Friday, September 21, 2018

façade: george axelrod

George Axelrod is one of those fringe-Hollywood curiosities who exhilarates me more than those names that cause most movie critics to bow and genuflect and the movie industry to bestow its highest honors.

His filmography is the movie equivalent of a slim volume - 12 screenplays and two directorial credits, during a career that spanned 35 years. And much of his allure among cinéastes has everything to do with a single credit - his adroit screenplay for John Frankenheimer's brilliant "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), based on the Richard Condon book.

It's a rare, presient work that remains ever relevant and modern.

Axelrod got his start writing for radio and live TV in the late 1940s and early '50s before moving to the legitimate theater, making his Broadway-writing debut with "The Seven Year Itch" in 1952, followed by "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" in '55 and "Goodbye, Charlie" in '59. The screen rights to all three were snatched up by one studio, Twentieth Century-Fox.

Of the three, Axelrod was involved in the making of only one. He co-wrote the screenplay for "The Seven Year Itch," released in 1955, with its director, Billy Wilder. Meanwhile, he publicly disavowed the 1957 film of "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" because Fox encouranged its director-adapter Frank Tashlin to switch its backdrop from the publishing industry to television which, at the time, was the chief rival of and threat to movies.

The change actually made the movie more timely and pointed. "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" is regarded as one of the best film comedies of the 1950s. (Sorry, George.) The play starred Jayne Mansfield, who recreated her role on film and who, along with Marilyn Monroe who starred in the movie of "The Seven Year Itch," gave Axelrod an image (whether he wanted it or not) that Hugh Hefner was working overtime to cultivate.


But before his plays found their way it to the screen, Axelrod made his screen-writing debut with Mark Robson's underrated "Phffft!" in 1954. A Judy Holliday-Jack Lemmon vehicle about divorce, it remains surprisingly contemporary and is alive with dialogue that's both snappy and quick.  Axelrod gave co-star Jack Carson one particularly memorable monologue on which he lectures Lemmon about the importance of facial hair:

"Grow a moustache. A moustache is very important, It's all part of the famous Charlie Anderson Theory on the Efficacy of Face Hair in Dealing with the Opposite Sex. Sure. Always remember this, Bobby - dames become unpredictable when faced with a moustache - it both arouses and angers them. Being as it is a symbol of masculinity, they feel drawn toward it. And at the same time, because of envy, they feel impelled to cause its removal. All men should raise moustaches from time to time."

Axelrod followed "Phffft!" and "The Seven Year Itch" with another Monroe film, Joshua Logan's 'Bus Stop" (1956), which he adapted from the William Inge play. In the 1960s, he wrote the screenplays for two Audrey Hepburn films, Blake Edwards' "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961) and Richard Quine's "Paris When It Sizzles" (1964); penned another for Jack Lemmon, Quine's "How to Murder Your Wife" (1965), and created and wrote a sitcom for the singular Tammy Grimes called ... "The Tammy Grimes Show" (1966).

His third play, "Goodbye, Charlie," starred Lauren Bacall as a womanizer who is reincarnated as a woman and who has a difficult time reconciling her feelings about women with now actually being one. The role made good use of Bacall's handsome beauty and husky voice. But when Harry Kurnitz adapted Axelrod's play for the 1964 film version, director Vincente Minnelli opted for less obvious casting and brought in a very game Debbie Reynolds to play the slyly butch Charlie.

A risk but it works.

Both "The Seven Year Itch" and "Goodbye, Charlie" have proven to be versatile pieces, having been adapted into European film and TV productions.

There have been two German versions of "The Seven Year Itch" - both titled "Meine Frau erfährt kein Wort"- one filmed in 1970 (and running 100 minutes) and one made in 1982 (running 88 minutes). There is also a TV production filmed in Argentina in 1973 for the series "Alta Comedia."

