Monday, April 16, 2007
Recently a discussion came up in a film class I am taking about the idea of a 'star' in films. One of the main points that kept coming up was how a 'star' is often cast in the same role basically over and over again. That ultimately a ticket is bought for a persona not a performance. I think this is often true and a lot of careers have been buried because of it. My thoughts during the lecture kept coming back to Burt Reynolds in the 1970s. Here was possibly the biggest star of the decade who continually kept going against what was expected of him, a star who for awhile at least was actually accepted for his unpredictability.
Ask most people under thirty about Burt Reynolds and the first image that will pop into their head is the 'good ol boy' persona that was played out in films like SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and countless others. I doubt very seriously they would even recognize the Native American thief Yaqui Joe in 100 RIFLES or the singing dapper Michael in AT LONG LAST LOVE. Show them a clip of the nostalgic Phil in HUSTLE or the recently divorced Phil in STARTING OVER and they will probably just scratch their head over the fact that it is indeed that same 'good old boy' in each role.
The astonishing film career of former football player Burt Reynolds begin in 1959 with a part in the series M SQUAD. Throughout the early sixties this striking and uniquely beautiful man would feature in many of the era's television programs ranging from THE TWILIGHT ZONE to GUNSMOKE. His Quint in GUNSMOKE, a part Tarantino was named after, was particularly memorable and it got him the part in the great Sergio Corbucci's NAVAJO JOE. This inventive Euro western featured Reynold's as the near silent Joe and boasted one of Ennio Morricone's most intense scores of the period. Reynold's didn't like the film and for a few years after it was more tv work until the great 100 RIFLES arrived in 1969.
Tom Gries' 100 RIFLES has one of the most beautiful casts of the 1960s ranging from Reynolds to the towering Jim Brown and Raquel Welch at her most stunning. Also featured was a jaw droppingly beautiful young actress named Soledad Miranda who, from her iconic work with Jess Franco, is one of the most missed and loved actresses of the period. 100 RIFLES was a solid and very entertaining western that features a great performance by Reynolds but it didn't quite make him a star.
Three years would pass with more film and television work before Burt landed two of his most iconic roles in the 1972 features FUZZ and DELIVERANCE. FUZZ is a real favorite of mine and it is one of the first films where we can see Burt getting to practice his fine comedic chops. Opposite again Raquel Welch this underrated Ed Mcbain adaptation works as a sharp black comedy and police thriller. Reynold's portrayal of Detective Carella shows him equally at home with comedy, drama and action. These are the three genres Reynolds would continue to hop throughout the seventies and FUZZ works as a fine primer to all of them.
John Boorman's legendary DELIVERANCE is without question one of the key films of the seventies and Burt's portrayal of Lewis is one of the greatest and most visceral performances of the decade. When the Oscar nominations were announced that year Burt seemed a shoe in for best actor but his name was notably absent. Blamed was a infamous drunken nude spread he did for Cosmopolitan but I think it was something deeper and more sinister.
While Burt Reynolds became one of the biggest draws for Hollywood in the 1970s he was also always viewed as a bit of an outsider. There is a big bias against people from the south in this country and you can see this in the way many of his films were handled and distributed. The lack of an oscar nomination might not have been overtly racist but there was a definite undercurrent of animosity towards this 'ignorant country boy' attempting to make serious films. It was something that the cultured and well read Reynolds would have to fight off his entire career, even when he was able to produce, direct and star in his own films he was still viewed by some in Hollywood as just being a regional drive in star.
After DELIVERANCE the prolific Reynold's began making a flurry of films, 4 being released in 1973 alone. Work with directors ranging from Woody Allen to Joseph Sargent established Reynold's as an audaciously brave actor willing to do any kind of part.
Famed director Robert Aldrich had taken note of Reynolds and he cast him in two of his best roles with 1974's THE LONGEST YARD and 1975's HUSTLE. Reynolds is incredible in both of these films with THE LONGEST YARD quickly coming to be known as possibly his best film from his golden period. HUSTLE is an underrated film I like very much. Working from a Steve Shagan's fine novel Reynolds delivers one of his most emotional performances as the cold and cut off Detective who has seen just a little too much corruption in his life. One of the great moments in Reynold's career comes towards the end when he tells the incredibly evil Leo Sellers that 'everybody hustles'. There is something almost tragic in this moment and in the role, with the films final few moments playing out like a strange foreshadowing of what would happen to Reynold's career in the next decade.
