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Burt Reynolds: The Actor, Not The Movie Star

I’M NOT AN ACTOR, I’M A MOVIE STAR!” So ranted Alan Swann played with hilarious deftness by the legendary Peter O’Toole in the 1982 comedy classic film My Favorite Year. The line, while being one of the biggest laughs in the film, rang true to the division between what it means to be an actor vs. movie star in the industry.

To illustrate the difference between actor and movie star think, Daniel Day Lewis vs. Vin Diesel. Both are incredibly successful, but in completely different arenas. That’s not to say a movie star doesn’t have an amazing performance inside, Vin Diesel’s early short Multi-Facial remains some amazing acting work. It also doesn’t mean an actor can’t moonlight as a movie star in an action film either.

Liam Neeson’s Taken series is a good example of this, so is the entire cast of Star Trek the Next Generation, for that matter. And whenever there is a “crossover” of sorts, most people can’t blame them. Why not shoot for an Oscar, or for the big a paycheck? Matthew McConaughey, for his part, began his career as an actor, before taking a twenty year detour as a movie star until his Oscar winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club.

Which brings us to the late, great, Burt Reynolds.

Photo by Alan Light

Reynolds was a true movie star, no doubt, but he was also, an amazing actor, one who was often unsung. With his passing there will undoubtedly endless clips and anecdotes that show everything from his Smokey and Bandit and Cannonball Run franchises, to his legendary appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

But I’d like to recommend three roles that show a different side of Reynolds persona, Reynolds the actor.

1972 was somewhat of a watershed year for Reynolds. After ten years in mediocre movies and formula TV shows, Reynolds was cast along side John Voight, in John Boorman’s dark drama, Deliverance. The role really showed Reynolds strength as a leading man and launched him to the top of every studios must-have-list. Coupled with his hilarious TV appearances on talk shows, and his instantly infamous nude Cosmopolitan magazine spread, his career was solidified as one solidly in demand.

The following year brought three films for Reynolds, Shamus, White Lightning, and the little known Western, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. While Reynolds turns as the grizzled PI Shamus, and Gator McKlusky in White Lightning (which would go on to spawn the sequel Gator) were well received for Reynolds, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing fell into relative obscurity. It shouldn’t have. It remains some of Reynolds best acting work.

The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing directed by Richard C. Sarafian was adapted from Marilyn Durham’s novel of the same name. The rather unconventional title refers to the late Native American wife, Cat Dancing, of Reynolds’ character Jay Grobart.

This brutal Western begins with Grobart avenging the rape and murder of his wife Cat Dancing before being arrested for his vengeance. After his release, Grobart robs a train and goes on the run. Along the way he takes up with Catherine Crocker, played by the always wonderful, Sarah Miles. Catherine has run away from her abusive husband Willard played by George Hamilton. Catherine has found herself in even deeper trouble when she must fight off the advances from the horrible surroundings of her life on the run, while being pursued by her husband’s posse who are looking for Reynolds’ train robbery gang at the same time. Catherine finds an unlikely ally in Reynolds’ Grobart, who protects her from trouble, before ultimately falling in love with her.

In terms of Western plots it’s fairly run of the mill, but Reynolds’ performance as the conflicted Grobart is a marvel. Grobart is a tortured a man who failed to protect his first wife, betrays her memory by allowing himself to fall for another woman, then ultimately fails to protect that woman as well. There is no short of rape and brutality in this western, and its hard to believe its rated PG. Reynolds’ performance has help in a superior supporting cast that includes, Bo Hopkins, Lee J. Cobb, and Jack Warden as the vicious Dawes.

Sadly, Reynolds wonderful performance was overshadowed by the drama that occurred off camera. Sarah Miles assistant/business manager, David Whiting was found dead from an apparent suicide in her hotel room during filming. The subsequent scandalous investigation is the stuff of Hollywood Babylon.