"Goodbye, Charlie" has been the basis of a 1971 German film," Letzte Grüße, lieber Charlie" (105 minutes), as well as a 1979 French TV version (109 minutes), which retained the American title, filmed for "Au théâtre ce soir," a series devoted to plays. ("Au théâtre ce soir" has also included  Gallic productions of "Born Yesterday" and "Boeing Boeing.") In 1985, Suzanne Somers was signed by Twentieth Century-Fox Television for a sitcom version of the material but only the half-hour pilot was filmed.
When he developed some clout, Axelrod attempted a directing career, starting in 1966 with a novelty titled "Lord Love a Duck," which unsparingly satirizes/savages the teenage culture of the '60s with a cast completely in sync with his edgy sense of humor. Roddy McDowell, who was 36 at the time, plays a disreputable high school senior, who takes student Tuesday Weld under wing, becoming her mentor with the goal of helping her get everything she wants, including a collection of cashmere sweaters.

The two stars, who clearly enjoy one another and are having the time of their lives (which is contagious), are surrounded by a cast of delicious misfits - Ruth Gordon, Martin West, Harvey Korman, Sarah Marshall, an uncredited Martin Gabel and, most memorable of all, Lola Albright and Max Showalter as Weld's divorced parents. Showalter and Weld share a particularly hilarious sequence (which could never been filmed today because of its queasiness) in which they go shopping for the aforementioned cashmere sweaters - in colors named Grape Yum Yum, Banana Beige, Lemon Meringue, Pink Put On, Papaya Surprise, Periwinkle Pussycat, Turquoise Trouble, Midnight A-Go-Go, and Peach Putdown.

"Lord Love a Duck," one of those misunderstood films, went nowhere but has sustained a loyal cult following, deservedly so.

Two years later in 1968, Axelrod tried directing again - this time with something more conventional, "The Secret Life of an American Wife," which is less George Axelrod than Neil Simon. Not a bad thing, but not necessarily good either.

The too-often-underused Anne Jackson had one of her infrequent lead movie roles as the wife of a Hollywood agent (Patrick O'Neal) who tries to impress her husband by seducing one of his most important clients (Walter Matthau as an unlikely sex symbol).

In 1971, Axelrod composed his wry memoirs, "Where am I Now When I Need Me?"  He died on June 21st, 2003 at age 81, but had been inactive for the last two decades of his life. Towards the end of his writing career, he worked in England and one of his lesser-known credits was written there -  his script for Anthony Page's 1979 remake of "The Lady Vanishes," starring Cybill Shepherd, Elliott Gould, Angela Lansbury, Herbert Lom, Ian Charmichael and Arthur Lowe. It's quite good. I'll say more about it later.

Look for a Cinema Obsura.

Note in Passing: Finally, here's a delightfully nutty, Axelrod-solid scene, with Tuesday Weld and Max Showalter, from "Lord Love a Duck." Enjoy!



Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

~images~
(from top)

~George Axelrod in a publicity shot for "How to Murder Your Wife"
~photography: United Artists 1965©

~Jack Lemmon and Judy Holliday in "Phffft!" 
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1954©

~Advertisement for the Broadway production of "Goodbye, Charlie"

~Shots of Tuesday Weld, Roddy McDowell and Ruth Gordon in "Lord Love a Duck"
~photography: United Artists 1966©

~Poster art for "The Lady Vanishes"

Monday, September 17, 2018

cinema obscura: the pre-release "South Pacific"

In March of '79, I saw something unexpected - a version of Joshua Logan's "South Pacific" before Logan did some last-minute tightening prior to his film's roadshow premiere 21 years earlier - on March 19th, 1958 - at New York's Rivoli Theater. It was a rare Todd-AO print and this version followed the continuity of the original Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical.