HUSTLE didn't perform as well as it should but it was Peter Bogdanovich's brave AT LONG LAST LOVE in 75 that really hurt. This totally original musical featured Reynolds at his most charming but it was savaged by the critics and nearly killed the career of one of the seventies greatest directors. A re-appraisal is due for this long neglected and misunderstood film.
Recovering from the AT LONG LAST LOVE debacle Reynolds stepped behind the camera for the first time with the great GATOR. This WHITE LIGHTNING sequel contains moments of almost slapstick comedy mixed in with some of the best action sequences of the seventies. Reynold's would show an immediate flair from the directors chair that even Pauline Kael noticed and noted.
After another Bogdanovich disappointment, the fine NICKELODEON, Reynold's landed perhaps his most successful film with SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. This extremely entertaining and hugely popular film would be a double sided sword as suddenly it was forgotten how versatile Reynolds was and for many people Burt Reynolds is this character. The rest of his career would be spent fighting against, and at times giving into, this SMOKEY stigma.
The films immediately following SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT show Reynold's still branching out with some success. THE END and HOOPER are both fine and were fairly popular. He would again be overlooked by the academy for his fine portrayal of the recently divorced character in STARTING OVER. After the relatively disappointing showing of Don Siegal's ROUGH CUT Reynold's returned with two films that played up the persona that he was obviously trying to break away from.
SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT TWO and THE CANNONBALL RUN both made a lot of money and they are fun in their own way but they hurt Reynolds. He seemed to realize that he had pushed himself into a corner and with one film he would try to break out and bury the 'good old boy' for good.
1981's SHARKY'S MACHINE (which I will be covering in more detail in the future) is maybe Burt Reynold's finest moment. This intense, incredibly well acted and directed film by Reynolds should have put him back at the top. He delivered exactly the film he needed to but it was too late. SHARKY was only a minor success and by 1982 it seemed that Reynold's couldn't keep genre hopping like he had in the seventies.
The relative failures of the comedies BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS, PATERNITY and BEST FRIENDS caused Reynold's to make the two worst decision of his career.
It isn't just that CANNONBALL RUN TWO and STROKER ACE are bad films, they are without question but it is just how disappointing they are. Reynold's looks defeated and suddenly one of America's hardest working and dedicated actors is just
collecting a check. I find STROKER ACE to be particularly disheartening in its betrayal of a fine actor and cheapening of a once fun persona.
The rest of the eighties were a frustrating time for Burt. Personal problems and a string of bad films nearly killed his career completely. There were flashes of brilliance in the under financed STICK and the charming mostly unseen BREAKING IN but for the most part it looked like things were over.
Reynold's would return to television and regained some popularity in EVENING SHADE but his film career was mostly relegated to supporting roles in mostly forgettable films. Then something unexpected happened.
I'm not sure if Paul Thomas Anderson wrote the part of director Jack Horner with Reynold's in mind but it is impossible to think of a more perfect casting choice. As the surrogate father figure and ambitious porno director in BOOGIE NIGHTS Reynold's gives a transcendent performance. His work in BOOGIE NIGHTS is so pitch perfect and moving that it erases 15 years of bad decisions and poor films in just a couple of scenes. There is a moment in Anderson's film where Reynold's is watching his first Brock Landers film and he nods his head and says, "This is the film that I want them to remember me for". It is one of the great moments in 90s cinema and Reynold's reading of it still brings a tear to my eye.
The academy finally honored Burt with a nomination for his portrayal of Jack Horner and there is no question in my mind that he should have won. I still remember the slight sad nod he gave when Robin Williams name was announced for GOOD WILL HUNTING. It looked like he finally realized, that in a way, he was always going to be pushed to the outside.
Reynold's career since BOOGIE NIGHTS has been busy but he hasn't found another role like Jack Horner. I have been glad to see him continuing to work so prolifically and I truly hope that one day another part comes his way that can bring out his best again.
We are currently overwhelmed with celebrities and very few stars. We are also bombarded with 'safe' actors who rarely take anything resembling a risk. Burt Reynolds should be remembered not just for being one of the great authentic stars of American cinema's best decade but also as being one its bravest actors. A man who could do any kind of role and do it well, and what could be more important than that?