"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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Burt Reynolds and the End of the Movie Star

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Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes 38 seconds

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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'."

©2018

 

 

 

The Revenant : A Review

****THIS  REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!! THIS SECTION IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!!***

MY RATING : SKIP IT IN THE THEATRE*, SEE IT ON NETFLIX OR CABLE.

*UNLESS YOU ARE A LOVER OF GREAT CINEMATOGRAPHY, THEN DEFINITELY SEE IT ON THE BIG SCREEN IN THE THEATRE

THE REVIEW

The Revenant, directed by Alejandro G. Innaritu and written by Innaritu and Mark L. Smith (based on the book of the same name by Michael Punke), is the story of hunter and guide, Hugh Glass, who, in 1823 on the northern plains of North America, seeks to avenge a loved one's murder while struggling to survive the uncolonized wilderness and the native tribes that inhabit it. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Glass, and boasts supporting performances from Tom Hardy and Domnhall Gleeson.

 Much has been made about Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in the film and his likelihood of winning the Best Actor Oscar at this years Academy Awards. I agree that Dicaprio will win the Oscar, but I disagree that his performance is worthy of such high praise. In fact, this performance seemed like a step back in DiCaprio's artistic evolution. There is a lot of grunting, groaning, wailing and gnashing of teeth, but it all feels forced and frankly, showy. DiCaprio seems to want to indicate how hard he is working, and to his credit he is working very hard, and how much he is "acting". I found the performance heavy-handed, contrived and ultimately off-putting, which was disappointing considering the trajectory of DiCaprio's work in recent years with his truly stellar turns in Django Unchained and The Wolf of Wall Street. DiCaprio's performance in The Revenant is along the lines of his work as Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, which I felt was over-the-top and sub-par to his very high standards.

I am a big fan of actor Tom Hardy as well, but I felt his performance in The Revenant was underwhelming. It is not Hardy's fault, as his character, John Fitzgerald, is terribly under written. Fitzgerald is initially a very compelling character, but is given no dramatic arc, making him a rather hollow character, so we lose interest in him the more we see of him.

Having Fitzgerald be under-written is a big issue for the narrative of the film as well, as we need a much stronger foil for Hugh Glass to be up against in order to make the story more dramatically dynamic. The Fitzgerald character being cursory means that the narrative is never able to flower into anything more than the one-dimensional survival story of Hugh Glass, as opposed to a two-dimensional chase/revenge story, or a three-dimensional story about Glass chasing his psychological shadow in the form of his nemesis Fitzgerald. This is a disappointment as The Revenant has greatness hidden within it on multiple levels, but director Innaritu is unable to mix these potent ingredients together in a satisfactory manner in order to cook up a gourmet cinematic feast, rather we are left with a serving of unseasoned and uncooked bison meat. 

Innaritu, who won a Best Director Oscar last year for Birdman, is a very talented guy, but he has a tendency to make basic structural decisions that frustrate the potential power of his films. He undercuts the mythological flow of his films with foundational flaws that are minor in practice but major in impact. For instance, in Birdman, the ending sequence was held for a scene and a series of beats too long. This flawed climax had the result of watering down and undermining the brilliance that led up to it. In The Revenant, Innaritu again makes a minor structural stumble which stunts the energetic, mythic and psychological flow of the film. Without giving too much away, I will only say that the narratives involving Glass and his own survival and his pursuit of Fitzgerald, don't travel together in a straight line as they should, but rather diverge at a crucial point in the story, much to the detriment of the dramatic flow of the film.

On the bright side, Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki creates a visual masterpiece by seamlessly weaving his deftly moving camera amidst the stunningly crisp natural beauty of the film's locations. In the last two years, Lubezki has won consecutive Best Cinematography Oscars for his work in Gravity and Birdman (also directed by Innaritu), and it would not be a shock if he won for a third straight time this year for The Revenant. In the last decade, Lubezki's collaborations with Terence Malick on The New World, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, and his work with Alfonso Cauron on Children of Men and Gravity, along with his work with Innaritu (Birdman, The Revenant) prove he is a visual genius of the highest order and a master at the top of his game. The Revenant is worth seeing in the theatre if for no other reason than to see Lubezki's magnificent work up on the big screen.