Whiting, distraught Miles attended a birthday party that evening thrown for Reynolds, allegedly beat her upon her return to the room. They had been having an affair, and was jealous, despite the fact Miles was married to famous playwright Robert Bolt at the time. After seeking refuge in Reynolds room, Miles would later return to find Whiting dead. Over the next six months newspapers and tabloids speculated on whether or not Whiting took his own life, or was murdered. The scandal led to the dissolution of Miles marriage and to Reynolds affection for the film itself. Reynolds was quoted as saying “There’s nothing to talk about in ‘Cat Dancing’ except that it brings me pain. So I’d rather not talk about it“.

The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing never made its way to a regular DVD release but can be found as part of the Warner Archive series and boasts one of the best movie posters of all time. The poster makes Reynolds appear a hundred feet tall while obviously still trying to cash in on the fame from his Cosmo spread by putting his giant crotch front and center.

The next film that exemplifies great Reynolds acting came two years later. Hustle.

This lesser known cop drama by Robert Aldrich casts Reynolds as Phil Gaines. Lt. Phil Gaines is an LAPD detective in the middle of a mid-life-crisis. Reynolds’ Phil is in love with Nicole Britton played by the talented and beautiful Catherine Deneuve. Their relationship is dysfunctional to say the least. Phil is a cop and Nicole is a prostitute. To make matters worse, Phil is truly in love with her.

Throughout the movie, he’s teased by his colleagues who threaten to arrest her for laughs, as well as by his own conscience. Reynolds brilliant character study of a cynical man fighting his own demons, while chasing down the case of girl found dead on the beach is truly a hidden gem. The entire neo film noir plays out hoping against hope Phil can leave behind the seedy underworld of LA and run off into the sunset with his, hopefully, ex-call girl girlfriend to Rome. Hustle is a raw performance by Reynolds, exemplified by the fact he doesn’t sport his trademark mustache.

Of all the cop movies Reynolds did throughout his long career Hustle is rarely discussed. It follows the anti-establishment formula of great 1970’s cinema, in that it shows a hero trying to buck the system and failing. In this case, Phil never gets the chance to leave it all behind and run off with Catherine as he’s ultimately killed in a store robbery by young punks at the end of the movie. Interesting side note, his killer is none other than the future Freddy Kruger himself, Robert England.

Aldrich and Reynolds struck gold with their previous team up, The Longest Yard, but Hustle was a tougher sell. The movie comes off moody and even slow at times but, like Cat Dancing, has a superb supporting cast including; Ben Johnson, Ernest Borgnine, Paul Winfield, Eddie Albert, Eileen Brennan, and Fred Willard in an early role. Hustle is available on DVD but may be out of print. It is sometimes featured on Turner Classic Movies and is well worth a second look.

Unlike The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing and Hustle, 1997’s Boogie Nights was a hit on every level. Boogie Nights was a box office smash and critical darling. In addition to the well-deserved accolades for the film itself, Reynolds was correctly singled out for his amazing performance as adult film director, Jack Horner.

It is well known Burt Reynolds loathed working on Boogie Nights and even famously got in verbal, and in some cases, physical altercations while working on the film. He never really understood the vision behind the Paul Thomas Anderson opus, or his part in it. The movie came to him after a string of forgettable and even horrible movies over the previous fifteen years. Even after the movies success, Reynolds never made peace with the film and asked his family and friends to not to watch it. He didn’t like to discuss the film, and any stories he did tell, had a negative connotation to them.

Reynolds was wrong.

His performance was amazing, perhaps even the best of his entire career, and it should be studied for decades to come.

Part of the dilemma of an aging action star comes when it is finally time to, not only embrace ones aging, but to actually be old. Some actors do this with grace, most don’t. Reynolds had played characters dealing with their age before Boogie Nights, most notably as the elder stuntman Sonny in Hal Needham’s underrated Hooper, but this is the first time he fully embraced it, well sort of. Reynolds famously fought aging with frequent plastic surgeries and hairpieces His “look” for Jack Horner (perfectly polished right down to the strategic black dye in his well-trimmed beard) was no different. Jack Horner was cool despite his ironic/iconic pantsuits, neck scarves, and platform shoes.

