The Burt Code: Why Burt Reynolds Was a Zen Master in a Convertible
Even Burt Reynolds in his black Trans Am, all gonna meet down at the Cadillac Ranch. No movie star has ever not given a fuck more deeply, more passionately, than the late, great Burt Reynolds. He could give off that IDGAF shrug with every muscle in his body, including the ones in his mustache. He was the Homer of American bad-ass stoicism, with Smokey and the Bandit as his Iliad and Sharky’s Machine as his Odyssey. Both of his eyebrows were finely tuned Stradivarius violins, calibrated to the point where every millimeter they arched could express any degree of contempt, disbelief, resignation. He was a true movie star — who resolutely refused to cop to any kind of artistry, or give any hint he might take himself seriously. I can’t forget the moment on The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson asked if he’d ever run for public office. Burt replied, “I don’t have skeletons in my closet. I have bodies.”
That long, dark, shiny and black vehicle pulled up for Burt Reynolds today, at the age of 82, after a long and insane career where he remained in character as the Bandit. The sheriff alongside Dolly Parton in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the hit with the immortal ad slogan, “With Burt and Dolly, This Much Fun Can’t Be Legal!” The disgraced jailhouse football player Paul “Wrecking” Crewe in The Longest Yard. The moonshine runner in White Lightning. The down-home bank robber in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. The man who loved women in The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. (And vice versa.) Today, everybody’s hat is off to Burt — even though as he told Sally Field, the Bandit only took off his hat for one thing.
Whatever role he was playing, Burt always seemed to live by his own fierce moral code. In Smokey and the Bandit, when he’s trying to talk his sidekick Jerry Reed into a doomed, pointless, illegal and insane coast-to-coast beer run, Burt says: “Hey, we ain’t never not made it before, have we?” There’s the whole Burt code in one line. (Years later, I quoted this line while trying to convince a woman it was not a terrible idea to marry me. She said yes — thanks, Bandit.)
The essence of Burt is in his Seventies good-old-boy trilogy of Gator, Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper. (Controversial but correct opinion: Smokey and the Bandit 2 is not Bandit canon.) Smokey was packaged as a zany car-chase comedy, but it’s as true a vision of 19070s America as you could want — Nashville in Dukes of Hazzard drag, with the CB radio functioning as a nationwide word-of-mouth underground network against the Man, kind of like the W.A.S.T.E. system in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. It’s full of weird subcultural in-jokes, from the tres gay Broderick Crawford shout-out to the moment when Sally Field tries to engage him in a conversation about Steven Sondheim’s contribution to musical theater. It’s the ultimate statement of Burt as the Homeric quester, with a long way to go and a short time to get there and a tangibly fatalistic conviction it’s already too late.
Burt teamed back up with director Hal Needham for Hooper, a surprisingly autumnal ode to an aging stuntman living the “drink up and be somebody” lifestyle. He and Needham do for the Seventies bad-ass culture what Robert Mitchum and Nick Ray did for the Fifties version in their rodeo elegy The Lusty Men. With their Cannonball Run movies, they invented the blooper reel as we know it today — it perfectly fit Burt’s acting style because he prided himself on making every gesture look like a throwaway. In a way, the ultimate Burt tribute is the great sketch on MTV’s comedy show The State where they do a faithful cover version of the Cannonball Run 2 bloopers. Joe LoTruglo is the Burt to Thomas Lennon’s Dean Martin, and there’s something beautifully reverent about the way he snickers, “If I had the time, I’d take those rosary bleeds and shove them up your nose!”
But the truest Burt was his Eighties incarnation — his unsung 1981 masterpiece Sharky’s Machine. And with all due respect to his superb work as the porn king in Boogie Nights, it’s the best showcase for his artistic ambitions. Nothing pretty about this movie, which is why it wasn’t the commercial hit somebody probably hoped it would be, and which is probably also why he swiftly went back to crowd-pleasing romps like Stroker Ace. He’s a bitter Atlanta cop working the vice squad, spying on a posh escort named Dominoe, the fantastic Rachel Ward. And as he stakes her out, late at night, he becomes wrapped up in her life and crimes, watching her act out her own lonely artistic ambitions, when she dances alone in her apartment. He watches as her Eurotrash pimp mocks her and asks, “Does he still think you’re a dancer?” She replies: “I am a dancer.” Burt, watching through his binoculars, alone on his sleazy stakeout, yells, “She is a dancer!”
Audiences were horrified by the scene where the bad guys slice off a couple of Burt’s fingers. But the emotional violence in Sharky’s Machine is all too raw and all too real. You can see how hopelessly he identifies with both the escort who dreams of being a real artist and the scuzzy voyeur who watches her through his lenses. It’s the movie where the man with the IDGAF shrug tries to reach some kind of adult moral reckoning — and fails, because he’s Burt. There’s nothing watered-down or phony about the elegiac tone — it’s the spooked late-night flip side of Smokey and the Bandit, when the Bandit has nobody left to show off for. But Sharky’s Machine was the film of a lifetime. Ride on, Bandit.
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