Which means the film's first musical number wasn't the seabees' antic "Bloody Mary" - which has always opened the film, following a brief airborne scene between John Kerr and Tom Laughlin - but rather, "Dites-Moi," "A Cockeyed Optimist" and "Twin Soliloquies"/"Some Enchanted Evening," which introduced the characters of Nellie Forbush (played by Mitzi Gaynor),  Emile De Becque (Rossano Brazzi) and De Becque's children in one continuous sequence set at De Becque's hilltop estate.

The version that I saw in 1979 opened with the De Becque children singing "Dites-Moi." The "Bloody Mary" number followed about ten minutes later.

The occasion for my discovery was a film series titled "Broadway Comes to Broadway," programmed by my friend Ralph Donnelly, a pioneer of specialized exhibition who, at the time, was booking New York's RKO Cinerama, once located on Broadway and 47th Street but now long gone. Ralph's pet project in the 1970s was the invaluable First Avenue Screening Room which was devoted entirely to unreleased/shelved titles ("The All-American Boy," "The Christian Licorice Store"). Ralph's screening there of Paul Bartel's "Private Parts" encouraged MGM to actually release the film.

click on image to enlarge

"Broadway Comes to Broadway" was a series of nine roadshow musicals (plus "Cabaret"), most of them shown in 70mm. Both "South Pacific" and "Oklahoma!" were screened in Todd-AO, the latter particularly gorgeous in that format. But the version of "South Pacific" that Ralph secured was the real find of the series. He told me that the print was acquired from the people overseeing the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate. ("South Pacific" was made independently by the Magna Theater Corporation, which developed Todd-AO, and then distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox.)

The film that Ralph screened ran 171 minutes, which was its running time for a few weeks in 1958 before the powers elected to trim it down to 157 minutes (following less than enthusiastic reviews). The 14 minutes eliminated from the film consist mostly of trimmed dialogue here and there and much of it reduced Ray Walston's Luther Billis character.

The 171-minute and 157-minute versions of "South Pacific" are both included on the DVD and BluRay discs, but the longer cut on home entertainment has the usual/familiar order of sequences.

The souvenir program for "South Pacific," which is rather creative and arty for a movie program (designed, no less, than by legendary production designers Dale Hennesy and John De Cuir), includes a section called "the continuity...," which is the film from the point of view of its editor Bob Simpson - and, again, the opening follows the contours of the play.

If I had to guess, I would say that Logan's decision to change the chronology of the early musical numbers prior to the film's opening was made strictly for commercial reasons. It's more audience-friendly to open the film with something rousing like "Bloody Mary" than with the moody and introspective "Some Enchanted Evening." Just a hunch.

Finally, there's Paul Osborn's screenplay for "South Pacific" (final draft, dated August 8th, 1957), which is available from Script City, that corroborates the continuity detailed in the film's program and the movie that I saw that day at the RKO Cinerama.

For the 157-minute cut of the film, Logan of course kept the introductory Nellie-Emile song medley intact, but eliminated the kids' first version of "Dites-Moi." He also removed a moment later in the film, just before the intermission break, during which Emile imitates Nellie, doing a mocking version of "I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair."

Regarding that song, the version of it performed by Mitzi Gaynor was trimmed - truncated actually - way before the film's release, with the entire middle (sung by a chorus of nurese) eliminated. Rumor has it that Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted the song cut from the film altogether. From their perspective, while it was a big moment in the play - i.e., the novelty of the leading lady washing her hair on stage every night - it made less sense on film. It was less of a novelty in a movie. Also, it was a popular song - too popular to cut out entirely. So it was merely trimmed.

Writing this makes me wonder if that version of "South Pacific" is still in the archives of the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate. I hope so.

Note in Passing: Ralph Donnelly passed on September 21st, 2007. He was 75. He's missed.  

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

~images~
(from top) 

~The opening title cards for "South Pacific"

-The advertisement for the RKO Cinerama's "Broadway Comes to Broadway" series in 1979

~Rosanno Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor in a scene from the film
 ~Gaynor in the "Twin Soliloquies" number
~photography: Magna Theater Corporation/Twentieth Century-Fox 1958©

Friday, September 14, 2018

"It's Burt Reynolds..."

