‘Deliverance’ Continues to Define Burt Reynolds’ Career and Stereotypes in Appalachia

Actor Burt Reynolds talks about his new movie “The Crew” and his character Joey “The Bats” Pistella from his hotel suite at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel, Aug. 20, 2000, in Miami Beach, Fla. Photo: Amy E. Conn/AP Photo

The recent passing of actor Burt Reynolds has left the nation celebrating the man Rolling Stone deemed “The Last Good Ol’ Boy movie star.” His career spanned decades and roles in films like “Smokey and the Bandit” and “Boogie Nights” made him a household name, but in Appalachia, Reynolds is perhaps best known for a film that shapes perceptions of the region even today.

Even you have probably whistled or hummed a few notes from “Dueling Banjos” because of it.

More than 46 years after its release, the 1972 thriller “Deliverance” remains one of the most recognized pictures in American film history. Deliverance was preserved in the National Film Registry in 2008, which describes the film’s setting as a “gripping Appalachian ‘Heart of Darkness.’” It was chronicled by a New York Times dispatch as “redefining masculinity.”

The Library of Congress canonizes “Deliverance”’s engagement with allegorical themes, writing, “With dazzling visual flair, director John Boorman and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond infuse James Dickey’s novel with scenes of genuine terror and frantic struggles for survival battling river rapids — and in the process create a work rich with fascinating ambiguities about “civilized” values, urban-versus-backwoods culture, nature, and man’s supposed taming of the environment.”

“Deliverance” is, without fail, relentless and cerebral. Cultural references to the film have survived several generations, making it one of the most quoted screenplays of the late twentieth century. Today, much of the contemporary coverage marking recurring anniversaries of the film’s 1972 release often reflects on “Deliverance”’s conflation of rural space and rural people with terror and the grotesque.

Prior to filming, director John Boorman had never been to the American South.

“We needed someone who looked inbred for the banjo player,” Boorman told The Guardian in 2017. “My assistant found this boy, Billy Redden, who looked extraordinary, but couldn’t play. So, we made a shirt with an extra sleeve in it, and a musician crouched behind doing the fretwork as Redden strummed,.”

“There was a lot written afterwards about how ‘Deliverance’ libelled mountain people,” Boorman said, “but the locals were thrilled with the film.”

That wasn’t true for all locals, though, including “Banjo Boy” Billy Redden himself, who was reduced to a moniker that mocked his immortalized role., Redden regrets his cameo in “Deliverance” and he told The New Yorker working with Burt Reynolds on the film wasn’t ideal.

“Burt didn’t want to say nothing to nobody,” he shared with The New Yorker’s Tad Friend. “He wasn’t polite. And he made us look real bad—he said on television that all people in Rabun County do is watch cars go by and spit.” Later, Redden told American Public Media that “I’d like to have all the money I thought I’d make from this movie. I wouldn’t be working at Walmart right now. And I’m struggling really hard to make ends meet.”

That struggle likely led Redden to appear in a TV cameo role that invoked the cultural afterlife of Banjo Boy in a 2004 Blue Collar TV comedy montage staring notable comedians Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy. The sketch depicted an “entry” in Foxworthy’s famous ongoing sketch series detailing a glossary of terms of the supposed “redneck” vernacular in which Redden was asked to appear playing a banjo in a part of a sketch where the comedian informed the audience that “raisin bread” means “Ray’s inbred” in redneck-speak. Perpetuating the “Deliverance” narrative.

The ubiquitous “Paddle faster, I hear banjos,” reference from the film became a shorthand to convey fear or bemusement with finding oneself in “treacherous” rural places or around unfamiliar rural people.

The graphic depictions of sexual violence and subplots that lead the audience to imagine a  pervasiveness of intercommunity incest in the rural Appalachian county film setting have contributed to the centuries-old narratives that make claims about mythic perversity and sexual degeneracy in rural American societies. “Deliverance”‘s cast of city dwellers who accidentally find themselves in hinterland flippantly murmur comments like “Talk about genetic deficiencies—isn’t that pitiful?” in a dialogue that consistently hints at a specter of perverse sexual transgressions rampant off road.

In reality, this subtext in the 1972 thriller became canon fodder in the mythmaking of a “backwardsness” that lurks beyond our urban centers that has since made for stock tropes overused in writing about Appalachian people and wilderness. In many ways, the cultural afterlife of “Deliverance” in the American popular consciousness has created a challenge for Appalachian people to respond to stigma about public and private aspects of life in our region and done little more but contribute to stereotypes.

In the wake of the passing of one of “Deliverance”’s lead actors, Burt Reynolds, who played pack-leader Lewis, I’ve spent a few nights in marathon mode. The film was credited for being career break for Reynolds, who reflected on the significance of his role as Lewis in some of his final interviews.

Here in Appalachia, we’re no strangers to embracing cultural touchstones that we find ourselves feeling ambivalent about.

I, for one, love NASCAR–a sport with a storied history of distinctly Appalachian mischief–which is often denigrated as being uncool vis-a-vis some of the same social stigmas introduced by films like “Deliverance” in the millennial alternative subcultures I often find myself in. I renounced my fandom for years, catching Daytona 500s in exile, because it became pervasive to lampoon so many cultural artifacts from my childhood until I learned that many of these conceptions were informed by classist stigma associated with things that are popular or common in Appalachian locales. Think: living in mobile homes is often seen as shameful and “trashy” while living in tiny homes is seen as cosmopolitan, eco-conscious, and chic.

Now, ever-popular Instagram models sport Dale Earnhardt ephemera in played-out streetwear looks with classic checkered Vans slip-ons as an ironic nod to early 2000s culture. Go figure.

In coming weeks, I’ll be reflecting on what it means to consume so many of my favorite exports of Reynolds’ critical acclaim in that fuzzy, uncertain place between being in critical analysis and sentimental nostalgia.

One the skills I’m most devoted to developing in my emotional life is the ability to hold onto a patient refrain from marking human beings “good” or “bad,” redeemable or irredeemable, worthy or unworthy. I’ve tried to refuse applying polarizing, binary logics to make sense of the actions of others because so much of us is impossible to categorize and so much of our histories can be explained by the formative events in our lives that have made us who we are.

The same is true of Appalachia. Counter to the narratives perpetuated by “Deliverance”’s reinforcement of ideas of the region as backwards and culturally incompetent, diversity of opinion does exist here after all.

It’s true that some roles in Burt Reynolds’ canon have led to unmatched stigma for Appalachian people and lifeways. And sometimes, we can feel like we’re trapped in a liminal space of not knowing what we feel when we lose a complicated figure in our society, but it’s okay to be patient.

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