By Alan Hurst

Burt Reynolds, who passed away on September 6, 2018 at the age of 82, was the biggest male star of the seventies and early eighties. He enjoyed a box-office run few others have been able to achieve – #1 for five years running from 1978 to 1982. The films that got him there weren’t always critical hits, but Reynolds’ easy going, playful screen personae was always easy to take. And when he decided to challenge himself, he showed that the talent was there.

His forte was comedy – usually not the sophisticated fare that Cary Grant and Rock Hudson excelled at – but in road movies that were driven by testosterone, swagger and a rural setting. The plots were thin and the characters usually stereotypical. But Reynolds was probably the best looking male star of the era (with apologies to Robert Redford and Warren Beatty) and one of the most likeable, which helps explain the success of efforts like White Lightening (1973), W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings (1975), Gator (1976), Hooper (1978), and The Cannonball Run (1981).

Reynolds downfall, and one of the reasons he wasn’t able to take his considerable film success into the nineties and beyond, the way his contemporaries did, was his unwillingness to really challenge himself. Instead he was comfortable with what he knew and he wanted to have fun. And that meant losing out on films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Terms of Endearment (1983) and Die Hard (1989), among others. I also wonder if there was a bit of insecurity at play – watching clips of him in interviews that seems to be an underlying tone.

Another challenge Reynolds faced was the fact that his personal life become the subject of tabloid fodder from the early seventies onward, and his acting frequently took a back seat. High profile affairs, marriages that ended badly, bad business investments, illness – it all helped to undermine his being taken seriously as an actor of the calibre of Nicholson and Newman.

Nevertheless, Reynolds’ film and TV resume does have some gems and a few that did deserve attention from the Oscars.

His best work:

Deliverance (1972)
One of the best pictures of that year, this is a tense and frightening tale of four men on a canoe trip down a soon to be flooded river in backwoods Georgia that goes very, very wrong. With stunning rural visuals and evocative banjo music, director John Boorman gives everything a feeling of dread right from the start – you feel as if you’ve entered a very strange world and very quickly that feeling is confirmed. Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight lead the cast and both are excellent – particularly Reynolds. Offering strong support are Ned Beatty (who should have been Oscar nominated) and Ronny Cox. Many scenes in Deliverance are iconic but it’s the closing shot that’s a true shocker – and one that’s been imitated countless times since, but never to such good effect. This is probably the best picture Reynolds made.

The Longest Yard (1974)
A tough, gritty and funny film by director Robert Aldrich that provides a perfect showcase for Reynolds. He’s great as the former football star now in jail and being forced to put together a team to play against the prison guards. Reynolds gets to do everything he’s capable of here – he’s funny, he’s slick, he plays tough, and exudes testosterone. The film won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Musical or Comedy) that year and Reynolds got a nomination for Best Actor. Eddie Albert of Green Acres TV fame also does good work as the vicious prison warden

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
I wrote about this one a few weeks ago as one of my “Guilty Pleasures”. It was the biggest hit of the year, just behind Star Wars. It co-starred Sally Field just as she was beginning her ascent to the top ranks of film actresses. And it featured Jackie Gleason in an outrageously over-the-top performance as the Sherriff pursuing Bandit. But critics hated it. There isn’t a lot of plot here – something about hauling Coors beer over state lines when it was illegal to sell it without a permit east of the Mississippi – and the script has a slapdash quality to it. But what it does have is an unerring sense of fun, some terrific chase sequences and a cast that is clearly having a great time. Burt Reynolds was never sexier or more relaxed than he is here – you can see immediately why Field’s character falls for him (although the 1970s fit of his tight jeans is a little distracting). Field is adorable and Jerry Reed is fun as Bandit’s sidekick. As for Gleason, while he certainly isn’t subtle, I think it’s one of the best things he ever did on film. But this is Burt’s movie all the way.

The End (1978)
Not a great film, but I’ve got it here because it’s probably Reynolds’ strongest work as a director and he plays a great foil for the hilarious, over-the-top work of Dom DeLuise. It’s a black comedy about a realtor who is diagnosed with fatal blood disease. Not wanting die a slow death, he tries unsuccessfully to kill himself and ends up in an institution where he meets another patient (DeLuise) who tries to help him finish the job. It’s a wildly uneven film, but it has some very funny moments (most courtesy of DeLuise) and Reynolds does some nice work as the not always likeable hero. Director Reynolds also assembled a terrific supporting cast that included Joanne Woodward, Sally Field, Myrna Loy, Pat O’Brien, and Carl Reiner.

Starting Over (1979)
This is a more subdued Burt Reynolds in a charming romantic comedy with Jill Clayburgh and Candice Bergen. I think it’s his best performance and it should have had him in the running as one of the Best Actor nominees at that year’s Oscars. Bergen and Reynolds play a married couple who part ways when she wants to pursue a music career (despite having zero talent). He’s lost after the marriage ends but meets and starts dating Clayburgh. Reynolds is excellent in playing both the despair of the newly single guy and in his trepidation at starting over. He’s fortunate to be working with a really strong director (Alan J. Pakula) and nuanced script by James L. Brooks, fresh off of seven seasons as the creative genius behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show(1970-77), the best sitcom of the seventies. There is also terrific work by both Clayburgh and Bergen, both of whom were ironically nominated for Oscars.

The Man Who Loved Women (1983)
This is Blake Edwards’ inferior remake of a terrific François Truffaut film, but there are two terrific lead performances from Reynolds and Julie Andrews that help make the film worthwhile (along with a wonderful supporting performance from Kim Basinger). Reynolds plays a sculptor with an insatiable appetite for any and all women, which leads to both creative challenges and impotency. Andrews plays the psychiatrist who tries to help him, but they eventually start dating. It feels very dated now (and it probably did in 1983 as well), but Reynolds is very likeable as the artist and captures the Peter Pan like spirit of the man who can’t grow up. He’s also a good match for Andrews, who’s very good as the nurturing doctor.

Evening Shade (1990-94)
Good movie offers had dried up and his detective series B.L. Stryker (1989-90) had been cancelled when the creative forces behind Designing Women (1986-93) developed this sitcom for Reynolds. He played a retired football player now coaching a high school football team. Heavy on rural charm, it had a great cast that included Charles Durning, Elizabeth Ashley, Michael Jeter, and Hal Holbrook among others. There was nothing ground breaking here, but during the first few seasons the writing was strong and Reynolds was back to being charming and funny, winning his only Emmy in the first season.

Boogie Nights (1997)
Another strong performance and sadly his only Oscar nomination. Reynolds was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Robin Williams for a good performance in Good Will Hunting. Reynolds should have won – he really does superb work here. He plays a porn director in the mid-seventies and the Paul Thomas Anderson film follows that world through the eyes of Reynolds young discovery, Mark Wahlberg. Reynolds is the elder statesmen of the group – he’s funny, paternal, but with a definite edge. He’s also working with a terrific cast – Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Leave a comment