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Burt Reynolds died on Thursday at the age of 82. A review of his career reveals a great deal about not only the man, but the current state of Hollywood.
Burt Reynolds was once the king of Hollywood. For a period of time in the late 70's and early 80's, Burt Reynolds was the biggest movie star on the planet. From 1978 to 1982 Burt was the top box office draw for every single year, a five year run that in the history of cinema is only matched by Bing Crosby's 5 year run in the late 1940's.
What makes Burt Reynolds magnificent box office run all the more a monument to his star power and charm is that the movies Burt churned out during this stretch were absolutely abysmal. Here are the films that Burt Reynolds sold to the public to become box office champ for a record five years straight.
1978 - The End, Hooper. 1979 - Starting Over. 1980 - Rough Cut, Smokey and the Bandit II. 1981 - The Cannonball Run, Paternity, Sharkey's Machine. 1982 - Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Best Friends.
That is a Murderer's Row of completely forgettable, horrendously awful movies. But the cinematic atrocities that are those films only act as incontrovertible evidence of the tremendous mega-movie star Burt Reynolds really was. Audiences didn't show up at movie theaters to see these films for any other reason than to get to hang out with Burt for two hours.
Burt's formula for success was simple...just be Burt, the fun lovin', handsome, good ole boy that he was, who guys wanted to be and women wanted to be with. Didn't matter the story or the character, as long as Burt was on camera people would pay money to see it. Burt was...well...Burt...sort of a one man Rat Pack, with Bacchanal Burt as the Pope of the Church of Shits and Giggles, which is why he was such a sought after guest on The Tonight Show or any other talk show.
Burt's films, particularly the mind-numbingly awful Cannonball Run movies, are reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven franchise, in that audiences are basically paying to watch famous, good-looking rich people have fun with each other. Ocean's Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen are a way for regular folks to get to hang out with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon for two hours and feel like part of the crew. Audiences get to watch these "stars" dress up, be witty and outsmart everyone and get to be in on the joke.
Burt Reynolds film's are the same formula as Ocean's Eleven except Burt didn't need a bunch of other stars, he was big enough and bright enough to carry a movie all on his own. Sure, he'd have Mel Tillis or Dom DeLuise caddy for him, but Burt didn't need them, he was doing them a favor and kept them around because they made HIM laugh.
Burt was so big from '78 to '82 that if you melded George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon at the height of their careers into one, you'd still have to add in Matthew McConnaghey in order to have it all add up to be even remotely close to peak Burt Reynolds. That is stunning for a variety of reasons, the least of which is that it shows how staggeringly magnetic Burt Reynolds was back in the day, but also the shocking dearth of movie stars walking the planet now.
Could any actor working today draw audiences with the cavalcade of crap that Burt Reynolds was churning out during his heyday? Not a chance. Tom Cruise is the closest actor since Burt to capture the public's imagination in the same way, he has been a box office champ 7 times over three decades (80's, 90's, 00's), but Cruise never accomplished it in consecutive years never mind five years running.
Unlike Burt, Cruise has benefited by starring in the big budget Mission Impossible franchise and in a few Spielberg extravaganzas. Even Cruise's earlier, more critically acclaimed work, was a result of his being secondary to his directors. Born on the Fourth of July is not a Tom Cruise film, it is an Oliver Stone film, and the same could be said of Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick) or The Color of Money (Scorsese).
Burt Reynolds didn't work with big name directors, in fact, remarkably enough, Burt actually directed two of the film's in which he starred during his box office championship run, 1978's The End and 1982's Sharkey's Machine...that is absolutely insane.
When it comes to the "movie stars" of the current era the proof is in the pudding, and today's pudding shows us a paucity of stars so stunning that the cupboard is basically completely bare.
Tom Cruise has a big box office hit this year with his latest Mission Impossible monstrosity, but without that franchise or a big name director, Cruise's ability to attract audiences on his own has diminished in striking ways over the last twenty years. Since 1996's Jerry Maguire, Cruise has been under performed on his own without the friendly confines of a big budget franchise or the assistance of name directors, like Spielberg and Kubrick, who overshadow him.
Many thought George Clooney was the heir apparent to the movie star throne, but he isn't ready for the crown as shown by the recent poor box office results of Tomorrowland and Monuments Men, and as the Ocean's Eleven films show, he needs not just one other star to help him over the finish line, but a cornucopia of stars.
Brad Pitt had his moment in the sun but was always more of a second rate Robert Redford than an imitation of Burt Reynolds, and has never had the box office impact of either man.
