Going Down the River at 40
Actor Ronny Cox Reminisces About Deliverance
A handful of weeks ago I was lucky enough to have a brief phone conversation with actor Ronny Cox. We were discussing the 40th anniversary of Deliverance and the new Blu-ray Warner Bros. had just delivered to the marketplace to celebrate the occasion. We also touched on his new book Dueling Banjos: The Deliverance of Drew, his side career as a musician and conversed for a few moments about some of his notable roles (most notably his appearances in Beverly Hills Cop, Total Recall and, of course, RoboCop). It was as pleasant, if far too brief, chat as Iíve had in ages. Here are some of the highlights:
Sara Michelle Fetters: Can you believe itís been 40 years since you first stepped out on location on Deliverance and here we are still obsessing over every detail of the film?
Ronny Cox: We were all [costars Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight and Ned Beatty] talking about that the other day, actually. We knew what we were doing was special, but for [Deliverance] to become such an iconic picture, especially because it was treated more as a horror picture at the time, it seems like people are starting to recognize the real artistic excellence of the film.
Sara Michelle: What amazes me so much about the movie, and what allows it to be such a joy to watch every time I view it, itís the kind of picture that people of all ages people can quote in almost equal measure. People just seem to keep watching this movie over and over, in every generation. No matter how many other films come along and pay homage or rip it off, this one manages to hold up remarkably well.
Ronny Cox: I think there are several reasons for that. I donít know of many films that were made like [Deliverance] or could be made like that currently. We shot in sequence. We shot with a minimal, skeleton crew. We did all of the canoeing ourselves. We did our own stunts. No would even attempt a lot of that today, especially with all the CGI stuff thatís going on.
Also, and Sara, see if you agree with me, but I think in lots of ways women got this film more than men did at first. Women had dealt with this whole idea of rape. They had dealt with these sorts of issues for years, for generations. I think this was the first time men were forced to deal consciously with the idea of rape, this loss of control, that this was not some sort of sensual act but one of brutality. I think in many ways women responded and respected that aspect faster, and initially stronger, than men did.
Sara Michelle: Absolutely. And itís the stuff that happens after that event I think that makes the film so visceral, so connective for women. Those discussions that you and Jon and Burt and Ned have, the way you all are forced to deal with the situation, I think these are all dialogues and debates women canít help but relate to and understand.
Ronny Cox: To this day, itís funny how each of our characters react to whatís happened and how viewers respond to what it is theyíre saying. I still personally believe Drew, my character, was right. Put the body in canoe, head down the river, turn themselves in and tell the truth that it was justifiable homicide and then face the consequences. But the other stuff makes a lot of sense in some ways, too. Bobby [Ned Beattyís character] obviously didnít want it getting around as to what happened, then there is the revenge factor, of course, in how they, some more than others, obviously, want to respond to the situation.
And people argue about that! They argue about who was right, who was wrong and about what the four of us should have done. And they argue about whether or not I was shot. Some firmly believe Drew was shot. Others know for certain he wasnít. And, if he wasnít shot, than that means they kill the wrong guy right after that, they kill an innocent man. All kinds of moral questions. All kinds of quandaries. These are the things I think people respond to and why the film still resonates today.
Sara Michelle: One of the geniuses of John Boorman and so many of his better films is that he does mine those grey areas, he doesnít give the audience an easy way out and likes to put them into the middle of those moral quandaries. It feels like, to me at least, heís absolutely unafraid to go to those places. Was that something you noticed and thought about as you were making the movie?
Ronny Cox: We discussed just that infinitum. John always went for less, always wanted to leave things ambiguous. We had big, long conversations about that, about whether or not Drew got shot. Heíd say, Ďyou can decide, you can decide, just make sure whatever you decide is absolutely ambiguous.í And that was his maxim. We could decide what actually happened to our characters for ourselves just as long as we didnít spell it out when we shot the scene.
Iíve had so many people over the years come up to me and argue one way or the other about whether Drew got shot. Happens all the time. There are all types of conundrums that come to life if you start thinking about it, and that was always the point; it was the type of reaction John Boorman and the rest of us were always going for.
Sara Michelle: When you were writing your book Dueling Banjos: The Deliverance of Drew, those had to be fun ideas and conundrums to be pondering and thinking about again I would imagine. Yes? No?
Ronny Cox: Hereís the thing, I wrote this book dictating. This book has no literary pretentions. I wanted it to feel like I was just sitting there, telling Drewís story. Sitting over a beer or a cup of coffee. So, the way I chose to do this is that I didnít write anything down. I was on a very long road trip and I got myself a digital recorder and I would drive along and tell these stories to whoever else was in the car. I if was alone, Iíd just continue telling the story as if somebody was there. At the end of the day, Iíd download it all and send the MP3ís the my editor and sheíd transcribe these stories verbatim.
What we found is that when we put it all together, that if we tried to clean it up and make it literary, we lost my voice. What was better for this story wasnít that it was grammatically correct but that it felt like it was Drew sitting down telling the tale. I canít say enough about the work my editor [Barbara Bowers] did on it to retain my voice.
Sara Michelle: Do you find it interesting that for your first film out of the gate youíre basically playing a character who is for all intents and purposes the moral center of the picture, and yet for the rest of your career youíre more or less known for playing authority figures, these hard-asses (both heroes and villains), who are in many ways the antithesis to Drew?
Ronny Cox: Well, thatís true, but it should be noted that for the next ten, twelve years [after Deliverance] I played only these sweet, nice guys. But, in many ways, RoboCop was as big a breakthrough as playing Drew was. All of a sudden, I got to play these bad guys, and the thing was I had all this residual good will built up from my previous characters so, when I was bad, I was badder than anybody. It was great.
Sara Michelle: For me, it was Beverly Hills Cop and your performance as Lt. Bogomil that brought you to my attention. When you were in Spokane filming Vision Quest, I was positive I saw you on the street one day and I kept shouting at my Dad, ďItís Bogomil! Itís Bogomil! Look, Dad, itís Bogomil!Ē So, I guess you could say your performance there made quite an early impression on me.
Ronny Cox: Itís funny, Iíve played all these bad guys and Presidents and heads of the National Guard and things like that, I also go out and play folk music at concerts a lot, and yet so many people still recognize me for that picture. Thatís another one thatís managed to hold up pretty well over the years, donít you think?
Sara Michelle: I definitely do. As for Deliverance, any final thoughts?
Ronny Cox: Itís such an iconic film. It was made in a way no other film can or will be made again. I think people need to check out the artistic excellence of John Boorman and [cinematographer] Vilmos Zsigmond. Iím so pleased that this Blu-ray is out there and they get the opportunity to do just that.