This past week Burt Reynolds, perhaps the most self-deprecating movie star to ever cruise to box-office domination, died during a hospital stay in Jupiter, Florida, at the age of 82. “I’m pretty passionate about my work,” he once said, “even though I sometimes have this realization on the second day of shooting that I’m doing a piece of shit. So, I can do one of two things: I can just take the money, or I can try to be passionate. But the name of the boat is still the Titanic.” Yes, on top of being effortlessly likable and undeniably sexy, Reynolds was naturally funny too. And yes, there are a lot of confirmed pieces of shit floating around out there in which he received top billing. But even if the bad ones in his oeuvre outnumber the good ones (and I would argue that this is indeed the case), and even if Reynolds never developed the sense of daring or artistic depth that characterized the late innings of his closest ’70s box-office competition, Clint Eastwood, the actor and his grinning, mustachioed mug can still be found gracing some of the most enduringly popular pictures of the period.
Of Reynolds’ early movies, I suppose the softest spot I have is reserved for the comedy western Sam Whisky (1969), in which Reynolds matches wits (and looks) with Angie Dickinson. And his comic cameos in movies like Silent Movie (1976) and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*but were afraid to ask) (1972) made clear that Reynolds’ action roles weren’t always fully tapping his talents. It really wouldn’t be until his self-directed suicide farce The End (1978) that he’d find himself front-and-center going for laughs.
But much of the ostensibly more serious stuff was pretty funny too. The raw punches of The Longest Yard (1974), the prison football classic which marked Reynolds’ first of two collaborations with director Robert Aldrich, had a lot of mean and dirty laughs packed into it, and there are plenty of smiles in store for anyone sidling up to a visit with W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings (1975) or to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). But Colin Higgins’ adaptation of that randy stage hit wasn’t even Reynolds’ first foray into musicals—that honor would go to Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975), a flop upon release and much derided, though as ripe a candidate for reassessment as anything in Reynolds’ filmography. Of course, the quintessential Burt Reynolds movie is Smokey and the Bandit (1977), which has the power to break down even the most resistant viewer’s resolve. Jackie Gleason gets the biggest, most raucous laffs as the apoplectic sheriff Buford T. Justice, but the movie’s ease-on-down-the-back highway vibe is all Reynolds and the Bandit. Even as a CB-loving kid I never much got onto Smokey and the Bandit’s wavelength, but I was delighted to discover just a few years ago that the movie was a lot more fun than I was ever willing to give it credit for, and Jerry Reed’s “Eastbound and Down” theme song is without a doubt one of the great, irresistible ear worms in all of cinema.
Reynolds’ association with Smokey’s director, ex-stuntman Hal Needham, would yield five more pictures, each, in my view, lazier and more dispiriting than the last—movies like Hooper, Smokey and the Bandit II, The Cannonball Run, Cannonball Run II and Stroker Ace played as though Reynolds was only in it for the money and the beer. But the breezy charm of the original Bandit (my friend Larry Aydlette calls it the redneck comedy Preston Sturges would have made) can make you forget all those desultory pictures with ease. It still outshines even the career resurgence marked by 1997’s Boogie Nights, which snagged Reynolds an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, though not the sort of career resurgence he (and we) were clearly hoping for. It wasn’t long before Reynolds and his newly renewed high-profile backslid into production of another string of forgettable pictures that he seemed to care very little about.
My short list of Reynolds favorites would have to include The Longest Yard, White Lightning (1973), Smokey and the Bandit and Sam Whisky, and I am lining up to revisit and reassess pictures like The End, Semi-Tough (1978), Sharky’s Machine (1981) and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. (I don’t need to see 1979’s Starting Over again—after several visits I remain unconvinced.) And when it comes to underrated Reynold’s pictures, the number-one candidate is, to my mind, Hustle (1975), the second of the Reynolds-Aldrich collaborations, a mesmerizing, melancholy, French-inflected policier costarring Catherine Deneuve, Paul Winfield and Ben Johnson that is as far from the standard action fare it was sold as, as White Lightning and Gator are from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
And speaking of underrated, I’d put White Lightning in that category too— it shares the bootlegging concerns of Reynolds’ biggest hit, of course, but it has a hard-cut spirit which resides much closer to the dark undercurrent coursing through The Longest Yard than to Smokey’s “What, me worry?” sensibility, and 45 years later it packs an unexpected punch.
