Actor Ned Beatty has died at the age of 83. Beatty had a long and wonderful and varied career, and he played a wide variety of characters. I suppose he’s seen more as a “character actor” than as a lead, but…I don’t know, surely there should be something between a character actor and a proper lead, right? Beatty was always recognizable, but he never seemed the same, if that makes any sense. Every time I saw him in something he managed to create something all new. My first exposure to him was in Superman: The Movie, which remains my favorite superhero movie to this day, even after everything the MCU has done, and he showed up pretty reliably over the years. Even if the movie I was seeing was a total stinker–the Richard Pryor movie The Toy leaps to mind, and it’s mindboggling that a movie that bad could result despite the presence of Pryor, Jackie Gleason, and Ned Beatty–there was always a total professionalism to Beatty’s work.
My favorite of Ned Beatty’s movies is Hear My Song, a comedy from 1991, which is not at all well-known. I take every opportunity that comes along to beat the drum for this movie, because it’s just a warm-hearted joyful romp through the world of beloved Irish tenors, old seaside villages, skeevy concert promoters, and angry tax cops. I wrote about Hear My Song some years ago, and I repost that review below. I’m only sorry to note that I don’t actually single out Mr. Beatty’s performance in the movie for special mention, because the movie wouldn’t work if he wasn’t absolutely fantastic.
Please watch Hear My Song, if you can! It’s available to rent on YouTube (and as I write this, the entire thing is actually available for free via some user I don’t know, but who knows how long it will take the copyright folks to shut that down). You won’t regret it, I promise.
Thanks for the movies, Ned Beatty! You were one of the greats.
Hear My Song (1991)
Years ago, when we’d been dating a year or so, The Girlfriend (now The Wife) rented a movie for us to watch. It was a British comedy that I’d never heard of, called Hear My Song. We both absolutely loved it, and it’s been one of those movies that I’ve wanted to watch again ever since, even though it’s been really hard to locate a copy, to the point where it then became one of those movies of which I have greatly fond memories that maybe I don’t want to revisit, on the off chance that my memories of it are more nostalgic than accurate. Or, to put it another way, I was afraid that maybe this movie had been visited by the Suck Fairy.
Well, Hear My Song is, as of this writing, available for streaming on Netflix, which proved to be a temptation too great. So I watched it, and…absolutely loved it again.
Adrian Dunbar (who co-wrote the movie, and who would later secure semi-immortality in Star Wars lore by playing Senator Bail Organa in The Phantom Menace, only to see his scenes cut entirely from the film and the role recast with Jimmy Smits in the subsequent Prequels) plays Mickey O’Neill, a young man who runs a dinner club and musical revue. The place isn’t making great money (in the first scene, Mickey has to take the stage himself) and he isn’t popular with his landlords, who decide to evict after a scheme to let word of mouth sell tickets for a crappy singer named Franc Cinatra results in bad blood. His next money-making effort is to book Irish tenor Joseph Locke, who is legendary in this town but has lived in Ireland for more than thirty years because he’s wanted for tax evasion.
Locke is the Maguffin of the movie. First, no one is sure if the guy claiming to be Locke is really Locke or not, and second, Locke didn’t just evade taxes as much as he literally ran out of town, avoiding arrest by inches (and by pushing a cop off the boat on which he was fleeing) and running out on the affair he was having with a local beauty queen. This beauty queen turns out, later on, to be Mickey’s girlfriend’s mother, and after she has a late-night tryst with the man claiming to be Joseph Locke, she loudly announces that he is not. Ouch. Mickey loses the theater, his girlfriend, everything…unless he can get to Ireland and bring back the real Joseph Locke.
There’s nothing in this movie that’s really all that surprising at all, at least until the end, when things turn in a way that is reminiscent of endings like The Shawshank Redemption‘s, in that elements that have been in place the entire way suddenly turn out to be relevant in surprising and deeply pleasing ways. I don’t want to spell it out, but this movie has one of my favorite endings, ever.
But an ending can’t work as well as this one does by being clever; it also has to have the emotional heft to it, and this one does. This is a movie about likable people who have, occasionally in their lives, done unlikable things, but in most cases they are trying to atone for them, or recognize their misdeeds when they come back to haunt them. There isn’t a single unflawed character in this film, all the way to Mickey himself, who seems emotionally stunted in some ways, and whose main skill in life seems to be a gift for bullshit. (One of his favorite tricks is to appeal to the older generation, who lived through World War II, by giving a speech that starts off with “I grew up in peacetime.”
With comedies like this, it’s easy to describe them in such a way that makes them sound like serious dramas. Hear My Song is most definitely a comedy; in fact, it ranks high on my personal list of funniest movies I’ve seen. A scene involving a bar full of Irishmen trying to assist one of their brethren with a dental problem is hysterical, and the best gag involves our two drunken heroes and their curiosity as to the depth of a particular well. More than that I must not say.
Hear My Song is, for me, so good that I don’t understand how it’s managed to fall so completely off the radar. It has a wonderfully witty script full of memorable characters, it’s photographed beautifully, the music is fantastic, and the cast is tremendous, led by Dunbar and by Ned Beatty as Joseph Locke (the real one). And if you’ve ever watched Star Wars: A New Hope and wondered just how good an actor William Hootkins really was (he sadly died a few years back), well, Hear My Song will give you an answer.
What a wonderful, wonderful movie!