My first encounter with Burt Reynolds was in the form of a hand-written note that was dated March 2nd, 1976.

Dear Joe:

I am delighted and quite touched by your review of "At Long Last Love" and what you said about me personally. Peter Bogdanovich was particularly thrilled with your review, too. As you probably know, Roger Ebert, last year's Pulitizer Prize winning critic, also loved "At Long Last Love." If you are planning to be out here for the Oscar show, please call and we'll lock in a date to get together.

Best,
Burt

There were a handful of interview sessions and brief social meetings after that, but the one occasion that's burned in my brain was early in 1979 - either in January or February. It was a Friday, a day that I routinely took off to decompress after a week of multiple screenings and deadlines.

The phone rang. It was Burt Reynolds. He was in New York to meet with producer David Merrick about doing a second movie together, "Rough Cut." (They had previously worked together on Michael Ritchie's "Semi-Tough" in 1977.) The reason for the call? Twentieth Century-Fox was screening "Norma Rae" for him at 5 p.m. - its first screening before its March 2nd opening. Burt was, of course, dating Sally Field, the film's star, at the time. Hence, the screening. Anyway, would I like to attend?

For some reason, Fox screened the movie at the Paramount Screening Room on Columbus Circle. There were two other people there - David Gershenson, Burt's manager, and the stage actress Diane Kagen, Burt's friend. They were both alumni of Florida State University and, although I'm not certain, Diane may have also appeared in plays at Burt's eponymous dinner theater in Jupiter, Fl.

Afterwards, three of us - Burt, David and me - went to Elaine's for dinner. The now-gone restaurant, once at 2nd Avenue and East 88th Street, was the "It" place in Manhattan in those days, the place to be seen, and owner Elaine Kaufman was always there, greeting and briefly joining her celebrity guests at their tables.

Seated at another table was ... David Merrick, whom Burt found to be a distraction. So much so that he couldn't focus on the conversation. He'd glance over at Merrick from time to time, clearly annoyed about something. Finally, Burt said to David, "Could you go over there and tell him to stop staring at me?" Apparently, Merrick was transfixed on Burt.

Merrick promptly switched places at his table, now with his back to Burt.

It was a curious/amusing moment that, as I said, remains burned in my brain. I had no idea what was going on. I didn't inquire, although I really wanted to. If our paths should ever cross again one day, my plan is to ask David Gershenson if he has any recollection of the incident - and to share.

Oh, yeah, Burt eventually did make "Rough Cut." 

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

~images~ 
~ (from top) Burt Reynolds, Elaine Kaufman, David Merrick and the exteriors of Elaine's

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

steve dejarnatt's rapturous noir

Steve DeJarnatt.

That name has haunted me for the past 30 years. Could it really be 30 years since I first saw "Miracle Mile"? Steve DeJarnatt wrote and directed this rapturous film and, as a working movie critic, I always wanted to meet him. But he's remained teasingly elusive for the same number of years.

"Miracle Mile" is DeJarnatt's second film, a follow-up to his debut feature, "Cherry 2000," of 1987. It is also the last theatrical film that he directed before heading into television where he apparently worked until 2006.

I couldn't even find a photo of him for this essay. Yes, elusive is the word.

"Miracle Mile," if you are among the uninitiated, is drop-dead beautiful and with an intense sense of style that's matched by its excellent, legendary script. DeJarnatt's original screenplay, which he wrote in 1978, was chosen in by American Film magazine in a 1983 issue as "one of the 10 best unmade scripts." And it remained unmade for another five years.

Its originality and lack of compromise must have frightened Hollywood because DeJarnatt spent the next decade working on other people's films.

