Few movie stars seemed to have had such an absolute blast on-screen while privately dealing with physical and emotional pain the way Burt Reynolds did over the course of a career that spanned six decades. On Thursday, he passed away in Florida at the age of eighty-two. In her remembrance, Sheila O’Malley argues that “there was nothing like Reynolds’s rakish grin, his roguish sense of humor, his pure sex-power charisma—not vain, but so confident he didn’t have to play it up or remind us of it. He lampooned it . . . in a way that let us know that we were in on the joke. It’s a kind of intimacy with fans that doesn’t happen all that often.”
Born in Michigan but raised in Florida, Reynolds relocated to New York to study acting and then to Los Angeles to take roles in dozens of television shows and forgettable movies before he landed his breakthrough role. In 1972, he starred alongside Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox in John Boorman’s Deliverance, an adaptation of James Dickey’s novel about four “city boys” from Atlanta who venture into the wilderness of northern Georgia, where the locals are less than welcoming. “If I had to put only one of my movies in a time capsule, it would be Deliverance,” Reynolds wrote in his 2015 memoir, But Enough About Me. “I don’t know if it’s the best acting I’ve done, but it’s the best movie I’ve ever been in. It proved I could act, not only to the public but me.”
At about the time Deliverance hit theaters, Reynolds was gaining notoriety as an affable, undeniably sexy, yet also self-deprecating guest on television talk shows. One night, Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown was sitting in for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, when she invited Reynolds to become the first male nude centerfold in her magazine. In the New York Times, Guy Trebay argues that, when he struck that pose sprawled out on a bear rug, “he affected true cultural change. . . . Reynolds was not only helping to propel us into a new era in women’s magazine publishing but also a refreshed understanding of what women desire.”
Reynolds nevertheless regretted “one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made,” and believed to the end that the centerfold cost him an Oscar nomination for his performance in Deliverance. It didn’t hurt his box-office appeal, though. “He was Hollywood’s top-grossing star every year from 1978 through 1982, equaling the longest stretch the business had seen since the days of Bing Crosby in the 1940s,” notes Mike Barnes in the Hollywood Reporter. “In 1978, he had four movies playing in theaters at the same time.”
One of these would have been Smokey and the Bandit (1977), an action comedy written and directed by stuntman Hal Needham, in which Reynolds and country singer Jerry Reed drive a truckload of beer halfway across the country. “Reynolds remained lovably roguish throughout that tire-screeching era,” writes Sarah Larson for the New Yorker. “There and beyond, it was a hearty decade-plus of wailing sirens, flying V-8s, and cars getting sheared in two while somebody yells ‘dangnabbit.’”
It was during these years that Reynolds honed an on-screen persona that was difficult to pigeonhole. As Peter Bradshaw observes in the Guardian, “Reynolds wasn’t exactly an action star, nor a comic, nor a romantic lead, but he could play all of those, and had a strong line in gallantry. Reynolds basically played a character usually relegated to second billing: the good ol’ boy, who loved beers, girls, sports and especially cars—often racing them against the cops, in that utterly vanished kind of action comedy where dozens of squad cars are in pursuit of one lovably roguish scamp.”
But for all the fun, there was a potent political undercurrent running through Smokey and other crowd-pleasers like White Lightning (1973) and The Cannonball Run (1981), argues the NYT’s A. O. Scott. “More than any other movie star,” he writes, Reynolds “embodied the stance that permeated much of the country-and-western and southern rock of the Carter era, in which regional pride and defiant hell-raising were accompanied—and sometimes drowned out—by class resentment directed against the bosses and their minions.”
In 2011, Craig D. Lindsey, writing in the Nashville Scene, suggested that White Lightning “works as both a madcap B-movie demolition derby and an amoral gem of Southern-fried pulp. . . . The progression from Deliverance to White Lightning to Smokey and the Bandit shows the South transitioning from pop-culture hellhole to mainstream wonderland.” In 1976, Reynolds made his directorial debut with a sequel, Gator, and earlier this year, the Village Voice revived Molly Haskell’s 1976 review. Gator, she found, is “a bit of a mess, largely because of the civilizing and romantic influence Reynolds has brought to the randy domain of the redneck action film.” But the piece is really about Reynolds, whom Haskell found to be “one of the more interesting and appealing male stars for those qualities that others condescend to—the bright, even antiseptic, high gloss and a genuine light touch.”
For many critics at the time, that touch was simply too light. But over the years, an appreciation has grown for that almost imperceptible quality that made audiences fall in love with him. “At times,” writes Bilge Ebiri for Vulture, “he seems to hover over the movies he stars in, almost as if he’s refusing to engage with the material. You might mistake him for someone who doesn’t care. But at some point in the film—even if the film itself is bad, which it often is—you realize he’s won you over.”
Reynolds often gave more than met the eye, at least at first glance. In the NYT, Ralph Blumenthal notes that Reynolds had more than a few “close brushes with death, some resulting from his insistence on doing many of his own dangerous stunts.” After his jaw was shattered in one scene, Reynolds became addicted to pain medication. “Fellow actors praised Mr. Reynolds as an exacting artist who worked hard at his craft and fought to overcome many demons, including a volatile temperament,” writes Blumenthal, adding that “he was also strong-willed, clashing often with directors and producers.”
Reynolds married twice, and his divorce from WKRP in Cincinnati star Loni Anderson in 1993 “was particularly messy,” as Mike Barnes puts it. Whether for personal or professional reasons, Reynolds turned down a series of roles over the years, and later in life, he was refreshingly honest about regretting those decisions. James Bond, Hans Solo in Star Wars, and the male leads in Pretty Woman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Die Hard, and Terms of Endearment all passed him by.
The role he tried to turn down—and did, in fact, no less than seven times—was Jack Horner, an “auteurist porn director,” as Sonia Rao puts it in the Washington Post, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997). The young director—Anderson was all of twenty-seven when he made his second feature—and his seasoned star simply did not get along. But Reynolds’s performance scored him his only Oscar nomination.
Then there were other roles that Reynolds actively sought out. When he saw Steve Shagan’s screenplay for Hustle, he brought it to Robert Aldrich, who “knew how to direct Reynolds better than most, allowing the star’s breezy charisma to significantly brighten their previous collaboration, The Longest Yard ,” as Sean Burns has observed in his piece on the 1975 neo-noir. In Hustle, Reynolds plays Phil Gaines, “a seen-it-all LAPD Lieutenant breezing his way through homicide investigations while knocking back copious quantities of Bushmills,” and while “Reynolds’s superstar appeal was always his easygoing charm,” his “too-seldom used strength as dramatic actor lies in suggesting troubled currents beneath that placid surface.”
Earlier this year, Quentin Tarantino saw Reynolds’s lead performance in Adam Rifkin’s The Last Movie Star (2017) and gave him a role in his forthcoming feature Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Shooting was supposed to take place a few weeks from now. We’ll never see what Tarantino might have brought out of the octogenarian, but reviewing The Last Movie Star for Slant, Chuck Bowen found that “Reynolds still has his characteristic comic-masculine force, and he can still throw a line away with masterful panache.” Writing for Deadline, Rifkin notes that he wrote The Last Movie Star “specifically for Burt. I wanted to give him something back for all the years of joy he’d given me and his many fans throughout the decades.”
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