Reynolds’ Horner is the defacto Patriarch to a rag tag posse of producers, and porn stars. Horner is more than just the director of the films of his famous lead, Dirk Diggler, played brilliantly by Mark Wahlberg in an early leading role, he’s a father to him.

Of all the great one liners delivered by Reynolds in Boogie Nights, including, “Those are great names!” and “There’s shadows in life, baby,” the scene that stands out the most to me is the one Reynolds doesn’t speak in at all.

After Diggler has hit rock bottom from his downward spiral of drugs and depravity, he finds his way back to Horner. Jack Horner is in his home when Diggler meekly says “Jack, will you please help me?” Horner is surprised to see Dirk, and saddened into silence at his awful appearance. The entire time Horner knew his young actor (surrogate son) he only knew him as a bright shinning star. But not now, now he stood there, looking terrible, begging for his help. Reynolds simply hugs him while Wahlberg weeps uncontrollably into his embrace.

It’s a beautiful scene between these two actors, showing both men at the top of their game, and it’s a true shame Reynolds didn’t agree.

After seeing an early cut of Boogie Nights, Reynolds was furious. He quickly signed on to three TV movies playing tough cop Logan McQueen in the Hard Time series. He also went on to trash the movie around town. Once the movie was released and the accolades began to pour in, Reynolds reluctantly changed his tune, but the damage was done. Robin Williams would go on to win the Oscar for Good Will Hunting despite Reynolds taking home the Golden Globe for playing Horner.

Boogie Nights was a comeback like no other for Reynolds and one of the greatest in movie history. It not only brought his name back to the prominence it deserved, it showcased his acting over his looks or persona. In the years that followed Reynolds would work but never make the same impact again. Boogie Nights has several DVD/Blu Ray editions, is available to stream, and is a frequent staple of cable TV.

Reynolds 2017 film The Last Movie Star, a living goodbye tinged with, dare I say . . . apology by the legendary actor.

Written and directed by Adam Rifkin, The Last Movie Star is a great final showcase for Reynolds’ talents, despite the fact he is a shadow of his former self. I do recommend The Last Movie Star with its truth as a painful mirror held up to nature, but Reynolds is so frail and vulnerable, it can be a tough watch. I’m sure this movie will get a lot more analysis since Reynolds passing.

Much has been made over the roles Reynolds turned down throughout his career, including Hawkeye in Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H., Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment, (the role that would later go on to earn Jack Nicholson his second  Oscar behind his first from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-a role Reynolds also turned down), and even Han Solo, to name a bunch. But it’s fair to point out Warren Beatty turned down Jack Horner in Boogie Nights and Reynolds ultimately beat out Brando for Deliverance, so there’s enough regret for everyone.

Burt Reynolds, while admittedly difficult at times to work with, was fiercely loyal to his friends. Part of the reason he made so many movies with Charles Durning, Hal Needham, Dom DeLuise, Jerry Reed, and Sally Field, is that he loved them.

And the audience loved seeing them together.

I fully realize the term “fiercely loyal” and “Sally Field” aren’t usually attributed to Reynolds at the same time, but the four films they did together; Smokey and the Bandit (I and II), The End, and the aforementioned Hooper, are classic examples of the love of Reynolds repertory. The audience loved seeing the familiarity of them together despite any personal issues. When asked about Sally Field earlier this year Reynolds claimed, “She was the best actress I ever worked with” … and …  “the love of my life.

Reynolds was cast in the upcoming Quentin Tarantino movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood but sadly, his scenes were never filmed. It is a shame a Reynolds/Tarantino team-up didn’t come earlier over the past twenty years since Boogie Nights helped make his last great comeback.

Tarantino, perhaps better than any living director, is a true champion of the actor, especially if he feels that actor has been left behind, or forgotten, in the system. He was right to still see something in Burt Reynolds talent.

We all should. There’s a lot to see.



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