DeJarnatt made his directorial debut with the much-touted premiere episode of the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" revival - "The Man From the South," starring John Huston, Melanie Griffith, Steven Bauer and Tippi Hedren - and then made his big-screen bow directing Griffith in "Cherry 2000" (which was delayed and barely released theatrically by Orion).

In the meantime, he persisted and finally persuaded John Daly of Hemdale to let him make "Miracle Mile." And his small movie is just about perfect.

DeJarnatt's plot is a boy-meets-girl romance that's threatened to be aborted by a nuclear catastrophe. And the situation that cleverly sets it all in motion is what happens when the wrong person answers a phone.

Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) is a traveling jazz musician (he plays the trombone) - single and shy - who meets the woman of his dreams in a natural history museum near the La Brea Tar Pits in L.A.

Julie Peters (Mare Winningham) is a waitress who works the night shift at Johnie’s Coffee Shop, a 24-hour diner in the Park Brea district. (The movie's title comes from the famous strip along Los Angeles' Wilshire Boulevard that connects the preserved fossils of the tar pits to the area's contemporary skyscrapers, and Johnie's, now gone, was fabulous.)

Anyway, they make plans for a big date - at one in the morning, after Julie gets off from work. Well, Harry gets there three hours late - Julie, brokenhearted, is long gone, having headed home to sleep off her depression, with the help of some pills. How Harry manages to stand her up provides a good example of the movie's details and ricocheting quality: He's on the balcony of his apartment, smoking, when he flicks away his butt. A pigeon picks it up and takes it to the electrical wire where it's nesting. A fire breaks out, blacking out Harry's apartment and thereby cutting off his alarm clock. Hence, he's three hours late for the date.

Harry is about to call Julie on the pay phone outside Johnie's when ... it rings: The voice on the other end is calling from a North Dakota missile silo. He's hysterical and has obviously misdialed. He wanted to talk to his father, to apologize for something and to warn him that the base's warhead has been locked into countdown: "We shoot our wad in 50 minutes!"

Then there's the sound of a gunshot and another voice comes on.

"Forget everything you just heard."

In a scene reminiscent of the one in Hitchcock's "The Birds," Harry tries to tell Johnie's motley assortment of night crawlers - a transvestite, two truck drivers and a yuppie stockbroker named Landa, who is speed-reading "Gravity's Rainbow" - what's about to happen. Is it real or a sick joke?

Landa (Denise Crosby, granddaughter of Bing), who happens to know the right people, makes a phone call and learns that a state of readiness is in the works.

Incredibly, she lines up a helicopter to transport everyone to where the air apparently will be clear of radioactivity. But if he's only got a little time left, Harry wants to spend it with Julie and embarks on an impetuous, romantic chase to find her.

For this moment, DeJarnatt comes up with another zany touch: Julie is still in a deep sleep, zonked out, and so Harry just plops her in a shopping cart and races through a deserted, very noir-ish L.A. in the dead of night.

"Miracle Mile," with its ripe camera work (courtesy of Holland's Theo Van de Sande), is over-the-top filmmaking, all twisty and quirky and bizarrely funny - like a fever dream. And visually, it's like a love poem to a very special time - the hours between darkness and dawn, as neon signs blink on/off and the morning light gradually seeps through buildings and alleys.

The film, released briefly on VHS, went full circle. It disappeared and was forgotten again - and only half-remembered - until it surfaced on DVD in 2015. To paraphrase a line from Ernest Dowson's poem, "Miracle Mile" emerged "from a misty dream, for a while, and then closed, within a dream." I'm glad it's back. But where, oh where, is Steve DeJarnatt?

I'd still like to meet him.

Note in Passing: The title of the Dowson poem is, of course, "The Days of Wine and Roses." 

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

~images~
(from top)

~Poster art for "Miracle Mile"

~Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham outside Johnie's
~photography: Hemdale  1988©

~Edwards transports Winningham throughout a noir-ish L.A.
~ photography: Hemdale 1988©

 ~The "Fat Boy" logo for the legendary Johnie's

Friday, September 07, 2018

getting burt

Roger Ebert once referred to Doris Day as the movie industry's "most misunderstood commodity." The same observation could be made about Burt Reynolds. Few understood or appreciated what he brought to film.

