Posted by Susan Doll on February 11, 2013
As a valentine to one of my favorite stars, I offer a celebratory tribute to Burt Reynolds, who turns 77 today. He is one of a handful of genuine stars, like Kurt Russell and Bruce Willis, who are underrated or unappreciated probably because they are associated with genre films. Reynolds is best remembered for his action-based comedies featuring car chases and stunts and for appearing nude in Cosmopolitan magazine. Both made use of his movie star image as the handsome, charming smart aleck with the crazy laugh. However, his career was more varied than a nude centerfold and the Smokey and the Bandit series suggests, and his appeal was much broader compared to action stars today.
Reynolds began his career in television, guest-starring in single episodes of small-screen westerns and occasionally landing a starring role in a series. I first noticed him in Gunsmoke, one of my Dad’s favorite shows, playing a half-Indian blacksmith named Quint. Though I was just a little girl, I took notice of the dark, handsome character with the killer biceps. Before Gunsmoke (1962-65), he played Ben Frazer in Riverboat (1959-60); afterwards, he was the title character in Hawk (1966) and Dan August (1970-71). The best guest-star appearance by Reynolds during his television days was in an episode of The Twilight Zone titled “The Bard,” in which he played Brando-like actor Rocky Rhodes. As a spoof of method actors and their eccentricities, Reynolds captured Brando’s mannerisms and vocal inflections with the just the right amount of exaggeration, revealing a talent for comedy.
Reynolds also benefitted from television through his appearances on The Tonight Show, where he showed off his sense of humor and comedic timing. The affable actor seemed in sharp contrast to the strong silent type he played on the small screen and to his macho character in the film Deliverance. Some entertainment writers have blamed his self-deprecating jokes and antics on late-night television for ultimately side-tracking his career. They have speculated that his appearances took away the mystery from his star image, or that his comments about his acting helped spur the notion that he could only mug—not act. I am not sure I agree. Reynolds was more than a late-night guest. He appeared on afternoon talk shows, which were more female friendly, while his love life was the subject of television gossip mavens like Rona Barrett. Thus, television helped create and then sustain other facets to his star image that attracted female fans. More than his centerfold for Cosmopolitan, his romance with singer and talk-show host Dinah Shore cemented his stardom with women. Instead of wooing some air-headed starlet, Reynolds was involved with the much older Shore for many years. I recall when he surprised Shore on her talk show by showing up unexpectedly and publicly displaying affection for her. The women in the audience went crazy, screaming with delight—and envy. Later, he took up with Sally Field, television’s sweetheart from female friendly shows like Gidget and The Flying Nun. This aspect of his personal life appealed to women and helped solidify a female fan base while his star was on the rise.
Reynolds became a genuine old-fashioned movie star during the 1970s—an anomaly in the era of the Film School Generation when method-style actors like Pacino, DeNiro, Hackman, and Hoffman won all the awards. Reynolds’s filmography offers a curious combination of movies, including those that were not successful. Personally, I find the Reynolds’s flops from the 1970s as interesting as his successes. The most notorious disaster has to be At Long Last Love (1975), Peter Bogdanovich’s tribute to 1930s musicals in which actors who were clearly not singers or dancers warbled and waddled through some of Cole Porter’s greatest songs. Deconstructing genres was in vogue for directors of the Film School Generation, but audiences did not always care for the results. If it was any consolation to Bogdanovich, Coppola’s One from the Heart tanked, too. The colorful Roaring Twenties comedy Lucky Lady (1975) featured Reynolds alongside Gene Hackman and Liza Minnelli for a strange combination of acting styles. Then Reynolds re-teamed with Bogdanovich for one of my favorite films, Nickelodeon (1976), a well-researched comedy about the pioneering days of the film industry. Not only does the film take place in the early days of cinema, but the characters and broad acting styles recall those of the pre-Hollywood era, including Reynolds’s dimwitted but lovable cowboy. It was a broad performance that turned his proclivity for stunts into physical comedy. These roles represent the choices of an actor willing to stretch beyond the confines of his heroic leading-man image found in The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), Shamus (1973), Hustle (1975), and every male’s favorite Reynolds film, The Longest Yard (1974).
