See It Instead: Burt Reynolds Edition.
Charming rogue, maddening maverick, and ill-fated ladies man Burt Reynolds passed away last weekend. We choose our three favorite movies to pay tribute to the Bandit.
Burt Reynold’s biography had more sharp turns, close calls, and spectacular flame-outs than his iconic Smokey and the Bandit race films. An early career marked by spectacular highs collapsed under the star’s own hubris. After nearly going broke and alienating many in the biz, the Bandit made an improbable comeback with a pair of unlikely films. His filmography spans 59 years, including his final project, The Last Movie Star. He passed away just before beginning filming for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood due to a heart attack.
Reynolds was a mercurial figure, and the bulk of his best work was before my formative movie watching years. The list of films he could have made is truly mind boggling, but he often chose to work with friends and past partners than take high profile roles. By my time, he was a bit of a joke, good only for cameos and straight to VHS schlock. His coup with Boogie Nights was a shocker, but totally in character as he almost torpedoed the project. The guy couldn’t spot a potential hit with a telescope…but he did make some iconic films with his trademark dedication to authenticity. He did many of his own stunts and driving sequences and was capable of improvising engaging dialogue on the spot. At his peak he was the prototypical Hollywood leading man. Here are three of our favorites from his long career.
Burt Reynolds (2/11/1936 – 9/6/18) got an unlikely start in acting. After injuring both knees, once on the field and once in a car wreck, he gave up becoming a college football star to focus on his studies. An English professor talked him into the lead role of the play Outward Bound, for which he won the Florida State Drama Award. He continued to act in stage plays, even making a premier on Broadway. When his first foray into film went dry, he worked odd jobs for several years before finding a pair of breakout roles on the TV series Riverboat in 1959 and Gunsmoke in 1962.
Reynolds’ big movie break came from 1972’s Deliverance. The shocking and critically applauded film launched him as a leading man, and by the end of the decade he would be the highest paid actor in Hollywood for 5 years running. A string of successful comedies followed, as well as some high-profile romances. Unfortunately, things went south as Reynolds passed on several legendary roles: Han Solo in Star Wars, the leads for One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest and Terms of Endearment, and even James Bond following Sean Connery‘s retirement from the role. After a few big budget flops, Reynold’s retreated to TV in the late 80’s and 90’s. A latter day revival in cult films such as Striptease and Boogie Nights returned him to public attention. He ended up winning the Academy Award for Supporting Actor for Boogie Nights, despite hating the movie.
The Serious Pick: Deliverance (1972)
Four city boys head to a remote river that is scheduled to be erased by a dam project. Dismissive of the locals, they run afoul of two good old boys along the way, with deadly consequences.
Deliverance was pretty much born a classic. It was a hit with both audiences and critics, notching several Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. It helped cement director John Boorman (Zardoz, Excalibur) as a big time director, and Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds as serious leading men.
The film has blind spots, noticeably its simplistic take on backwards rural populations. For all that, it remains an iconic film for its unflinching storytelling and harrowing plot; made more harrowing by the production making the stars do their own stunts without insurance! The thriller is paced immaculately and filled with more turns than the river the men navigate through the film. Boorman, who never lacked for visual flair, turns the beauty of the natural vistas into surreal counterpoints to the horrors unfolding. It’s a good film, if not a great one, and a movie that begs to make it onto “really should see it” lists.
The Light-Hearted Pick: Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
Two rich Texans with a taste for Coors hire the Bandit (Reynolds), a bootlegger and race car driver, to bring the legally restricted beverage from Texas to Georgia. The deal, and the beer, has an expiration date, so Bandit and his co-driver Snowman must race across the country while avoiding the state police “Smokeys.” One cop in particular, Sheriff Bufford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) has a personal grudge against the Bandit and follows them tenaciously.
Smokey and the Bandit is lightning in a bottle. It’s the first directing job for former stuntman Hal Needham. The studios wouldn’t touch it until Needham’s buddy Burt Reynolds signed on…despite hating the script! Jackie Gleason took the role with the express permission to basically ad lib the whole thing, leading to some great improv with Reynolds. Co-star Sally Fields took the job to pad her resume and wound up having good chemistry with Reynolds. Jerry Reed, who played Snowman, wrote the music and scored a giant hit with the theme song Eastbound and Down. The whole project had a horseshoe in its glove-box and a rabbit’s foot hanging from its rear-view mirror.
The Unconventional Pick: Sharky’s Machine (1981)
Detective Sharky (Reynolds) is about to consummate a big drug bust when another cop bungles it. In the resulting mess, Sharky is busted down to vice squad, where he is forced to stake out a prostitution ring. As he develops first sympathy and then romantic feelings for one of the girls, he becomes embroiled with a politically connected criminal who has ties not only to the sex trade but also the drug trade that Sharky was tailing originally.
Sharky’s Machine is a better than average police thriller, with a bit more meat on its bones than the later Dirty Harry films. It has chases, gun play, brutal slayings and enough twists to reward fans of the genre. It makes my list here because not only is it relatively unknown these days, it was also directed by Burt Reynolds. Despite contending with many of the directors and producers he worked with, Reynolds obviously was a student of the craft. heck, maybe he barked so loud was because he showed himself to be no slouch behind the camera himself! If you’re looking for an unsung gem in Reynold’s filmography, you could do worse than Sharky’s Machine.