Burt Reynolds role call
For a brief moment in the early ’70s, it seemed as if Burt Reynolds might be the new Gable. He had the same natural ease, the same rough-and-ready appeal to both men and women. In retrospect, though, it’s clear that what made Reynolds so attractive — his refusal to take anything seriously — is what ultimately kept him a lightweight, hemmed in by good-ol’-boy car chases and tired detective quips. Evening Shade and his performance in Breaking In, however, hint that the ’90s may see Reynolds resurgent. A look back at the highlights of a surprisingly varied movie career:
That was a great year for Reynolds: A nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan cinched his status as a sex god with a sense of humor while John Boorman’s vivid, brutal drama made it clear there was much more to this actor than an easy grin. As Lewis, the he-man businessman leading pals Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox into an Appalachian canoe-trip nightmare, Reynolds showed the insecurity lurking beneath blustery macho posturing; that a character seemingly so in control could so easily be taken out only added to the film’s sense of dread. Deliverance still stands as the best acting Reynolds has done — an indication of depths he never attempted again.
The Longest Yard (1974)
The opening of Robert Aldrich’s film — in which bitter ex-football pro Paul ”Wrecking” Crewe (Reynolds) steals his girlfriend’s car and leads the cops on a merry chase — is as dated as anything from the early ’70s. Once Crewe is in prison, though, building a convict football team to face warden Eddie Albert’s hand-picked 11, Yard is profane, funny, antiauthoritarian entertainment. The film, and its star, juggle subversive charisma and athletic prowess to appeal to left-wingers and armchair jocks alike — a pretty impressive trick.
Forget the Smokey and the Bandits and the Cannonball Runs. Of all the redneck action comedies that ex-stuntman Reynolds made with stunt-coordinator-turned-director Hal Needham, Hooper is the only one not dead from the neck up. Why? Because instead of being a smug collection of stunts, it’s a rowdy love letter to the stuntmen themselves, portrayed as a tightly knit group both within and apart from the larger Hollywood community. There’s good support from Sally Field as Hooper’s girlfriend and Jan-Michael Vincent as a rival stunt-pup, but Reynolds owns this movie. In a role in which he obviously feels at home, he at last approaches Gable’s nonchalant mastery.
The End (1978)
Reynolds could afford to indulge his silly side as director and star by 1978, but it’s safe to say no one expected a black comedy about terminal illness and euthanasia from him. What’s more startling is that it’s funny, especially in the first half, when Reynolds’ stricken real estate shark snarlingly fails to make peace with mistress, ex-wife, and parents. The second half, unfortunately, is amusing but overly manic slapstick. Still, this is as cynical as mainstream Hollywood got in the ’70s. That it works at all is a tribute to Reynolds’ daring and deftness.
Starting Over (1979)
The star of Gator as a middle-aged, middle-income, newly divorced schlump? In a film directed by Alan J. Pakula (Presumed Innocent) and written by James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment), both card-carrying Sensitive Guys? The surprise of this charming comedy-drama is not that Reynolds can play an average Joe but that he can trace the character’s bitter humor and resilience with such quiet ingenuity. Too quiet — Candice Bergen (as the ex-wife) and Jill Clayburgh (as the new love) were nominated for Oscars, but Reynolds’ much subtler work went unnoted.
Breaking In (1989)
A decade of chowderheaded action fare like Rent-a-Cop had reduced Reynolds’ blithe tough-guy persona to self-parody, so a chance to work with director Bill Forsyth (Local Hero) and a John Sayles script represented a definite return to quality. While the resulting comedy is mild even by Forsyth’s standards, Reynolds is thoroughly engaging as old-fashioned safecracker Ernie Mullins. It’s his first pure character part — with his gimpy leg, paunch, and Coke-bottle glasses, Ernie is a far cry from Malone. The star isn’t slumming, though. He gives Ernie the same wiry dignity that has enlivened all his roles; it just seems to matter more here. Reynolds may never be an ”actor” in the Olivier sense, but Breaking In seems to open a whole new arena for his gifts.