In 1977, Reynolds was cast in a movie that seemed to combine all the facets of his big and small-screen personas—Smokey and the Bandit. The film thrived on slam-bang action, broad comedy, and a romantic chemistry with the film’s female lead, Sally Field. Smokey and the Bandit became the second highest-grossing film of the year; second only to Star Wars. The film may have secured Reynolds’s superstardom, but in retrospect, it narrowed his image to that of the fun-loving good ol’ boy who romanced women, drove fast cars, flaunted authority, and bonded with his male sidekicks. And, critics were quick to condemn the Smokey sequels that followed and the dismal Cannonball Run series as evidence of a bankrupted career (e.g., “Whatever Happened to Burt?” by John M. Wilson in the Los Angeles Times). However, at the same time, he costarred in a series of comedies opposite some of the era’s most popular actresses: The End (1978) with Field, Starting Over (1979) with Candice Bergen and Jill Clayburgh, Paternity (1981) with Beverly D’Angelo and Lauren Hutton, and Best Friends (1982) with Goldie Hawn. Again, there was more to Reynolds than stunts, car chases, and a flashy grin.
Even during Reynolds’s rapid tumble from box-office heights in the 1980s, he appeared in unique films such as Breaking In (1989), Scottish director Bill Forsyth’s character study of an aging thief who mentors a young man in the craftsmanship of breaking and entering. Memorable character roles in Striptease (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), and Mystery, Alaska (1999) sparked talk of a comeback, but if you look at his filmography, he never went away. His 50-year career represents the ups and downs, successes and challenges of an old-school movie star—the kind that attracts loyal fans and hostile critics.
My absolute favorite Reynolds’s films are those about the South—and I don’t mean the cartoon South of Smokey and the Bandit. (Though that doesn’t mean I don’t like the film.) Raised in Rivera Beach, Florida, Reynolds understood the unique culture and flavor of the South, and films like White Lightning (1973), Gator (1976), the W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975), even Stick (1985) traded on an authentic depiction of the South’s regional identity.
The best, White Lightning, has a nice feel for Southern (sub)culture, and it captured the working-class South at an interesting moment in time. The storyline is similar to Billy Jack (1971 in that Reynolds plays Gator McKluskey, an ex-con whose little brother was a counterculture student activist killed by corrupt Sheriff Connors. McKluskey teams with the feds to bring down the sheriff and investigate the murder of his brother. At this time, much of America was still reeling from the upheaval of the 1960s, and the South was no different, but its isolation, rural traditions, and nostalgia for a long-gone agrarian lifestyle made the radical ideals of the counterculture even more alien. Gator’s chosen path as a bootlegger pegs him as figure from another era, especially because his father had also been a ‘shine runner, while his younger brother embraced the hippie lifestyle of the new age. Gator speaks proudly of his brother, who was the first in the family to go to college, which was true in many rural families at the time. As he investigates his younger brother’s life and friends, the culture clash is apparent—not only between Gator and his sibling but between the South and a rapidly changing America. The realization of this insurmountable gap creates an air of melancholy. Still, it is fitting that it is Gator who rids the town of the sheriff, instead of the feds or outsiders, because rural Southerners are independent to a fault, preferring to take care of themselves and their own problems. Gator (and the Southern working class) and his brother (the counterculture) do share something in common—a disdain for authority figures. Gator may represent a nostalgia for a rural lifestyle that was fading away, but the sheriff embodies the classism and racism of the Old South that the so-called New South of the 1970s wanted to bury once and for all. Gator’s weapon of choice is a souped-up ‘shine running car, which he uses to maneuver Connors off a cliff. This is an image–even an irony–that Southern audiences would appreciate, given the stories about legendary daredevil bootleggers who were chased along the region’s winding two-lanes by cops, feds, and revenuers.
Shot in Arkansas, White Lightning, directed by Joseph Sargent, captures the geography and ambience of the 1970s South—misty swamps, winding back roads, “shaky pudding” (look it up), relentless heat, and homes for unwed mothers who are 16 going on 40. Corrupt Sheriff Connors may be a jab at real-life Eugene “Bull” Connor, the notorious sheriff of Birmingham during the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s.
Reynolds would go on to direct the sequel to White Lightning, Gator, which launched his secondary career as a director—but that’s a post for another time.
Happy Birthday, Burt Reynolds.
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