But without a doubt, my favorite Burt Reynolds movie, the best Burt Reynolds movie, is clearly Deliverance (1972), the movie in which he was unexpectedly cast (by his own admission) and which consolidated his increasingly popular personality with that of a real actor with undeniable talent, a bona fide movie star. It’s hard for me to understate how important this movie was for me growing up, in terms of its impact on my kid mind in learning to expand my idea of what the language of movies could encompass, as well as what I was ready for just on a personal level. And today, as we all mourn the passing of its biggest and most imposing presence, I am more grateful than ever that I was able to see Burt Reynolds, John Boorman, Ned Beatty and Jon Voight (no Ronny Cox) gathered together at the TCM Film Festival in 2013 to hear them all talk about it. The following is the story, written for my blog soon after the event, of being at that screening five years ago. The man is now dead, but we all know the answer to the question he himself posed in Boorman’s great film. Who has the ability to survive? Burt Reynolds, especially in Deliverance, that’s who.
Once I arrived in Hollywood for day two of the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, I settled into my spot toward the front of the theater in anticipation of seeing Deliverance on the big screen for the first time since 1973, when I was a 13-year-old high school freshman. I was already fairly movie-savvy at that age, and I’d heard talk about the movie circulating since its release—by the time it made it to our hometown theater the Academy Awards for 1972 had already passed, so word of the grueling nightmares that awaited its four weekend adventurers (and those who bought tickets to see it) had trickled down even to the most isolated corners of Southern Oregon. But even if I knew (more or less) what to expect, my dad, who barely paid attention to the movies, wouldn’t have known Deliverance from Up the Creek. So when I cleverly appealed to his taste for the outdoors and casually suggested that maybe we could go see that new canoeing movie (I needed that accompanying adult to circumvent the “R” rating), he glanced at the tiny ad on the local movie calendar, which conveniently showed only the name of the movie, pictures of the actors looming over a silhouette of three men paddling their boat, and an ominous tag line (“Where does the camping trip end… and the nightmare begin?”), and agreed to take me to see it. Success!
But I did not count on my mom’s interest. Unexpectedly, she decided to tag along, and I ended up sitting between the two of them for the entire movie. As the attack on Ned Beatty and Jon Voight began, I realized I may have miscalculated the situation, and my own comfort level, somewhat. The scene was much more frightening than I anticipated, so much so that upon viewing the movie later as an adult I realized that even at 13 I didn’t fully comprehend what was really going on, even to the point of blocking out some of the more graphic details and suggestions that were right there on screen. And I distinctly remember being aware of my mom staring daggers at me during that scene and at several points afterward, telegraphing just how much trouble I was in for when the lights finally did come up. (Curiously, I have very little memory of my dad’s reaction to the scene.)
Deliverance has, in the years since that fateful night, loomed large in my own personal movie mythology, for that experience with my parents but also because the movie has remained such a powerful and difficult experience all on its own. And I certainly never would have guessed that 40 years after my first somewhat traumatic experience with the movie I would be seeing it again in the presence of four of the men who helped make it. But here I was, in a packed house, the lights dimmed to darkness, watching the silhouetted figures of Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, Burt Reynolds and director John Boorman being guided to the stage where, once the lights came up again, they would be interviewed by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz as an introduction to the morning’s beautiful DCP presentation of the movie. When the TCM Classic Film Festival schedule was first announced, only Jon Voight had been lined up to participate in the screening. But as Reynolds, Boorman and Beatty were eventually announced buzz surrounding the appearance began to build, and by the time the panel began the big auditorium was packed. (If only Ronny Cox, Vilmos Zsigmond and perhaps even Billy Redden could have been there!)
To say it was a delight to see these actors and this director gathered together on the same stage to celebrate this movie would be a hugely deficient description. Boorman, 80 at the time, seemed to these eyes as vital and engaged as he did when I saw him introduce Hope and Glory at a UCLA screening 30 years ago, and even though his production has tailed off since 2006 he seemed ready to go, quite enjoying revisiting what must have been a grueling physical experience in attempting to exact visual poetry to match or at least stand beside the language of James Dickey’s novel while on such a logistically challenging shoot. With all respect given to Boorman, Voight assumed the role of éminence grise on the panel, offering a few anecdotes to lead off the discussion (moderated by Ben Mankiewicz) before more-or-less ceding the spotlight to his costars.
