Mainstream cinema audiences in the 1970s and early 1980s seeking some clarification on what it meant to be a man could do worse than look to Burt Reynolds, who died yesterday at the age of 82.
The easygoing smile, the Stetson tipped just-so, the tight denim, the chest hair spidering out of the partially unbuttoned shirt. And that laugh: self-regarding, a little sanguine. His was a club to which you might plausibly want to belong.
The end-credits outtakes in The Cannonball Run told you as much: look at the fun he was having, usually in the company of the jolly Dom DeLuise, goofing around and cracking up. The sort of peril he suffered in John Boorman’s 1972 thriller Deliverance was a distant memory – as was the quality and skill found in that film, you might say.
But if Reynolds had to (or chose to) wait nearly 20 years before getting another movie as fine as Deliverance, it would be a mistake to undervalue the persona he crafted in the meantime. If looking effortless really took no effort, then every light comic actor would be Cary Grant, which patently isn’t the case. And though Reynolds was no Grant, he was an expert at putting the audience at ease – and making doing so look easy.
His blokey-jokey swagger was an important element of various cop or crime movies with one-word titles – Fuzz, Shamus, Stick, Gator, Hustle. (In the latter, directed by Robert Aldrich, he was paired with Catherine Deneuve: an object lesson in the differences between French and American cool.) That swagger transferred easily and without much adjustment to the area of romantic comedy: Semi-Tough, Starting Over, Best Friends. Lampooning his own narcissism came easily in Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie, where Reynolds is seen breezing down the stairs of a home festooned with portraits of himself.
In fact, he only really seemed uneasy when placed in close proximity to a movie star of greater stature: was that why City Heat, in which he shared top billing with Clint Eastwood, felt so dry? “Take cover!” warned the poster, but the sparks didn’t exactly fly. It was all sticks and no fire. (It was also a disaster for Reynolds in another sense: when a stunt went badly wrong – he was struck with a real chair rather than a fake one – he suffered a broken jaw and lingering health problems.)
His stardom is associated largely with comedies on four wheels – not only the Cannonball Run movies (there were two, regrettably) but the Smokey and the Bandit trilogy, and the rather enjoyable Hooper, in which he played a stuntman competing with a young pretender. They got worse as they went on (Stroker Ace, from 1983, is the pits) but then isn’t this so often the case? And for a while he couldn’t do anything right: in the manner of court proceedings, we might also ask for crimes such as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and a charmless remake of Truffaut’s already dubious comedy The Man Who Loved Women to be taken into account.
But let’s dwell on the positives. In 1989, he gave the warmest, richest performance of his career in Breaking In, a gentle comedy about an ageing safecracker who takes on an apprentice. It helped no end that he had a lively script (by John Sayles) and a witty director in Bill Forsyth, but there was also a depth of experience that came from Reynolds – though Forsyth’s skill in coaxing it out should not be overlooked. Not many people saw that movie, which is a shame. But he was also splendidly spiky in Robert Altman’s The Player, in a cameo fraught with hostility towards all the Hollywood executives who had written him off. They were silly to do so because he had one more superb performance left in him: as the porn impresario left behind by the advent of video in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Actor and director didn’t get along: he said in 2015 that he “hated” Anderson and had never watched the completed film. He fired his agent after seeing a rough cut, though his performance brought him his only Oscar nomination.
No matter. There’s nothing that demands actors should appreciate their own work or see the greatness in it. Only that they should do great work in the first place. And, however briefly or erratically, Reynolds kept to that side of the bargain.