Even in death, there's the realization that most people don't "get" him, if one is to go by the countless appreciations and obituaries that have been accumulating since his passing on yesterday (August 6th) at age 82.

From them, one would assume that Burt Reynolds' only credentials for stardom were his undeniable charm and affability or that his screen career was defined exclusively by a single movie, "Smokey and the Bandit."

Ever-misunderstood. Routinely underestimated.

"Smokey and the Bandit" (1977), in fact, was something of a happy, unexpected accident, made on the fly by Burt during a downtime - and as a favor to Hal Needham, his stuntman-friend who wanted to direct a movie. Little was expected from it, but Universal was so surprised by its accomplished, throw-away cartoon style that the studio booked it into Radio City Music Hall.

But "Smokey" is just one title, one of many. His sprawling filmography includes a whopping 186 acting credits, at least half of them television performances. And while there are the requisite number of negligible theatrical releases, his output is dotted with often challenging material, made in collaboration with an amazing array of major filmmakers.

And as for that "undeniable charm," yes, it was always there at the heart of his performances, along with a soulfulness. But, frankly, Burt was as complicated as he was affable. That said, here's what I perceive to be his career high points, including choices he made that might seem dubious - and "misses" that, for me, are every bit as interesting as his "hits."  

1958-68: The TV Years, "Angel Baby" and "Fade-in"...

Much like Steve McQueen, James Garner and Clint Eastwood, Burt's early screen career was small, meaning that it was anchored to the small screen - television. His appearances on the tube from the late 1950s to early '60s were countless and sad ("Flipper" anyone? "Gentle Ben"?), including regular work on three series. There were a handful of parts in movie at the time, the most notable being his big-screen debut role in Paul Wendkos' "Angel Baby" (1961), a nifty "Elmer Gantry" wannabe with a good cast - Mercedes McCambridge, George Hamilton, Henry Jones, Joan Blondell and, in the title role, the fabulous Salome Jens. A guilty pleasure.

More TV followed and then came "Fade-In," an esoteric indie made by Paramount as a companion piece to a 1968 Terence Stamp vehicle titled "Blue," directed by Silvio Narizzano ("Georgy Girl"), for which Paramount had high hopes. The idea for "Fade-In," directed by Jud Taylor, was for it to be on the periphery of "Blue," centering on the relationships among that film's crew during its making. Burt was paired with another terrific actress here, Barbara Loden (who directed "Wanda" and died too young). "Fade-In" was something of an experiment but, when "Blue" bombed, it was shelved. IMDb lists "Fade-In" as a made-for-TV movie.

It isn't.

1972: "Deliverance," Cosmopolitan and Carson...

There was nothing much for the next four years - until 1972. Then, snap! Something happened. Within '72, Burt (1) played the lead in Richard A. Colla's comedy, "Fuzz"; (2) was part of the ensemble in John Boorman's prestige, Oscar-bait drama, "Deliverance"; (3) made a cameo appearance in Woody Allen's "Everything You Always anted to Know about Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask"; (4) posed partially nude for a centerfold in the April issue of Cosmopolitan, and (5) made the first of 61 appearances on "The Tonight Show" (which aired February 18th, 1972).

Suddenly, he had "It."

Despite the notoriety of the centerfold and the personal acclaim that came with "Deliverance," it was his witty, self-deprecating banter with Johnny Carson that made him a star. Audiences found him irresistible.

Men and women alike.

1974: "The Longest Yard"/a break-out role, a personal role...


