”Bravery,” Burt Reynolds says, ”is the only thing that makes me cry.”
In that case, tears should be streaming down the lapels of the 62-year-old’s navy blazer: After a string of career choices that make Elizabeth Taylor’s pick of husbands seem well thought out, Reynolds’ decision to take a role in Boogie Nights was a heroic leap of faith. Not only was Reynolds stepping into the really, really ugly ’70s shoes of a pornographer, he was also required to make the character an avuncular type who truly cares for the drug-addled lowlifes who populate his home and movies. And he had to walk this tightrope under the guidance of then-unknown 25-year-old writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson.
”I knew I had to do something really brave to turn things around,” Reynolds says in the kind of professorial tone that, if this were a movie, would call for him to exhale his pipe smoke and gaze into the distance. Instead, he swings his loafered feet (his beloved cowboy boots have been left in the closet of his Jupiter, Fla., ranch home for this New York jaunt) onto a coffee table and continues. ”I had nothing to lose.”
True, he lost it a long time ago. In 1972, Reynolds displayed remarkable depth in Deliverance, and subsequent hits such as 1974’s The Longest Yard and 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit proved his comic box office appeal. But, says Deliverance costar and friend Jon Voight, ”he had all this talent, and he didn’t know how to let people know. He didn’t appreciate his own gift.” In the late ’70s, Reynolds began a two-decade run of self-sabotage: He made an awful sequel to Smokey and the Bandit; bad choices became worse ones when, starting in the 1980s, he hit financial trouble, admitted to a dependence on a painkiller resulting from a debilitating inner-ear illness (rumored to have been AIDS), and divorced Loni Anderson with enough drama to keep Inside Edition‘s reporters tied up for months. Despite a successful detour into television with the CBS sitcom Evening Shade (1990-94), Reynolds was staring at a movie career that seemed doomed. After a hoped-for comeback in 1996’s Striptease slipped beyond his reach, the actor resigned himself, he says, to a shelf life in ”the nostalgia section of Blockbuster.”
So let’s throw a little luck into the pot along with the bravery, because not even the Psychic Friends on a good day could have predicted that Boogie Nights, which costars Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, and William H. Macy, would earn Reynolds a New York Film Critics Circle award, a Golden Globe dingus, and a ticket to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as a Best Supporting Actor contender.
But just as Reynolds failed to recognize his gifts in the 1970s, he didn’t initially appear confident about his performance in Boogie Nights. The press reported that Reynolds disliked the movie, a rumor fanned by the actor’s decision to leave two different agencies after wrapping Boogie Nights. ”They weren’t working hard enough for me,” Reynolds explains of his hop from UTA to the Gersh Agency to ICM, where he is now. He denies that he wanted to distance himself from the movie. ”I told them they had something to run with, and they didn’t…. If I wanted to make a statement, I wouldn’t have gone to the New York Film Festival [where the film premiered in September], walked out onto the stage, and held up the director’s arm in front of everyone. I said, ‘I’m putting every chip I have on red, and you can’t say in the middle, Uh…black.”’