To be clear, The Revenant is not a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination, but it is also not a great one. It is a very dramatically flawed, but visually beautiful, piece of art. It is frustrating to me that the film as a whole could not live up to the potential of its various pieces in the form of a great cast, director and cinematographer. The reality is that The Revenant not only COULD have been better, but it SHOULD have been great. 

 

****WARNING: THE FOLLOWING SECTIONS CONTAIN SPOILERS!!! CONSIDER THIS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER ALERT!!!****

THE MYTHOLOGICAL AND THE PSYCHOLOGICAL

A bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation:  "As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It is not as wide as you think." - Joseph Campbell

The Revenant is one of those rare films that is actually much more interesting on the deeper mythological and psychological levels than it is on the entertaining/storytelling level. I found the film intriguing almost despite itself. I do wonder though, if people who do not have my interest and background in Jungian psychology and Joseph Campbell's comparative mythology would enjoy the film very much on any of these deeper levels. Regardless, here is a very short breakdown of some of the mythological and psychological imagery used in the story.

The mythology and psychology running through the film is laced with Native American spirituality and symbology. There is a Bear prominent in the story which is the impetus to send Glass on his literal and mythological quest. In native spirituality, Bear medicine symbolizes awakening the power of the unconscious, and in The Revenant, Bear brutally forces Glass to go on his journey deep into the darkest recesses of his psyche and soul to find and heal his true self. Bear instinctively and viciously attacks Glass in order to protect her cubs, leaving him unable to protect his "cub", his son Hawk, from danger. On the epic journey started by Bear, Glass will, as the title of the film suggests (Revenant means "one who has returned, as if from the dead"), die many times and be born again. Like Christ, Glass must die to his old self in order to be born again to his higher self.

Also like Christ, Glass must wander alone through the wilderness in order to be spiritually purified. It is during this "time in the desert", that Glass comes across a fellow wanderer, Hikuc, a Pawnee Indian, who also happens to share the same spiritual/psychological wound as Glass, namely, the deep grief at the loss of his family. Hikuc and Glass share the sacrament of communion in the form of eating raw bison meat. In Native spirituality, Bison, similar to Christ in Christian mythology, is a gift from the Great Spirit meant to nourish and sustain his people. Bison also symbolizes 'right prayer joined with right action'. Once Glass has been purified, and eaten the holy sacrament, he can now move on to the next portion of his journey, the symbolic re-birthing.

Glass rides on the back of Hikuc's horse to the woods where Hikuc prepares a "purifying womb" for him in the form of a sweat lodge. Glass hibernates(Bear medicine) in this sweat lodge, his physical, psychological and spiritual wounds beginning to heal thanks to Hikuc's help. When Glass awakens inside the sweat lodge, the world outside, just like Glass inside the womb, has been changed, having been christened, with a pristine layer of white snow. 

When Glass emerges from the sweat lodge, a place of 'right prayer', he resumes his journey on his own after finding Hikuc "crucified" like Christ and hanging from a tree. Glass continues on and commits an act of 'right action' by saving an Native princess from the same men who sacrificed Hikuc on the tree of life. Having fulfilled the sacred call of the Bison (right prayer joined with right action), he is now fully prepared for the "Great Leap".

A pulsating horse chase follows his saving of the princess that climaxes with Glass making the great spiritual leap from his current state of 'clutching onto the life he has now' to the state of 'letting go in order to embrace the life that is waiting for him'. Glass "dies" on this Great Leap as he rides Hikucs horse over the edge of a cliff. This is followed by Glass, once again, hibernating (Bear medicine) through a blizzard in a makeshift womb, this time in the dead body of his sacred horse mother, and being born anew after surviving a cold, dark night. 

The Great Spirit has, through Bear, Horse and Man(both Native and European), forced Glass to evolve by forging a new spirit, a new soul and a new self. Glass, having survived this crucible, is now sufficiently healed, and prepared to finish his earthly quest and then to shuffle off this mortal coil into the arms of the Great Spirit.

This alchemical cycle of destruction, purification, initiation and reconfiguration is the heart of the psychological myth of The Revenant and is what makes the film so imperative on a much deeper level than it's less than its rather mundane superficial one. Viewing the film through this mythological/psychological prism, makes for a much more satisfying experience. I recommend you do so, for Glass' spiritual journey is the same journey we all must make….the struggle to find meaning in our suffering as we hurtle headlong towards our own inevitable obliteration.

©2016