RIP Burt Reynolds
I’ve always been an idea guy. That’s what makes having my own site so ideal. I can dream up and implement ideas whenever and however I like without having to worry about getting an outside editor’s green light.
But there are some ideas I nix for being too labor-intensive, non-commercial and exhaustive even for a labor of love like Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place. For example, a few months back I thought about writing a completist, The Weird Accordion to Al-like project called Burt! where I would watch all of Burt Reynolds motion pictures in chronological order as a way of exploring the man, the myth and the movies.
Why were we so besotted with Reynolds? What do his films have to say about changing perceptions of American masculinity over the past fifty years? How did this strange, stoic, gum-chewing man become the top box-office star of his day and an enduring icon of hirsute, mustachioed macho?
The idea of plunging myself into an exhausting, exhaustive project was appealing in a masochistic sort of way. Doing so in a fashion that would inevitably chase readers away by appealing to an even smaller, even more specific niche than The Weird Accordion to Al did not but I've nevertheless been thinking, and writing, an awful lot about Reynolds before he died.
I enjoyed Mike Sacks’ Stinker Lets Loose, a fake novelization to a non-existent trucker movie that’s one quarter Clint Eastwood/Clyde the Orangutan pastiche and three quarters meditation on the Burt Reynolds of Smokey & the Bandit and various other lowbrow, lusty, Southern-fried vehicles where the late Cosmopolitan centerfold confidently played manly men of action who triumphed over sputtering, cartoonish figures of corrupt authority.
In a related development, I also recently watched and wrote about The Man from Left Field for Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 at Mike Sacks’ behest, a fascinating, unintentionally hilarious exercise in jock self-mythologizing where director and star Reynolds plays a sort of amnesiac hobo Jesus coach who stumbles into the lives of hardscrabble kids and leads them to baseball glory and solves all their personal problems as a nice bonus.
I also wrote about the 1976 flop Nickelodeon, Burt Reynolds’ second collaboration with Peter Bogdanovich, following the famously disastrous At Long Last Love, which was so poorly received that Bogdanovich took out ads apologizing for it, for my Fractured Mirror column over at TCM Backlot, and was thoroughly charmed by Reynolds’ turn as an accidental star of silent comedy slapstick and impressed by his flair for physical comedy.
So Reynolds has most assuredly been on my mind. He’s one of my many minor obsessions. He’s inextricably intertwined in the fabric of American pop culture. He’s a creature of myth, of legend, of tabloid notoriety. I will never forget, for some reason, watching a TV show where Bruce Jenner explained that when he was offered a lead role in the Village People movie Can’t Stop the Music he prepared by spending a weekend watching Burt Reynolds movies and figured that instead of enrolling in acting classes or getting a coach, he’d just do what Reynolds did in his movies. That was his acting school.
Jenner was not alone in taking his queues on how to be a real man’s man, onscreen and off, from this preeminent alpha male of Western Civilization. The greatness of Reynolds as a performer, and he was most assuredly capable of true greatness, lie in the effortlessness of his best performances, the way he didn’t seem to be acting at all but instead just existing onscreen, his manly Burt Sex Panther essence radiating from every pore.
I’ve had Burt Reynolds on the brain for a while now so perhaps it’s not strange that when I looked at my phone and saw that 39 people on my feed had shared news of his death I said “Wow!” out loud with a bit of an Owen Wilson inflection despite Reynolds being an 82 year old man who famously spent decades abusing his body and also painkillers.
Sure, I’d read that Reynolds was sick-looking and on death’s door, or rather I’d seen tabloid headlines screaming as much. Then again, according to the tabloids, Reynolds had been dying of a fatal disease (frequently AIDS, for maximum tabloid punch) for literally the last three decades. Why should this time be any different?
You can only read about someone’s imminent death so many times before you begin to suspect they might actually be immortal. That’s how it was with Reynolds, so despite Reynolds having reached a ripe old age I was surprised to actually read that the Cannonball Run star had actually died.
Burt Reynolds embodied his cultural moment so purely and for so long that when it passed he was a man out of time, a relic of a bygone era. We will not see the likes of him ever again and while I’m not insane enough to full-on pursue my Burt! idea in its original form, I do plan to spend a lot more time writing about the man in the months ahead. A full-on month may be in order, and that is an honor previously afforded only Corey Feldman, Rodney Dangerfield and simians onscreen. I finally have what little excuse I need to see The Cannonball Run and its sequel, as well as Smokey & The Bandit so get ready for a whole lot more writing about this quintessential movie star and pop icon.
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