The year 1973 brought the low-key pleasures of Joseph Sargent's "White Lightning" and Buzz Kulick's "Shamus," as well as the scandal  plaguing Richard C. Sarafian's "The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing." (Co-star Sarah Miles' manager was found dead on location, which sparked speculation about her relationship with Burt.) But he was still more or less biding time until 1974, the year of Robert Aldrich's hugely watchable "The Longest Yard," in which Burt broke through completely as an imprisoned former quarterback coerced by the prison's evil warden (played by a cast-against-type Eddie Albert) to coach a group of inmates for a football game in which they take on the guards.

He brought a personal reading to the role.

Burt had often discussed his hell-raising youth and issues with his father, who was a sheriff and who was very strict. He never spoke ill of his father but it was clear that an incorrigible son hardly reflected well on a man who was positioned as a leading authority figure in his community. Approval from him was rare. All of this is paralleled in "The Longest Yard," in which Burt plays an irresponsible, reckless athlete at the mercy of an unforgiving totalitarian. I've no idea if the film was written specifically with him in mind but the fit is utterly perfect. There would be subsequent films that would pit Burt against the patriarchy and, of course, "Smokey and the Bandit" is a lighter variation on the same autobiographical father/authority issues.

1975: Burt's banner year...

Burt stretched himself considerably in '75, taking on no fewer than four films, all for A-list directors, starting off with John G. Avildsen's disarming "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings," in which a mustache-free Burt, honing his "undeniable charm" to perfection, turns in what is arguably the definitive Burt Reynolds performance. Next came his game turn in my hands-down favorite, Peter Bogdanoich's musical "At Long Last Love," a movie enthusiastically endorsed by both Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby but routinely dismissed and derided by people who haven't bothered to actually see it. Burt put himself out there, singing and dancing - his singing altogether fine, delivered in the easy, laid-back style of Dean Martin.

He had two year-end holiday releases that year - Robert Aldrich's policier, "Hustle," which paired him in an effectively moody duet with Catherine Deneuve, and Stanley Donen's troubled period piece, "Lucky Lady," co-starring Gene Hackman and Liza Minnelli.

Essentially a light-hearted caper, "Lucky Lady" ended originally - and apparently jarringly (see clip below) - with the deaths of Hackman and Reynolds characters. When that didn't work with either the studio or test audiences, another ending was shot - with the three stars in old-age make-up (see photo at end of piece). Nope. Another - a happy ending - was shot and that's the one that was released. The film certainly has problems but it boasts three stars at their zenith, clearly having fun.

 

1976-79: The "Smokey" blessing and curse...

Despite the ambition behind his '75 films, none of them did very well financially. In 1976, Burt teamed up again with Bogdanovich for "Nickelodeon," did a cameo in Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie" and made a credible directorial debut with "Gator" (a sequel to "White Lightning"). A pleasing selection. And so "Smokey and the Bandit" came along at just the right time the following year. A surprise hit. Huge. And it helped that "Smokey" was followed by something more substantial - "Semi-Tough," Michael Ritchie's take on the Dan Jenkins book (with an adaptation by the estimable Walter Bernstein) and the first of two films Burt would make with Jill Clayburgh.

The next few years would be a hodgepodge of "Smokey" sequels and "Smokey" clones ("The Cannonball Run" and Stroker Ace"), shoulder-shrugging titles ("Rough Cut," "Paternity") and a trio of "Dan August" telefilms. The only notable highlights were Hal Needham's terrific comedy about movie stunt work, "Hooper" (1978); that second film with Clayburgh, Alan J. Pakula's "Starting Over" (1979), in which Burt believed he gave his best performance and expected an Oscar nomination, and another stab at directing with "The End" (1978), an amusing black comedy about suicide.

1981-83: A termporary rebound...

