Film

Burt Reynolds and the Creation of Burt Reynolds

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You can trace a vital change in Hollywood filmmaking and American culture itself through the Seventies films of Burt Reynolds. At the decade’s start, in 1973’s White Lightning, Reynolds starred as Robert “Gator” McKlusky, a Texarkana moonshine runner released from prison and sent back into the swamps to bring down the crooked sheriff who murdered his brother. Despite its car chases, its star’s gently diffident gum-chewing, and a hungover early-Seventies languor, the film’s often tense and terse, a pained study of a bootlegger caught between backwoods honor and the feds’ idea of justice.

By 1977, Reynolds was as big a star as Hollywood had, and the studios were just waking up to the idea of the blockbuster, a class of film that precluded languors and pained studies. Enter the Bandit: Reynolds’s epochal Smokey and the Bandit, screening at Metrograph this weekend as part of a five-film Reynolds appreciation, found the star quite literally watered down. Instead of ’shine, he’s running Coors. He’s smiling his ass off, too, a hunky Bugs Bunny in a souped-up Trans-Am, ducking the cops as if highway outlawry is his by-God American birthright. The stakes couldn’t be lower. Rather than doing it for his family, or for justice, the Bandit’s in it mostly for the hell of it. (And eighty grand.)

Coors sold better than ’shine, of course. Smokey proved the fourth-highest-grossing film in a year that broke box-office records, coming in only behind Star Wars, Close Encounters, and Saturday Night Fever. Reynolds and his Smokey director, the former stuntman Hal Needham, kept at their breezy car-chase capers for several years, spinning their wheels on the drive-in circuit while Hollywood, led by Lucas and Spielberg, reached for the stars. Seen today, the duo’s later films — Hooper, Smokey and the Bandit 2, The Cannonball Run — have their fascinations, especially in their senselessness and lack of consequence, which cuts pointedly against the mythological gravity that infected many post–Star Wars adventure films.

Needham’s films also cemented an image of their star in the American mind: Reynolds in tight jeans and a belt buckle as bright and beaming as a headlight, snapping his gum and cracking some quips, seemingly amused that anybody making movies would ever bother to work any harder than this. It’s hard to accuse a performer who preens so much of sleepwalking — maybe sleep-preening? But even that is too simple and dismissive of what Reynolds did achieve, even in these movies that seem half-assed by design.

You can see the birth of this persona at Metrograph in the first Reynolds–Needham collaboration, 1976’s Gator, a lavish shambles of a sequel to White Lightning that Reynolds himself directed, with Needham handling the impressive second-unit and stunt sequences. This Gator, more Coors than moonshine, bops through comic misadventures in the Okefenokee, wrecking shacks and vehicles (“Inside of ten minutes, he’s going to destroy fourteen boats!” boasts the voice-over in the theatrical trailer). Reynolds wears his mustache, which he didn’t in White Lightning or Deliverance; Gator offers proof that a mustache can wink. He also faces off against a white-suited heavy played by guitar man Jerry Reed, who would join Needham and Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit.

One truth of the Reynolds–Needham films: You can tell they had a ball making them. And one truth of Gator is that if you can roll with it you’ll probably have one, too, and most of your laughter will come where Reynolds wanted it to. Its squirrely playfulness may betray White Lightning, and its cornpone dada may today (thanks to Archer) make it a punchline, but it’s the key film to understanding something of Reynolds’s conception of his own appeal. The first true Reynolds Hero emerges in a film that Reynolds himself directed.

The Reynolds Hero, in movie after movie, is the guy who looks like he doesn’t give a shit about anything that’s going on around him, yet at the same time is mildly amused by everything around him. (You would be amused, too, if, as happens to the Reynolds Hero, almost every moment of your life seemed orchestrated by some god to emphasize just how much better you are at all masculine pursuits than everyone you know.) He perks up among friends, when chasing a woman, when behind the wheel of a car, or when he’s just grabbed a chance to do something crazy. His life, of course, is set up to offer him those kinds of chances every day.

When discussing Reynolds, critics tend to emphasize the roles he could have taken (Terms of Endearment) that might have showcased his range or demonstrated his seriousness. (That happens, too, with Harrison “I could have been in Traffic” Ford.) But recall that the Reynolds Hero is the creation of Reynolds himself, a refinement of Gator for Gator. Reynolds wasn’t typecast into a rut — he was playing the guy he had dreamed up himself, and that millions of moviegoers dreamed of, in movie after movie, each playing like a stunt reel and a month-long party condensed to one hundred minutes. And in each of these films, no matter how dumb the scripts, Reynolds beams and punches, kisses and bar-brawls, and barks out that sunny-high laugh of his that floats in the air like a Bob Wills yodel. Terms of Endearment wouldn’t let him do that.

