Burt Reynolds died today at the age of 82. Reynolds was the first real "movie star" that I was aware of as a kid. I was fortunate enough to see a lot of movies when I was young, including many that most parents would be arrested for taking their kids to these days, so I knew what actors were and was conscious of them moving between films (Richard Dreyfuss was in Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and moving between media (Chevy Chase going from Saturday Night Live to Foul Play, for instance.) But Reynolds was the first person I remember being aware of as the centerpiece of whichever movie he was in. It wasn't so much that he was playing a role in a movie, as much as it was that he was Burt Reynolds in that movie. Richard Dreyfuss could be two very different people in two different films, but Burt was always Burt and mostly Burt was Bo "Bandit" Darville, half the namesake of Smokey and the Bandit, the film I first remember becoming aware of him as said "movie star."
I would soon see his earlier stuff like Deliverance and The Longest Yard and his later stuff like Sharky's Machine and Stick, where he played much more serious, always brooding roles. He did that really well and Deliverance remained one of his most critically-hailed performances. But it was as Bandit or Sonny Hooper (Hooper) or JJ McClure (The Cannonball Run) or Stroker Ace (Stroker Ace) or Jack Rhodes (Rough Cut) that you always knew Burt, because he was the same good ol' boy doing good ol' boy things with that smarmy grin and gravelly voice that gave him all the charm in the world. In that respect, Reynolds was something of a cultural icon, in that he personified the vapid and dilettantish 70s with its garish colors, wide lapels, sense of style over substance, and towering uncertainty economically, politically, and socially; only to fade somewhat in the more mercantile and crime-oriented 80s, with the suffusion of culture with the concepts of Wall Street, machine intelligence, and success determined only by one's bank balance; until he saw everything come crashing to earth as the 90s moved on without him and his bankruptcy, only to look back on his highlight decade with some fondness and a great deal of interest in his other hailed role as Jack Horner in Boogie Nights. Appropriately, his character is a person who doesn't want to accept the fact that the world does move forward, resisting the change in the porn market from proper films that an auteur could still claim pride in to video that could be sold on any street corner.
Unfortunately, that transition kind of predicted the end of his career, in that his last noted performance was in an otherwise poor film called The Last Movie Star, where an embittered older actor deals with the fading of his glory days. Many projects he worked on in his last years were direct-to-DVD, just like Jack Horner's films, and a format that itself has faded from the cutting edge of technology and preference. I remember that bitterness emerging even after Boogie Nights, when he had stepped back into the limelight. He was too old to be Bandit any longer and the smarmy grin (and high-pitched Bandit laugh) had faded to something more genial; the frustrated mentor who doesn't want to be doling out advice on how to take action or direction. He wants to be in there living it, but he'll still be as charming as he has to be while the lips press together, the nostrils flare, and you imagine the smoke pouring from his ears.
I don't look back on that period with any degree of nostalgia. I don't think that the 70s were some kind of elevated period that anyone should want to return to, for any number of reasons. In fact, when I think of films other than Smokey and the Bandit that involved Reynolds, I usually think of his hard-bitten action period exploits, like Stick. Despite my affection for the Bandit, I remember the brooding Reynolds when I think about character models or story atmospheres. Maybe it's the chintzy nature of many of those 70s/early 80s productions or the threadbare plots that were obviously just vehicles (sometimes literally) for Bandit to run around and have a good time. That's not to say that plots or performances in things like Sharky's Machine were any better, but there was something more secure in the idea that not everyone was just having fun all the time. Nevertheless, the image of Burt in my head is still that of Bandit and probably always will be; maybe because I want to be that charming guy just having fun, but know that that's not how things usually work out. That's the life of the movie star when, all along, I feel like Reynolds really wanted to be a "film star"; someone taken as seriously as Marlon Brando, an actual star that Reynolds was once told he resembled too closely to be cast in his first major film (Sayonara.)
I think what I'll look back on most fondly is the fact that, even in those "good ol' boy" movies like Smokey and the Bandit, Reynolds still carried that gravitas that permeated his notable roles like Deliverance.
He was just having fun. But he was doing so with a real awareness of the world around him and how it worked. That's something else that one could attach to that era of uncertainty: people still knew who was fun to hang out with, especially when he was the one who could make you feel alive (or at least well-stocked with beer.)