One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 96
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Deliverance was my first R-rated film. I saw it at the Menlo Park Cinema in Edison, New Jersey, 50 years ago this month, two weeks after it opened on August 18, 1972.
I was nine years old.
I can already hear you asking, “What kind of parent brings a nine-year-old to see Deliverance!?”
Well, it was my idea. (You’re probably asking same the question again…). Okay, here’s the story: The previous spring, I had received straight A’s on my precious third grade report card and my parents were so pleased that they wanted to give me a gift to commemorate the accomplishment. Upon asking what I might like, my immediate response was, “I want to see an R-rated movie!”
Ah, the allure of an R-rated movie! The idea had been percolating in my mind since I began seeing ads and commercial for movies that looked particularly intriguing but being denied to me. Movies like M*A*S*H (1970), Dirty Harry (1971) and Shaft (1971)—this is the kind of stuff I really wanted to see, though I learned soon enough that my very cool parents were still understandably wary of the sex, violence and other adult situations the films might contain. Still, I was a pretty hip kid….
By that time, my mom and dad parents had already taken me to see such PG-rated but still relatively mature films as Billy Jack (1971), The Omega Man (1971) and the sort of dull G-rated sci-fiers The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Silent Running (1972). Back in 1968, when I was five, my dad even brought me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I didn’t really enjoy or understand at the time, but, my oh my, I would seriously come to love over the subsequent five decades.
Anyway, my parents agreed with the concept of my gift, though they reserved the right to nix any choice I made should they deem the film to be a bit too much. In the summer of 1972, there were two movies up for my consideration.
The first possibility was The French Connection, William Friedkin’s Academy Award-winning 1971 policier that was currently enjoyed a major rerelease (remember those?). Next, there was Deliverance, a new film that I had seen a lengthy TV ad for and that looked pretty exciting to me. Its rough-looking “man vs. nature” theme involving a bunch of guys in canoes appealed to me even at my young age. The commercial was scored to the famous “Dueling Banjos” bluegrass instrumental riff that was featured in the film and later issued as a single, where it reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
I decided upon Deliverance, which was based on poet-author James Dickey’s 1970 bestselling novel, which neither of my parents had read. But having checked out the reviews of both the novel and John Boorman’s film adaptation, they did know what is was all about. And though they knew there was a particularly ugly and very adult segment contained in it, they signed off on my choice.
My father took me to see Deliverance the week before Labor Day—a matinee screening, not too crowded.
It was intense.
Deliverance revolves around a quartet of Atlanta businessmen—Lewis, Ed, Bobby and Drew—who decide to canoe down the Cahulawassee River in the remote northern Georgia wilderness before it is dammed. One of the men, Lewis (played by Burt Reynolds) is an experienced outdoorsman; his buddy Ed (Jon Voight) has been on a few trips but isn’t really seasoned or tough; while Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox) are novices. Needless to say, the city boys, after behaving a bit rudely to some of the locals early on, soon find themselves in over their heads when they encounter the river’s roaring rapids, the rugged surrounding terrain and a pair of nasty mountain men, leading to a struggle for their very survival.
It was and is tough stuff. And, yes, there’s a sexual assault scene at the midway point involving one of the mountain men and Bobby that remains one of the most terrifying and disturbing sequences to ever appear in a mainstream movie. I can say now, as I did then, that I didn’t really understand what was happening on the screen during the assault. Asking my father in a whisper, he whispered back, to his credit, “The mountain man is really hurting Bobby. And his friends can’t help him.”
So intense. The story, the you-are-there depiction of the wilderness, the horrors Bobby and his friends had to endure. Most unnerving to me back then was that I understood how each of the men, even the manly Lewis, comes to realize that he is out of his element.
I was still, of course, a bit too young to be able to isolate or identify the storytelling and filmmaking techniques that made it work so well. But remembering that first time I saw it and having seen it at least a half-dozen times since, I can say that Deliverance certainly delivered.
I thought the film’s four stars were really good actors, too. I hadn’t seen any of them before, but little did I know that I would see them all again on the big screen many times over the ensuing five decades, along with other films made by director Boorman. Without a doubt, Deliverance was one of the films that sparked my interested in following contemporary cinema. And this was before “Dueling Banjos” and the phrase “Squeal like a pig!” became entrenched in American popular culture.
Fifty years later, it is heartening to note that none of the principals fell into the “Where Are They Now?” file. With Deliverance and his iconic nude photospread in Cosmopolitan that same year, followed up by such Seventies smashes as The Longest Yard (1974), Gator (1976) and Smokey and The Bandit (1977), Burt Reynolds catapulted to high-orbiting, if undistinguished, superstardom. Jon Voight, having already garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for 1968’s Midnight Cowboy, went on to bring home the gold for 1978’s Coming Home. And there were more praised performances of his to come in Runaway Train (1985), Heat (1995), Ali (2001) and TV’s Ray Donovan.
The film’s other two stars, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, went on to respectable, decades-long careers as primarily supporting players in a number of films and TV series—Beatty in Nashville (1975), Network (1976), Superman (1979) The Big Easy (1986), Hear My Song (1991) and Charlie Wilson’s War (2007); Cox in Bound for Glory (1976), The Onion Field (1979), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990) and TV’s Nashville (2018).
Reynolds and Beatty have both since passed away, Reynolds in 2018 at the age of 82; Beatty in 2021 at the age of 83.
As for director John Boorman, he continued to make films for the next 40 years, among them the critically lauded Excalibur (1981), The Emerald Forest (1985), Hope and Glory (1987), The General (1998) featuring Jon Voight, The Tailor of Panama (2001) and, most recently, Queen and Country (2014). He’s 89 now and retired from filmmaking.
A couple of weeks after Deliverance, following a good deal of pleading, I convinced my father to take me to The French Connection (how much more “inappropriate” could it be, I relentlessly argued), which was awesome. My mother came, too, as she was a Brooklyn-born gal and wanted to see the film’s already-classic car chase through Bensonhurst that everyone was talking about.
Several months later, at the end of the first half of the school year, I once again received straight A’s on my report card. To celebrate, my dad took me to see The Poseidon Adventure, the first in a cycle of Seventies disaster flicks.
It was great!
But it was only rated PG, so no biggie.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.