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'Deliverance' crew returns to the river

A 40th-anniversary Blu-ray release of John Boorman's taut classic reunites actors Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox.

June 17, 2012|By Geoff Boucher, Los Angeles Times
  • Jon Voight, left, Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty and Burt Reynolds in Jupiter, Fla., for a "Deliverance" cast reunion.
Jon Voight, left, Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty and Burt Reynolds in Jupiter, Fla.,… (Warner Home Video )

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 Ronny 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-rayedition (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 newBlu-rayedition, 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."

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