Reynolds was delightful in what for him amounted to a somewhat stately repose, his casual wit and charm slowed somewhat by age but not dimmed in terms of pure zing—he still has the power to evoke all those star-making, wattage-sustaining appearances on the couch next to Johnny Carson. He still, near the end of a long career balanced by box-office stardom and eventual audience indifference, seemed in awe of the fact that he was cast at all in Deliverance, a vote of confidence from Boorman which still resonates for him today. “I may have been in 90 movies,” the actor intoned as the panel came to a close, “but I feel like I’ve really only been in one film.” If the line seemed a little honed and polished from use since the 40th anniversary celebrations of this movie began a year or so ago, it was also marked by sincerity, something not always in ample supply among the many arched eyebrows that have marked Reynolds’ long career.
But by far the most amusing was Beatty. At first he seemed to regard the comments of his fellow actors with a kind of gruff mask of stone-faced patience, the kind a beleaguered grandparent might put on in the face of misbehaving children before the inevitable furious eruption. But when Mankiewicz finally swung the spotlight in his direction, Beatty seized the stage with a theatrical flurry of grumpiness that was a marvel to behold, mock dressing-down the “Hollywood Boulevard crowd” packing the auditorium and simultaneously winking at the two-ton elephant in the room. (“I know why you’re all here!”) The TCM host finally worked up the gumption to ask Beatty about the experience of this being his first movie, the scene being its nightmare centerpiece, and Beatty recalled Boorman worrying over how he felt about playing a scene of such heinous victimization. “Well, it’s acting, isn’t it?” Beatty recalled responding, thus dispelling the trauma viewers of Deliverance have for four decades imagined the actor must have suffered as a result of such on-screen degradation.
The movie itself remains uniquely powerful, one of the most brilliant exercises in foreboding and sustained, indefinable dread I think I’ve ever seen, as well as a savvy and damning dissection of the codes of macho authority so often celebrated without examination in American action thrillers. As I alluded earlier, Boorman finds a way into Dickey’s book by not allowing its specifically literary pleasures to haunt the film in absentia, by infusing even its most placid imagery of water, nature, and nature defiled with the suggestion of the fury and fear present when all hell rises to the surface and sets its own inexplicable course.
And speaking of surfaces, I’d always thought Pauline Kael was probably right when, in her review of Carrie, she suggested that by staging the interrupted nightmare that ends the 1976 film Brian De Palma had managed to pull off the sort of cinematic boo-job that Boorman muffed at the end of Deliverance. But after seeing the movie here, it struck me that while the juxtaposition of the hand rising to the glassy surface of the river with Voight’s Drew lurching up out of bed, away from (but never far enough away from) the horrible memories of his experience, doesn’t have the adrenalized shock of De Palma’s sequence, what Boorman does hardly qualifies as a mistake. Rather than use the hard cut from dream to reality, in Deliverance Boorman employs an appropriately more fluid, fairly rapid lap dissolve to shift between images. The final effect then is not the gasping leap out of the nightmare, but rather something more reflective of the ineffable disorientation one feels, even when awakened with a start, in the transition from a horror-filled dream back into a reality where the horror insists on lingering. It’s a transition that seems well-tailored to the wide-screen nightmare Ed and Bobby and Lewis, and the audience, have just survived.
Jon Voight’s Bobby leaves Deliverance haunted. But I have a feeling that Burt Reynolds will rest in peace, his last days filled with praise for his past work from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, who was preparing Reynolds for an appearance in his upcoming Manson-era epic Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Reynolds had been cast as George Spahn, the owner of the ranch which served as the de facto headquarters for Charles Manson and his “family” during the time of the Tate-La Bianca murders. Reynolds would not live to shoot what might have been a great coda to a long career of making audiences happy, and later in the game making a long list of movies which audiences weren’t even aware existed. But no matter. Though Reynolds is himself now eastbound and down, the legacy of the Bandit, Gator McCluskey, W.W Bright, Paul Crewe, Sheriff Earl Dodd, Hooper and Sam Whisky live on, with perhaps some long overdue reassessment of Reynolds’ talent as an actor in the wings as well. However, there is no need to reassess the man’s essential appeal. He was and always shall be the very definition of a modern major movie star.