Critic's Notebook: Burt Reynolds Was a Charmingly Preposterous Icon of American Masculinity

Universal Pictures/Photofest
Burt Reynolds in 'Smokey and the Bandit' (1977)

Behind his boorish good-ole-boy image, the former box office heavyweight left behind some surprisingly subtle and soulful performances.

Among the unexpected joys of Adam Rifkin's 2017 indie comedy The Last Movie Star is the sight of a visibly fragile Burt Reynolds, who died Thursday at 82, dispensing world-weary advice to his reckless younger self in scenes taken from his canon of 1970s screen classics. Reynolds sportingly plays a thinly disguised version of himself as Vic Edwards, a fading screen superstar who learns a late lesson in humility as the final curtain looms. "Maybe there is still time for my Hollywood ending," he says wistfully.

At the time of his death, Reynolds was signed up to join Quentin Tarantino's upcoming Manson family saga Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Sadly, it appears he had not yet shot his scenes. There was not quite time for his Hollywood ending after all. Even so, he leaves behind a long and rich legacy, from shameless junk to soulful, sophisticated, surprisingly subtle performances.

At various points during his six decades onscreen, Reynolds was a staggeringly successful action comedy star, a hairy-chested sex symbol, and a national joke. Often all three at once. But at least he was in on the joke himself. "My movies were the kind they show in prisons and airplanes," he once quipped, "because nobody can leave."

Reynolds probably made more terrible movies than almost any other star of comparable stature, full of juvenile humor and casual locker-room sexism. But even in his preposterously bewigged and bushy-mustached prime, he always seemed to embody an uncomplicated, undiluted, effortlessly likable strain of American masculinity that was driven much more by sunny mischief than angsty machismo. Not for him the tortured histrionics of Brando or Pacino. To his credit, Reynolds never seemed to take anything too seriously. Certainly not his career choices, and especially not himself.

"We're only here for a little while and you've got to have some fun, right?" Reynolds told The New York Times in March of this year. "I don't take myself seriously, and I think the ones that do, there's some sickness with people like that. That's why I live in Florida."

High-minded film critics tend to give Reynolds a grudging pass based on his slender body of more serious work. But there is a surprising amount of lowbrow joy to be wrung from his winking, wise-cracking, cowboy-hatted good-ole-boy vehicles too. The most iconic of these was Hal Needham's Smokey and the Bandit (1977), in which he plays a rubber-burning folk hero who leads the entire Atlanta police force on a high-speed wild goose chase as part of an illegal beer-smuggling operation. Co-starring Reynolds' longtime paramour Sally Fields, the first chapter in the Bandit trilogy grossed $300 million, a phenomenal sum that placed it second only to Star Wars that year.

A Michigan native who grew up in Florida, Reynolds spent much of his first decade in Hollywood doing stunt work and prosaic TV roles, most famously as Quint in Gunsmoke. His leading-man potential blossomed only in the 1970s, starting with John Boorman's Deliverance (1972), a tightrope-taut study of embattled survivalism in the face of a lethal threat. Containing no trace of the future superstar's signature smirking humor, this classic backwoods thriller won multiple awards and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Reynolds also did solid, meaty work as a former NFL player turned prison football coach in Robert Aldrich's rib-bruising comic drama The Longest Yard (1974). And he made a decent job of directing himself in a handful of features, channeling Dirty Harry in the gritty police thriller Sharky's Machine (1981) and showing a keen ear for Elmore Leonard's sunshine-noir cynicism with Stick (1985).

Less successful but equally noteworthy was his performance in Breaking In (1989), a bittersweet indie gem scripted by John Sayles and directed by Bill Forsyth, in which Reynolds radiates weary grace as a middle-aged, down-at-the-heels safecracker. When he finally outgrew his hirsute he-man image, he managed to deliver some warm, generous, actorly performances.

Of course, his most widely acclaimed autumnal role came in Paul Thomas Anderson's porn industry panorama, Boogie Nights (1997). Reynolds gave a revelatory performance as silver fox Jack Horner, the P.T. Barnum of X-rated movies. But the 60-year-old star did not get along with the 27-year-old auteur director, and had zero faith in the project. After seeing an early rough cut, he even fired the agent who secured him the role. Although his richly grained performance earned Reynolds a Golden Globe and the only Oscar nomination of his career, he continued to disparage the film for years, and even declined to co-star in Anderson's next project, Magnolia (1999).

Indeed, as he acknowledged in his self-deprecating 2015 memoir, But Enough About Me, Reynolds was probably more famous for the career-making roles he turned down than the mostly forgettable paycheck trash that dominates his huge list of screen credits. Han Solo, Michael Corleone, James Bond, Rocky Balboa, Richard Gere's wealthy playboy in Pretty Woman and more all slipped through his grasp.

Reynolds also turned down two roles that earned Oscars for Jack Nicholson, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Terms of Endearment (1983). He occasionally voiced regrets about these missed opportunities. But given that he was America's number-one box office star from 1978 to 1982, his unwise choices probably did not keep him awake at night.

"The audience will always forgive you for being wrong and exciting," he once said, "but never for being right and dull." Burt Reynolds was often very wrong indeed, but rarely dull.