Matthew McConnaghey has churned out similarly awful films to Burt's sub-par canon, but he has never even remotely approached the star wattage or box office prowess of Burt.
Leonardo DiCaprio is often considered a movie star, but Leo is much more of an actor than a movie star, and his inability to open films on his own without the benefit of a big name director like Scorsese, Spielberg or Christopher Nolan is testament to that fact.
Studios have figured out that nowadays it is about teaming auteurs like Scorsese, PT Anderson, Inarritu or Tarantino, with name actors in order to generate profits. The auteurs alone, or the stars alone, just don't cut it anymore, so the studios combine them together.
The film industry has changed dramatically in other ways since Burt Reynolds ruled the roost, as studios have discovered it isn't the stars that make a movie, but the characters, and so studios have slowly transitioned from building movie star brands to creating big budget franchises. Boiled down to its essence, this approach is basically, It doesn't matter who plays Batman, people will see a Batman movie.
As a result, actors try and attach themselves to these franchises in order to become "movie stars"...but the truth is the actors are, like sports stars for people's favorite teams, just wearing the jersey. These sports stars could be traded to another team and wear another jersey next year, so the fans aren't really rooting for the players, they are rooting for the laundry.
For example, Chris Pratt is a "big movie star" right now, and to his credit he can carry a movie, but no one is dropping $14 to go see Chris Pratt, but they will pay to see Chris Pratt in Jurassic World or Guardians of the Galaxy. Same is true of the other Chris's...Chris Helmsworth, Chris Pine and Chris Evans...otherwise known as Thor, Captain Kirk and Captain America. Those guys are decent enough actors, but no one rushes out to see them in anything unless they are playing their signature franchise roles.
What is staggering to consider is that Burt Reynolds could have been an even bigger star than he was. Burt notoriously turned down the role of Han Solo in the Star Wars franchise and John McClane in the Die Hard franchise, which if he had starred in those films only would have extended and expanded his box office dominance to such exorbitant heights as to be ridiculous, adding at least $4 billion more to his overall box office tally.
Besides making poor movie business decisions, Burt also made bad artistic decisions which hurt him in his attempt to score prestige points. For instance, besides turning down Han Solo and John McClane, Burt also turned down the role of Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment, which won Jack Nicholson an Oscar and may have done the same for Burt.
Burt Reynolds as an actor, was, to be frank, pretty dreadful, mostly because he just didn't give a shit. Burt was more interested in having fun and feeling safe rather than pushing himself as an artist. Burt the actor liked to take the easy road, and for the artist, that road ultimately leads to nowhere.
That said, Burt he did rise to the occasion twice in his career, in the two best films he ever made. In the 1972 classic Deliverance, Burt embodied archetypal masculinity to a tee and elevated the film to great artistic heights. Burt's performance as Lewis Medlock, the bow wielding alpha male on a river adventure in the backwoods of Georgia, gave audiences a glimpse of his acting potential. Sadly, it would take another 25 years before Burt ever even approached the same level of artistic achievement in PT Anderson's 1997 masterpiece, Boogie Nights, as porn impresario Jack Horner.
Burt's Jack Horner is an extension of Lewis Medlock, he is like Zeus, a great father to the panoply of gods and goddesses atop the Mount Olympus of porn. Horner is Medlock grown old, still the dominant alpha male but using his brain more and his phallus less.
In one of the great displays of foolhardy hubris, Burt, who admitted that over his career he only took roles he thought were fun, hated the greatest film in which he ever appeared, Boogie Nights. Burt ranted that he didn't like the movie or the director, Paul Thomas Anderson. Burt's public distancing from the film no doubt led to his losing his only chance to win an Oscar, as he was nominated but refused to campaign and ended up losing to Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting), and ended up scuttling what could have been his acting renaissance.
If Burt didn't have such a pedestrian taste in film, such a voracious appetite for the inconsequential and such a artistically myopic outlook, he could have been not just the George Clooney + Brad Pitt + Matt Damon + Matthew McConnaghey of his day, but also the Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis of the 80's/90's and a multiple Oscar winner to boot...which would have made Burt Reynolds the biggest movie star of all-time. Instead what we got was bacchanalian Burt, boozing with buddies, chasing skirts and ultimately chasing his own tail.
In conclusion, even though Burt Reynolds was a mega-movie star for a period, the likes of which the film business has rarely ever seen, it is difficult not to lament Burt's career with a quote from the American Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, "For all the sad words of tongue and pen, The Saddest are these, 'It might have been'."