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This week, the New York Film Critics Circle gives a special award to Molly Haskell, one of America’s foremost film scholars and a pioneering feminist critic. Haskell, author of the essential study From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies and other books (including a recent one on Steven Spielberg), wrote for the Village Voice throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. As a tribute to her, all this week we will be featuring selections from our archives. First up is this brilliant review of the 1976 Burt Reynolds flick Gator (no, really), which features some of the greatest writing I’ve ever encountered about star power. — Bilge Ebiri
Burt Reynolds Gets Swamped in “Gator”
Reynolds, just liberated from the pen, looks like a one-man argument for rehabilitation.
By Molly Haskell
September 13, 1976
Burt Reynolds is a man not necessarily for all seasons, but surely for summer, for sunshine beer, and ice cream sodas, for drive-ins and long, lazy nights. I continue to find him 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. There’s a glistening, “Draw Me” cartoon quality to his looks: the jet black hair, the bushy eyebrows, the smooth, round contours of the baby face, the square physique, and the denim outfits that always look lemon-clean, as if his mom has just used a new miracle detergent in the wash. When he pops up in some sweaty, unsavory locale — a bed of corruption, a prison, a men’s locker room — he’s a little out of place, like a “gosh darn!” in a chorus of “motherfucker!”s, and for better or worse, he sanitizes the milieu and tone accordingly.
In him we see that blend of the real and the artificial which is the essence of movie stardom, but which it has long been fashionable to denigrate. Artifice, including all the perquisites of glamor, was a casualty of the sincere ’60s — except as transmuted and theatricalized into camp (which may be one good reason for the shortage of women stars during this period and the durability of Elizabeth Taylor.)
Reynolds is made for certain types of comedy — romantic comedy, musical comedy, lightweight adventure, sex farce — a flair to which he is turning more and more as he takes his career in hand. He always has been more aware of his strengths and limitations than he has been given credit for. The most engaging episode of the overrated Silent Movie is the cameo in which he takes a gleeful poke at his own superficial image, as it has evolved from the Cosmo cheesecake to Deliverance and The Longest Yard — all of which, incidentally, were less “macho” for the self-irony Reynolds brought to them.
Gator marks his directorial debut, but in name only. Like Eastwood, Redford, and many of today’s studioless stars, he has managed, consciously or unconsciously, to develop his own persona through various forms of control — of projects, of directors, and of direction — previously uncredited.
Structurally, Gator 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. As the moonshiner in this film’s predecessor, White Lightning, and as the country music opportunist in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, Reynolds has gravitated to the gallery of rogues and rascals and good ole boys provided by the regional southern film, that curiosity of the movie business that is just beginning to make sociological sense. Gator takes place in Georgia, and opens with a press conference during which the beleaguered governor (a gem of a cameo by Mike Douglas) worries over the blot on his national image as the result of a crime-infested county he has been unable to clean up. Enter Jack Weston as a bumbling federal investigator, and Burt Reynolds as the moonshining ex-con whom Weston enlists to get the goods on the local racketeer, his old buddy.
Reynolds, just liberated from the pen, looks like a one-man argument for rehabilitation. The scene of reunion at the old swamp homestead with his pa and bad-talking little girl is like a parody of Li’l Abner. The reunion quickly gives way to an equally implausible boat chase, and this is the last we see of Gator’s po’ white family — whose verbal flamboyance belies their humble origins. Eventually, Gator hooks up with a classy chick, a local TV anchorperson (Lauren Hutton) who is destined for wider national exposure (I wonder if we’re going to have a spate of heroines modeled after Barbara Walters, the way Eleanor Roosevelt inspired a number of movie heroines in the early ’40s). Reynolds even responds to her as a feminist, and instead of having her settle down with Gator in the final reel, he sends her off to New York, tapes in tow, for an audition on national television.
If she and the plot itself seem to slip away, it may all be part of the easygoing, laissez-faire attitude Reynolds exudes. Yet, unlike Eastwood, he’s not a loner, a tight-lipped adventurer. He is too genial and not dogged enough for revenge drama. But, rarity of rarities, he is a wonderful partner. He is playful and quizzical, with the ability of a Fred Astaire or a Rock Hudson to deflect attention from himself to the woman beside him; he has the confidence of someone who’s physically there and not afraid of being blown away by his co-star.
Unfortunately, there’s little danger in this department from Lauren Hutton, who, striking as she is, has no style as a performer or charm as a personality. She may be intelligent, but it’s the kind of intelligence that, like Candice Bergen’s, translates into superciliousness on the screen. And she never looks more like a model straight off the pages of Vogue than when she is trying to look dowdy and unkempt. You know the look — the morning after slept-and-kept-in chic, the man’s coat over the jeans, the straggly hair. It’s a fantasy that never goes beyond the stereotyped charm of a sophisticated pinup.