Whenever I tell someone that Burt Reynolds - yes, that Burt Reynolds, he of the cowboy hat, the mustache that made him look like he just walked off the set of some lo-fi porn movie filmed under the Van Nuys overpass, he of the weathered blue jeans and crooked smile - remains one of my all-time favorite actors, the response never wavers: it is always, without fail, one of stunned disbelief. Though Reynolds’ run of box office success in the late 70s and early 80s, as the star of such road movie classics as Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run, has rarely been equaled, he has never entered the leading man pantheon inhabited by contemporaries like Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford. Critics explain Reynolds’ marginalization as a result of one (or six) too many cinematic missteps - Rent-a-Cop, anyone? - something that Reynolds himself, who never met a self-deprecating joke he wouldn’t tell, acknowledges, saying that “they only show my movies on airplanes and in jail cells - where no one can escape!” But I think this explanation is tenuous at best. It is not as if Reynolds was alone in making some less than stellar choices while at his A-list apex: Eastwood gave us The Rookie, after all, while Robert De Niro has turned the last twenty years of his career into a can-you-top-this exercise in movie disasters: Godsend, Righteous Kill, Rocky and Bullwinkle, 15 Minutes, etc. Therefore, it seems that, for whatever reason, Reynolds has been the only one of his era who has been defined more by his failures than by his many successes. And let there be no doubt, in terms of box office successes, Reynolds had no equal among his peers: between Smokey and the Bandit I and II, Cannonball Run I and II, The Longest Yard, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Reynolds’ box office tallies leave someone like De Niro - who remains a made-man in Hollywood, a decade out from his last watchable movie - in the proverbial dust.
No, I think that Reynolds’ fall from grace was more a result of the type of leading man he was - good-natured, self-deprecating, rarely serious - than anything particularly wrong about his career choices. Onscreen, Reynolds was a perpetual adolescent who knew he was living a charmed life and was going to take the audience along for the ride. That type of leading man is no longer allowed in New Hollywood, as the past two decades have seen a rise in such self-righteous seriousness that even the B-level action and adventure films that Reynolds used to ably carry on his back are now imbued with a tough-guy posturing that, in retrospect, makes Reynolds seem like he somehow failed to cut it as an action hero during his heyday. Though a star running back at Florida State University who turned to acting in the wake of a career-ending knee injury, Reynolds never sported the bulked up, Atlas-inspired physique that Stallone and Schwarzenegger introduced, nor was Reynolds capable of posturing as a serious thespian in the vein of Brad Pitt or Matt Damon, two men with cover boy good looks who seem committed to never letting the audience see them smile or enjoy themselves on camera. (Go back and watch the otherwise note-perfect Jason Bourne movies, and see if Damon allows any single moment of happiness into the life of his character). Over the course of the past two decades, Hollywood has done everything it can to run from what its central purpose actually is: to entertain people. And mainstream actors, more than anyone else involved in the filmmaking process, have done everything they can to show as little charm and humor on screen as possible. In other words, Hollywood has rewritten the rules for what a leading action star should be, and anyone who didn’t fit that prototype has now had their career achievements retroactively devalued.
Which, for someone like Reynolds, is quite a shame. Go back and watch him at his apex: the way he laughs at the Enos Brothers when they first offer him the cash deal in Smokey and the Bandit, or the way he admits, later in the film, with little to no reluctance, to Sally Field that the only thing he’s good at is “showing off.” Watch the opening set piece in the undervalued City Heat, where his comic timing in the bar absolutely blows the one-note Eastwood off the screen, Reynolds willingly taking pratfalls that would have made Buster Keaton proud, and then try to find a contemporary action hero who would be willing to do the same. Pitt? No. Tom Cruise? Please. People say the NFL is short for the No Fun League, but they’ve got nothing on Hollywood, who has decided it is only okay to laugh when horny teenagers or Will Ferrell is involved. Otherwise, it’s serious business. Hell, even James Bond has lost his sense of humor.
Consider Nicholas Cage, an admittedly talented actor, who has now devoted the past fifteen years of his life to playing humorless, dour, pumped-up action heroes in increasingly pretentious films - think Bangkok Dangerous - rather than acknowledging to the audience that he’s a hired hand in a preposterous action film. The bulk of Reynolds’ hits had admittedly ridiculous set-ups, but he knew it: he laughs and smiles and basically pals around with his buddies through car chase after car chase, allowing the audience to respond in kind. People responded to Reynolds’ movies because he didn’t apologize for what they were: popcorn flicks that weren’t ashamed of the label. And in a contemporary film landscape where even our comic book movies play like big-budget snuff films - The Dark Knight was as bleak as anything Abel Ferrara or David Cronenberg have ever released - it’d be refreshing to have an escapist film that wanted to do exactly that.
While it is true that Reynolds never had the acting talent of a De Niro or an Al Pacino, nor did he have the directorial vision of the aforementioned Eastwood or the mercurial Warren Beatty, he had something just as important: a capacity for fun, something which is in short supply in Hollywood these days.
From guest contributor Paul Kareem Tayyar