"Smokey and the Bandit," his biggest hit, would bedevil Burt throughout his career. He became irrevocably linked to it, in much the same way that "Psycho" relentlessly trailed Anthony Perkins for the rest of his life. If anything, Burt should have bounced back in a big way after his output in 1981 and 1982. In '81, he directed his strongest film, his critically-acclaimed adaptation of "Sharkey's Machine" and, in '82, he starred in two box-office hits, Colin Higgins' "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" (co-starring with Dolly Parton) and Norman Jewison's "Best Friends" (opposite Goldie Hawn).

He enjoyed another decidedly non-"Smokey" role in 1983 - "The Man Who Loved Women," Blake Edwards' remake of the 1977 François Truffaut film, "L'homme qui aimait les femmes," which teamed him with Julie Andrews and Kim Basinger. Burt ended the '80s with a fine performance in Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth's art-house work, "Breaking In" (1989).

There were painfully slim pickings for Burt Reynolds during the 1990s and into the new millennium, but he got to work with Alexander Payne on his gutsy abortion comedy, "Citizen Ruth" (1996), starring Laura Dern, with director Jay Roach and star Russell Crowe on the disarming "Mystery, Alaska" (1999), and in Mike Figgis' ensemble indie, "Hotel" (2001).

Then there's Paul Thomas Anderson's epic salute to porn, "Boogie Nights" (1997), in which Burt shared the screen with a slew of hot new talent and tore into his role as a director of pornographic films as if it was a slab of raw meat, bringing raw emotion, humor, warmth and even dignity to the part. It's the movie that brought him the Oscar nomination that he wanted so much - that he thought he would receive for his work in "Deliverance" and "Starting Over." He could have won. (He lost to Robin Williams for his saintly work in "Good Will Hunting.") But for some bizarre reason, he retreated and did something self-destructive. He denounced the film.

In the last decade of his life, as he aged rapidly, Burt Reynolds continued to work, often in films that went straight to video or On Demand. "The Last Movie Star," a not-bad 2017 film was released earlier this year and referred to in his obits as his last film. Actually, according to IMDb, he made six other films after "The Last Movie Star." I've no idea what will become of them but, if you feel a need for a Burt Reynolds fix, I suggest a number of titles that he made when he was in his prime - "Deliverance," "White Lightning," "Best Friends," "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings," "The Longest Yard," "Semi-Tough," "Smokey and the Bandit" (of course) and, by all means, "At Long Last Love."

Plus ... "Boogie Nights."

Note in Passings: There may be more coming on Burt Reynolds, more personal reflections.

In the meantime, I want to thank reader Alex for reminding me (see comments below) about the cult Spaghetti Western that Burt made for filmmaker Sergio Corbucci in 1966, "Navajo Joe." Here's what Dave Kehr had to say about it (and other Westerns) in The New York Times on May 20th, 2008.

Also, Julianne Moore offers an affectionate reminiscence of Burt here.

Oh, and here's the picture of the three stars in their old-age make-up for one of the endings filmed for "Lucky Lady." Apologies for the fuzzy image.

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~images~
(from top)

~Burt Reynolds singing the title song (live) in Peter Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love" 
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1975©

~A typical Burt Reynolds pose in "Smokey and the Bandit"
~photography: Universal  1977©

~With Salome Jens in "Angel Baby"
~photography: Allied Artists 1961©

~With Barbara Loden in "Fade-In" 
 ~photography: Paramount  1968©

~Spritzing Johnny Carson with whipped cream on an episode of "The Tonight Show" 
~photography: Carson Entertainment Corp./NBC 1974©

~With Eddie Albert in "The Longest Yard"
`photography: Paramount  1974©

 ~In "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings" and "At Long Last Love"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1975©

~With Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise and Mel Brooks in "Silent Movie"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1976© 

~Poster Art for Warner Bros.' "Best Friend"

~Poster art for Universal's "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas"

~Burt at home with his dog Bertha, circa 1972

~With Julianne Moore in "Boogie Nights"
~photography: New Line Cinema 1997©

~Burt in his prime at the Beverly Hills Hotel, July 30th, 1976 
~photography: Century City Photography1976©