thanksgiving that comes stuffed with too much shared history.
Their characters — who were introduced in the 1970 novel by author and poet James Dickey, who also wrote the screenplay — were testing the waters of the Cahulawassee River, which was going to forever be changed by a dam project. In the film, that fictitious waterway was played by the Chattooga and Tallulah rivers in northern Georgia.
“None of us had ever paddled a river before we got in these boats,” said Reynolds, his arms folded across a teal sweater. “At that time, no one had done the Chattooga in a canoe. We practiced in a little pond, flat water, and both boats flipped right away. Two old paddlers were on the banks watching, and one turns to the other and says, “I reckon this is going to be a long summer.”
The actors risked life and limb during the unusual shoot, which proceeded in the same order as the narrative to capture the cumulative bruising of body, clothes, props and psyches.
Reynolds cracked his tailbone and Beatty almost drowned when got caught in a pummeling hydraulic, the whitewater term for hammering gush of falling water. “I thought, ‘This is where I die,’ and my wife was pregnant and I thought about how mad she would be that I died in a river in Georgia,” Beatty said.
The mayhem continued on dry land too, with the boozy rages of the bearish Dickey, who didn’t appreciate Boorman’s conflicting ideas. The bickering reached a thunderclap moment and Dickey lunged at the “Point Blank” filmmaker and popped him hard with a ham-like fist. Four teeth cracked open.
In the aftermath, the poet who wrote “Drowning With Others” was sent away and, according to Voight, was stung by the perceived betrayal.
“It’s very difficult to question the judgment of John Boorman, however,” Voight said. “It’s all there on the screen. He edited the film on the set. He knew every shot and what it would look like, and he knew when we had it and moved on.”
The terrain was breathtaking as presented by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (who would go on to win an Oscar for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), but it was Boorman’s hand and eye that was in control. Voight said Boorman, who could not be reached for this article, would audaciously cup a hand over the camera lens after he got he wanted so the studio wouldn’t have other editing options.
Voight wasn’t thrilled with the director’s experiments when, on the first day, he took an extended shot in which the city visitors meet locals and Cox played music with a youngster who appears to have developmental disabilities. “I had movies where a director might ask for 57 takes, and on that shot, there was one,” said Voight, who had come off “Midnight Cowboy” and “Catch-22.” “I protested, asked for a moment and he said, ‘Can you do better than that?’ And he just started walking.”
Voight was the only proven silver-screen star in the cast. Reynolds had been a star on television and was catching attention for the winking charisma he showed on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” The former Florida State football hero viewed “Deliverance” as a tryout for the pro league, and he signaled to Voight early on that he was not going to let anybody block him.
Reynolds went on to become one of the biggest box-office stars in Hollywood but wasn’t in many films with the gravitas and nuance of “Deliverance.” Asked if “Boogie Nights” might be an equal to the Boorman success, Reynolds sneered. “I’d like to break that director’s leg,” said the actor, now 76 but still sounding like Lewis Medlock, the hearty “Deliverance” character who wants to challenge river “because it’s there.”
Cox and Voight, both 73, are especially proud of their theater background, and on the flight from L.A. the two went in circles debating the history of the Arena Theater in Washington and their stints there.
The actors aren’t the likeliest of companions. Voight, for example, is well known on the talk-show circuit as one of Hollywood’s rare firebrand conservatives, while Cox is a touring folk singer still in tune with the far-left 1960s sound. Then there’s short, plump Beatty, 74, whose floppy hat, crooked smile and ever-escaping shirttails made him look like an unmade bed next to trim and poker-faced Reynolds, the 1970s sex symbol who seems to be made of polished surfaces, from jewelry to unmoving hair.
Boorman knew the rape scene was the most dangerous waters the production would face. If it was clumsy or off-key, the entire movie might implode onscreen.
“John looked me in the eye and asked me, ‘Is this something you can do? Can you do this part?’” Beatty recalled. “I just said, ‘I’m an actor, I can do it.’ The tone wasn’t polite.”
Decades later, Beatty was playing Big Daddy in a production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in London and Boorman flew in from Ireland so he could be backstage waiting for him.
“It was the only time I ever saw John look old,” Beatty told Cox and Voight. “I just thanked him and told just how much appreciated him making the trip. And then I blurted out, ‘I know why you hired me for ‘Deliverance’ — it was just because I was such a bastard, I was so rude.’ And he looked up at me from this table and said, ‘No, no, I hired you because of your anger. I knew you were going to need that to keep going.’”
Beatty shook his head. “Imagine that. And he was right.”