Now, why would anyone write about Burt Reynolds? Quite an absurd idea, really. However, for fans nostalgic for 1970s American pop culture, a selection of his oeuvre is worth revisiting, as a peek inside the cultural currents a-swirl in that sprawling decade (I know, I know: you never–ever–imagined you’d read about Burt Reynolds and oeuvres on the same day, let alone in the same sentence–but bare with me). Reynolds, if you’ll recall, was a major Hollywood star in the 1970s. Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper, The Longest Yard. He was one of the most bankable stars during the latter half of the 70s especially, the first Smokey film making sales of the Chevrolet Camaro jump 500% — never mind that in the film he drove a Pontiac Firebird. That film made over $50 million in box office. Think about that. That’s a lot of money in 1977 movie prices. His films seem so representative of the 70s, somehow. Maybe it’s because his career quickly fizzled once the 70s ended that his films acquired such a “time capsule” feel to them. As he recently pointed out, while talking about his fans: “First of all, it’s usually a sea of blue hair and I’m grateful and thankful that they’re still alive and around.” The point can’t be overlooked: as silly as it sounds, to understand American culture in the 70s, Burt Reynolds is a figure representing a certain cultural current–well, a draft at the very least.
Many films were made for him, enabling him to show off his easy Southern charm, clearly a man with a monster ego but able to laugh at himself too, which isn’t bad. Also, he has to get marks for being able to pull off a mustache–that’s not easy. He transitioned from roles as Indians in 60s westerns, through hardboiled cops, to easy-going, laid-back Southern good ol’ boys in breezy feel good all-American comedies by the end of the Me decade. Coming as many of them did after Vietnam, Reynolds most popular films were pure candy, providing a comforting release from the jitteriness of the crises of the 70s: in addition to that war’s continual aftershocks, there were the national axieties over the oil shortage, airline hijacking, Watergate reverberations, and a deepening cold war (among other things).
The Smokey films, not to mention the Cannonball series, also tapped into the NASCAR demographic, one that had been developing strongly by then, but not yet so full blown as today. The first Smokey came on the heels of a few Ron Howard race/chase car films, not to mention Mark Hamill’s first post-Star Wars vehicle, Corvett Summer. The first Smokey was just the breakthrough of that genre, with the right mix of star power and chemistry. And chemistry’s the thing. It’s the oft-overlooked strength of Reynolds’ best films. (There are sometimes products of popular culture that get overlooked or, worse, dismissed, because of their popularity and/or seeming lack of substance. I’ve said many times that popular culture actually impacts people’s lives, in ways the Establishment usually miss entirely, thinking as they do that things like economics and politics are somehow of a more noble and important topic for attention and study. I would argue that a book like The Lord of the Rings, say, or a Spiderman comic, actually matters way more to people than the day’s stock market results. But I digress–back to Burt.) The success of his good ol’ boys road movies opened the door for the likes of The Dukes of Hazzard, for instance. (Not his fault–he got paid a lot of money for playing Smokey, and had a good time doing it.) So he’s a part of a popular and important lifestyle segment in American culture, one large enough to have millions upon millions of dollars spent on films catering to it, not to mention similar sums spent on catering to their vote.
In short order, Burt Reynolds films came to represent easy, empty caloric fun, the kind that reflected the carefree attitude so many were looking for in that decade. The tagline for his 1978 film Hooper nicely summed up this feel good, fast food quality of a Reynolds film: “It just ain’t summer without Burt!” Indeed, it was the feeling that the cast and crew of a Reynolds film were having a party, with the cameras rolling for a laugh, an afterthought. Sort of like the imagined charm of a Rat Pack film. And it was that feeling and enjoyment of being a part of the party that made these films so popular and entertaining.
True, Reynolds made a lot of bad movies. His career was probably killed by doing too many road movie comedies, getting stuck in a genre and dismissed as a lightweight by the critics. To his credit, he often used this topic as an opportunity for a self-deprecating joke, once saying “My films were the kind they only show in prisons and in airplanes, because nobody can leave.” But before the early 80s, and before his hit comedies of the later 70s, he starred in a few action/adventure films that showed he could play with some depth a certain kind of American archetype as hero, a cynical Southern cop. And of course there was Deliverance, a film trying to capture the adventure spirit thought dead by 1970s America. So he wasn’t without his genuine talents.
But in the end, Reynolds’ films spoke to the more innocent aspects of American mythology, striking a chord with the public who wanted popcorn and some laughs, as well as some comforting, familiar themes to distract them from the horrors of the day. The all-American sport in The Longest Yard, truckers and cars in Smokey, Hollywood antics in Hooper, and the harmless rebellious spirit in all three: Reynolds’ touched on innocent themes that resonated with the way Americans saw (or wanted to see) themselves in a decade that was forcing them to confront a changing social landscape and an ominous future.
Would the popularity of innocent, simple films in the face of complex times explain the films we’re being fed today?