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.

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.

(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©


Kiki said...

I had no idea how many movies he made - movies that, as usual, I never heard of or ignored. I went out with a small group of local "celebs" in Philadelphia one night in 1970s to Palumbo's to see a Helen O'Connell show. Helen was a good friend of his then-girlfriend, Dinah Shore. A nicer gentleman you couldn't ask for. Would Dinah Shore have been interested in him otherwise? kiki

Peter L. said...

Thanks givng a shout-out to Barbara Loden in your Reynolds piece. The same year she made "Fade-In," she also filmed a role in Burt Lancaster's "The Swimmer." But when Sydney Pollack was brought i to take over for the original director, Frank Perry, Loden's scenes were re-shot with Janice Rule. It was not a good year for Loden and I'm sure this added to the emotional problems that would plague her until her death in 1980. She was only 48. I will forever admire Loden for the film she directed in 1970 - two years after "Fade-In" and "The Swimmer." That would be "Wanda." I've read that her husband, Elia Kazan (who also "discovered" her) was not exactly supportive when she made that film. Not sure of that. Anyway, she was a gifted talent.

ryan said...

Re "Boogie Nights" and Burt Reynolds' decision to distance himself from it, I always thought it had a lot to do with the reports that he did not get along with Anderson and did not like him. It could have been that he found the material offensive, but he clearly knew what the film was going to be about when he signed up for it. Also, Reynolds disliked John G. Avildsen as well and often dissed him in public. All this may play into his issues with authority.

joe baltake said...

Ryan- There was no doubt that easy-going Burt could be tempestuous - and very vocal about the filmmakers with whom he collaborated. -J

Bunuel said...

Yes, Kazan did discover Loden and first cast her in "Wild River." She did outstanding work for him in "Splendor in the Grass" as Warren Beatty's troubled sister. Glad that you and Peter L. singled her out. She was indeed "terrific," as you say.

joe baltake said...

Peter L. & Bunuel- Thanks for the vote for Barbara Loden. She was rare and, you'll be happy to note that Burt liked her a lot. -J

Alex said...

Joe! Joe! I know that you couldn't list all of Reynolds' movie credits, but he made some neat drive-in movies early on that are really enjoyable. If you haven't seen them, you should check out "Armored Command," "Skullduggery," "Impasse" and especially "Shark," by Sam Fuller. "Sam Whiskey" is a delight. And "Navajo Joe" has a serious cult following. These are the movies that I think shaped Burt Reynolds' personality and image.

Vanessa said...

I'm a fan of "At Long Last Love," too. It surprised me. Much, much better than its reputation. One of the surprises is Burt's singing. He and Cybill Shepherd do really well with the Cole Porter score and, even more impressive, they sing live!

Gary G. said...

Excellent tribute, Joe. Burt would've approved

Bill Wolfe said...

Thank you for this excellent appreciation. A few years ago, TCM showed Buzz Kulik's "Shamus" (1973) late one night and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I've said to friends that I think Burt would've been a perfect Warner Brothers contract star in the 1930s and '40s. Howard Hawks and Michael Curtiz would have known exactly how to use Burt (although I suspect he would have had a problem with Curtiz's personality). Even better, I imagine, would have been a partnership with Raoul Walsh, who did such good work with Errol Flynn - an actor I could believe was Burt's long lost wild Tasmanian uncle.

As you may know, Burt was scheduled to begin filming a role in Quentin Tarantino's next movie. From what I've been told, he hadn't filmed any of his scenes yet, so we'll never get to see what he might have done. I don't have that much interest in Tarantino, but I would have loved to see what Burt would have done working with him.

Lastly, for what it's worth, I consider Burt's losing the Best Supporting Actor award for "Boogie Nights" to be one of the great miscarriages committed by the Academy - and that's saying something!

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Bill. I had originally mentioned Kulick's "Shamus" in the essay but deleted it with a few other Burt titles (including "Navajo Joe," Alex!) when I trimmed it. You inspired me to reinstate it. It's a smooth piece of moviemaking and Burt and Dyan Cannon made a terrific team. Re the idea of Burt having worked with Walsh, Curtiz and Hawks, it was always my opinion that he was born way too late. He was made for the 1940s. And, finally - yes! - Burt was robbed at the 1998 Oscarcast. But then, like Rodney Dangerfield, he never received much respect from the movie industry. On the other hand, Hollywood was just in awe of Robin Williams. So, I guess that it should have been no surprise that Burt lost that year. -J

Alex said...

Thanks, Joe!

Bill Wolfe said...

My thanks, as well!

Rita L. said...

What an impressive list of credits, most of which I haven't seen. But I love, love, love "At Long Last Love," which few have seen and is so under-rated. Actually it was highly criticized and for no good reason at all. Humming those Cole Porter tunes in my head these last few days. Burt will be missed.

Brian Lucas said...

It's been quote that, when Reynolds saw "Lucky Lady" at the premiere of the film, he declared, "Donen fucked it up!"