Burt Reynolds set an example for how to be, and how not to be, a movie star
Burt Reynolds was a great example. Of how big a movie star could be, of how a movie star should not manage his career, and of what that star ought to do with himself after all of that.
For us young men coming of age in the anything-goes (but still mighty confusing) 1970s, Reynolds, who died Thursday at the age of 82, was also an example of a masculinity that most of us would never reach, but could learn from. Sure, he was that Sexiest Man Alive, actress-dating, naked on a bear rug in women’s magazines kind of macho ideal. He was one of Johnny Carson’s favorite guests – the pinnacle of pop culture status at the time – ever hilarious and sneakily subversive in his willingness to try anything outrageous, something our anti-establishment generation also appreciated.
But along with his abundant good ol’ boy swagger, there was an often self-deprecating wit and flashes of vulnerable self-doubt that he had the confidence not to hide. He had all the celebrity charm you could ask for, but it never entirely covered up his true, sometimes darker, humanity.
That last bit was relatively rare for American stars of his caliber back then. And he was among the hugest – the top box-office draw for five years in the late 1970s and early ‘80s (Bing Crosby had a comparable run in the ‘40s). The 1977 “Smokey and the Bandit” was the movie that really launched the phenomenon, but Reynolds had proven himself a capable and iconic big screen presence well before that. There was “Deliverance’s” (1972) virile urban Southerner confronted with his limitations and sexual fears in the wilderness, and he gave a perfectly judged comic performance as, well, the sperm boss in Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask” that same year. Then there was 1974’s “The Longest Yard” and ’77’s “Semi-Tough,” still two of the most memorable football films ever made (Reynolds had been a halfback at Florida State before injuries pointed him toward acting); and “White Lightning” (’73) and its sequel “Gator” (’76, and Reynolds’ feature directing debut), the prototypes for his fast-driving Dixie charmer success machine.
While that easy-to-sell persona proved itself through a load of “Smokey” sequels, “Cannonball Runs” and others, they – along with a string of blah crime thrillers and spark-challenged romantic comedies – gave both his fans and critics (who were never high on the good ol’ boy stuff to begin with) the impression that the actor was just coasting by the mid-‘80s. His box-office record consequently tanked as it too often appeared he was merely challenging audiences to watch him do what he’d done better before. It was one of the most precipitous falls in Hollywood history.
But Reynolds kept working, and impressively when he wanted to. He triumphantly returned to television – where his career had been formed by regular roles on “Riverboat,” “Gunsmoke,” “Hawk” and “Dan August” – in 1990 with his Emmy-winning turn on the sitcom “Evening Shade.” And in 1997, he registered what is generally agreed to be his greatest movie role (and only Oscar-nominated one): Jack Horner, the smooth, delusional, ultimately oddly moral Porn Valley Papa in Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant “Boogie Nights.”
Legend has it Reynolds got the role after Warren Beatty gave Anderson too long of a runaround, and that Reynolds and Anderson clashed repeatedly, even physically once, during production. But while he displayed a cantankerous antipathy to “Boogie Nights” for pretty much the rest of his career, Reynolds slipped into Horner so persuasively that the character is unimaginable without him. The movie was also about the slippery slope of stardom and the end of the hedonistic ‘70s, and you could perceive Reynolds’ yearning for his glory days in most of his performance.
“Boogie Nights” did not reopen the doors to movie success that the actor’s achievement in it should have (maybe Quentin Tarantino’s currently in-production “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” would have done the trick, but it’s been reported that Reynolds had not yet filmed his role before his death). Nonetheless, he kept doing TV episodes and making films you never heard of for two more decades. Reynolds’ priorities seemed to be elsewhere anyway. The onetime king of Hollywood relocated to the state of his youth, Florida, where he relished directing plays and teaching and advising young actors at his Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre in the little town of Jupiter.
Now that was something pretty unique for a movie star to do, and I don’t think you could call it anything but a loving example of how to give back.
Of course, there were unpleasant divorces and money troubles and health problems and subsequent prescription drug problems all along the downward path. But he kept plugging along, showing all of us that we still can.
In March I had the pleasure of attending a special screening of “The Last Movie Star” at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. Not a great movie, but a fabulous valedictory work for Burt, who played a down-on-his-heels former star in all of his cranky glory. The role was obviously inspired by and written for Reynolds, and his performance is a poignant and, yes, self-deprecating tour de force, undoubtedly the actor’s best work since “Boogie.”
Afterward, a physically frail but sharp as the old “Tonight Show” Reynolds dominated a panel discussion with all his humor, charm and self-aware regret. He could not walk without assistance, but otherwise it was the ‘70s all over again.
He taught us a whole bunch more things that night about how to be a man.