It’s just a movie, that laugh seems to say, but ain’t it fun? The Metrograph retrospective includes two somewhat forgotten films in which Reynolds digs deeper into the Reynolds Hero. In both, that laugh comes to seem defensive, a put-on covering up loneliness. (It also features 1972’s dead-serious, pre-mustache Deliverance, with Reynolds himself in attendance.) Michael Ritchie’s ribald mixed bag Semi-Tough (1977) is worth rediscovery, both for its performances (here’s a slightly subdued Reynolds; a screwball-tomboy Jill Clayburgh; and a golden, glazed-over Kris Kristofferson) and its only-in-’77 stew of tones and modes. Adapted from Dan Jenkins’s novel, Semi-Tough unfolds with an Altmanesque aimlessness, tracking friendships and hijinks and the everyday drift of the lives of football players — a down-market gridiron M*A*S*H running some 25 minutes before hitting its first real plot point. It’s a sports movie so laid-back that winning the Super Bowl plays as an afterthought.

It’s also a well-observed satire of self-help cults, built around a centerpiece sequence skewering Werner Erhard’s “EST” movement, played straight enough to be gripping. And it’s also cornpone, with a climactic brawl as dopey as anything in Hooper, and the vision of Robert Preston, as the owner of the Miami Dolphins, shouting “sumbitch” in a voice that still sounded like Professor Harold Hill’s. (Preston’s role is something like Jackie Gleason’s in Smokey and the Bandit: beloved old-timer swearing up a storm as a figure of disreputable authority.)

“All you care about is fuckin’ and football,” Clayburgh’s Barbara Jane Bookman tells Reynolds’s Billy Clyde Puckett, and the drama — yes, this is also, above all else, a tender relationship drama — mostly concerns whether he’ll admit that he cares for a third thing: her. In the early reels, Clayburgh, Kristofferson, and Reynolds bubble over with warmth and laughter, and Ritchie lets us revel in their easy friendship. (For a preener, Reynolds certainly understood how to share a scene, how to set the air fizzing between himself and his co-stars.) By the end, Semi-Tough becomes a film of adult regrets, a sort of re-marriage comedy about a longtime couple that never actually bothered with coupledom. Clayburgh and Reynolds are terrific together, their characters simultaneously trusting each other more than they would anyone else — and also wisely wary of getting too close.

The film’s raucous humor is by turns endearing, annoying, discomfiting, and — in one early case — shocking in a way no movie could be today. One early joke, clearly intended as a showstopper, finds Reynolds drawling out the one word that white people just aren’t supposed to say. Reynolds and the filmmakers take pains to set the scene up so that the joke is not that Reynolds’s character is racist — it’s that Reynolds is making fun of the assumptions of the East Coast intellectual he’s tweaking. It’s meant to be a deflection, the Florida galoot’s burlesque of what he just knows some effete New Yorker’s thinking. But whatever the joke’s intention and justification, there’s no denying its real-world reception: The white families who loved Burt Reynolds movies on the Real American block I grew up on wouldn’t laugh at it because it’s droll in that Randy Newman way. They’d laugh at it because it’s the kind of thing they’d say themselves.

Rounding out the Metrograph retrospective is Bill Forsyth’s crisp, autumnal Breaking In, a small jewel from 1989, which finds Reynolds doing something rare for him: playing older rather than younger. This time, the Reynolds Hero is too beat up by life to peacock. He’s a limping safe-cracker in his sixties who finds himself the mentor to a younger man played by Casey Siemaszko. The script, from John Sayles, is attentive to the process of burglary, to the problem of getting rid of large amounts of cash, to the morality of thieving in the first place. Reynolds doesn’t let loose his laugh until half an hour in, when the boys are celebrating a score by a night with a pair of prostitutes. Breaking In links the laugh explicitly to potency: The burglar’s getting some action.

Fleeting masculinity haunts the film. “I ain’t queer,” the burglar says to Siemaszko’s charcter, something the cocksure Burt of the Seventies and Eighties just assumed the world knew. Later, justifying his paying for sex, he declares, “I’m 61 years old. Every once in a while I feel good. The blood is circulating, and I want to get laid.” Reynolds makes this an impassioned declaration, the words of a man who still feels himself entitled to all the freedoms that the Bandit claimed — even if they come more slowly, now. Even the Reynolds Hero fantasizes about being Burt Reynolds.

‘Burt Reynolds x 5’
Metrograph
March 14–18

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