T here were a number of glaring omissions among the Oscar nominations announced last week, but one of the names most conspicuous by its absence was that of Ned Beatty. An American character actor with more than 45 movies under his belt, Beatty delivers the performance
of a lifetime in Hear My Song, a British film spiked with an elixir of Irish magic. Beatty plays real-life Irish tenor Josef Locke, a celebrated performer who reduced women to tears in British music halls during the 1950s. Locke fled to Ireland at the end of the decade to avoid arrest on charges of tax evasion. Hear My Song is a romantic comedy about a contemporary Liverpool promoter who tries to lure Locke back from exile. It is a fictional story, a concoction of wit and whimsy. But its enchantment is grounded in a strong sense of authenticity—in
soul-stirring music, rugged Irish landscape and the quiet conviction of Beatty’s acting.
The story revolves around an Irish-born promoter named Micky (Adrian Dunbar), who is desperately trying to save his nightclub and impress his sweetheart, Nancy (Tara Fitzgerald). In the late 1950s, Nancy’s mother, Cathleen (Shirley Anne Field), had a passionate love affair with "Jo” Locke after being crowned Miss Dairy Goodness in a contest that he had judged. But when Locke fled to Ireland, their romance was cut short. Micky decides that, by bringing the singer out of exile and reuniting him with Cathleen, he can dazzle both his girlfriend and his clientele.
He hires a singer who he believes is Locke, but who is billed as “Mr. X” (William Hootkins). The man turns out to be a fake, infuriating Cathleen and the club’s patrons. Determined to make amends, Micky goes to Ireland to look for the real Locke. Finally, in a remote corner of the country, he finds the singer, an ornery recluse with a violent mistrust of strangers. Dunbar and director Peter Chelsom, who co-wrote the script, based Micky's escapade on their own attempts to find the real Locke, now 74, and enlist his support for the film.
Hear My Song begins and ends in Liverpool with the fanciful tone of comic opera. But in the middle, the camera’s haunting images of the Irish coast evoke a mood of magic realism, which seems directly connected to the buried treasure of Locke’s own personality. Beatty does not appear until halfway through the movie. But when he does, he conveys the singer’s mystique with a richly resonant performance. And following Mr. X’s flamboyant impersonation, the actor’s subtle rendering makes the character seem all the more genuine. Said Beatty in a recent interview: “I’m now very aware that there’s nothing better than playing a part where they talk about you a lot before you make your entrance.”
That also happened in 1976’s Network, for which he received an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor for just six minutes of screen time—as a television mogul who unleashes a devastating sermon about corporate cosmology. In Hear My Song, Beatty is again a supporting player—but also the star. He makes the movie his own, creating the kind of magic that Hollywood spends millions trying to manufacture. For Beatty, Hear My Song is an unalloyed triumph—even if tin-eared Oscar refuses to listen.
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