The Man from Left Field: Burt Reynolds, Neglected Filmmaker

By Christoph Huber 

I should have been born a hundred years earlier when not having a style was a style.”—Burt Reynolds in Gator (1976)

The passing of Burt Reynolds this September at age 82 from cardiac arrest drew a lot of attention, but once again relegated to a footnote what I consider his most remarkable achievement: his small but fascinating body of work as a director, which is still overshadowed by his star image. It’s somewhat understandable, of course. After all, gone was a legend: one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the ’70s and ’80s and a major sex symbol to boot, his famous nude spread for Cosmopolitan in 1972 confirming his world-conquering celebrity and helping launch him to the top of the box office. For five years (1978-1982), Reynolds topped Quigley’s “Top Ten Money-Making Stars Poll,” a feat equalled only by Bing Crosby (1944-48). (Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks secured five top honours as well, but not consecutively; nor was Tom Cruise, who surpassed them all with seven number-one spots total, able to make such a run.)

Reynolds’ rocky road to success became part of his legend. Born Burton Leon Reynolds Jr. in Lansing, Michigan (which he admitted only in 2015, because “I grew up a Southern boy who didn’t want to be a Yankee”), he moved to Florida with his family at age ten, when his father became chief of police in Riviera Beach. A promising football career at Florida State University was derailed by a knee injury, and young Burt ended up acting instead. Helpful colleague Joanne Woodward described him as a youngster markedly different from the tough-yet-smooth, funny-macho Burt persona of his heyday: “I knew him as this cute, shy, attractive boy. He had the kind of lovely personality that made you want to do something for him.”

Working his way up from theatre through television (notably a prolonged stint on Gunsmoke beginning in 1962, when he filled in for Dennis Weaver), Reynolds graduated to action lead in films like Sergio Corbucci’s Italo-Western Navajo Joe (1966) and Sam Fuller’s Shark! (1968) before hitting the jackpot with John Boorman’s classic Deliverance (1972), which he regularly singled out as “probably my best work” in his characteristically self-deprecating career self-assessments (“I’ve done more than 100 movies. I’m proud of maybe five of them”). While Reynolds claimed that his naked Cosmo stunt—which he did for “a kick” and because of his “strange sense of humour”—cost him an Academy Award nomination for Deliverance, his breakthrough was considerably bolstered by his sex appeal—which he promptly lampooned in his supporting stint as a spermatozoon in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972)—and charisma, which he got to show off doing his frequent talk-show rounds.

Additional fodder for discussion came with his long-term relationship with singer Dinah Shore (who was 20 years his senior), just one of many high-profile romances, marriages, and splits throughout his career. Most notorious was his acrimonious divorce from Loni Anderson in 1995, after a long battle over money and custody rights of their adopted son. Having lost on both counts, Reynolds got a major boost for his long-declining career with Boogie Nights (1998), securing his one and only Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actor). Cannily casting Reynolds as ’70s porn magnate Jack Horner, Paul Thomas Anderson (and Burt) played off Reynolds’ playboy star image of yore—“a ‘gosh darn!’ in a chorus of ‘motherfucker!’s”, as Molly Haskell characterized Reynolds’ “high gloss and light touch” appeal in 1976.

In the mid-’70s, Reynolds’ career began to take off with a series of hits that would hardly ever be considered as awards-season material, including Robert Aldrich’s great football prison smash The Longest Yard (1974) and, especially, Joseph Sargent’s enduring (and endearing) Southern chase movie White Lightning (1973), which set the mould for the future action-comedy successes orchestrated by former stunt specialist Hal Needham and fuelled by Burt’s laid-back, ladies-charmin’ attitude and physical prowess. Soon after, Smokey and the Bandit (1977)—one of Alfred Hitchcock’s all-time favourites—and The Cannonball Run (1980), plus their respective sequels and relatives (like the 1978 stuntman saga Hooper), established Reynolds as box-office gold even as it kept him in a constricted groove. Emblematic of his artistic as opposed to commercial fortunes, he lost a key role in Terms of Endearment (1983) that had been tailor-made for him by writer-director James L. Brooks because of another Needham commitment, Stroker Ace; Jack Nicholson ultimately took the part, and the Oscar that later came with it.

After a few flops, Reynolds was considered a losing property by the mid-’80s, and he was additionally hampered by a severe injury he incurred during the shooting of the ill-fated City Heat (1984), his only onscreen tête-à-tête with Eastwood, his biggest action rival. Yet Burt’s true ambitions had come to the fore in a different way, as he had directed four highly personal features over the course of a decade: the White Lightning sequel Gator (1976), The End (1978), Sharky’s Machine (1981), and Stick (1985), whose problematic production led Reynolds to seek out more modest directorial projects on television—a fate he was unable to escape with his final directorial work The Last Producer (2000), which was originally conceived for the big screen.

As is the case with the small, astonishing directorial output of Paul Newman (which is admittedly in a very different register), the films by Burt Reynolds tend to be overlooked, and are mostly remarked upon only as star vehicles for their maker. Like Eastwood, who similarly came to action fame after much serial television toiling and a spaghetti-Western detour, Reynolds built his filmmaking career on a constant interrogation of his own screen persona—he just never got around to directing as consistently as Eastwood, who put in a lot of time behind the camera before he was finally considered a “serious” artist. What Reynolds lacked in technical chops, he made up for with an almost naked emotionality and intensity of purpose, and he proved exceedingly generous to his co-actors. The difference in style and aspiration between Reynolds and Eastwood bespeaks the difference between two superstar images: Clint’s cool loner professionalism and mask-like demeanour versus Burt’s outgoing roguishness, amiable good looks, and good-ol’-boy swagger. But both of them explored the vulnerabilities and neuroses lurking behind the shining armour of their respective alpha-male action-hero images while delivering seemingly straightforward genre fare for their massive fanbases.

Reynolds even debuted with the safest bet possible, following up on one of his breakout pictures. White Lightning had established a quintessential Burt character with Arkansas moonshiner Bobby “Gator” McKlusky, who is released from prison to go undercover and take down a corrupt, murderous sheriff (played by Reynolds’ Deliverance co-star Ned Beatty). Taken over by underrated veteran Joseph Sargent from Steven Spielberg (who allegedly feared action-journeyman typecasting after his 1972 television stunner Duel), the film profits from a relaxed tone that is established by its quietly shocking opening in an idyllic bayou setting, in which two helpless young boys are unceremoniously drowned by corrupt local law enforcement. Revenge for this misdeed will motivate the Burt protagonist’s characteristic righteous moral outrage, even as his criminal allure only intensifies his ladies’-man appeal: a genuinely erotic breakfast flirtation at the lake with his pal’s gal (Jennifer Billingsley) leads to skinny-dipping and lovin’ action in the water (“Now I know why they call you Gator!” she exclaims).

Drawing from the inexhaustible well of Robert Mitchum’s outlaw-Americana classic Thunder Road (1958), White Lightning serves up its spectacular action (choreographed by Needham, needless to say) in between big helpings of Southern backwoods atmosphere, which proves a fertile playing ground for the anti-authoritarian Burt persona, not least by placing him in a context equally earthy and ripe for comedy. (This is a land where old farmers spend their pastime playing pinball on the porch: “Can’t beat a Sears Roebuck flipper machine—yes, siree!”)

Gator picks up right there, relocating its protagonist to the Okefenokee Swamp and giving him a trademark Burt moustache to trail another corrupt county lord, this time an old friend (country singer Jerry Reed) running a protection racket and drugging underage girls into prostitution. “In my picture the good guys win and the bad guys, the dopers, lose,” is how Reynolds explained the simple set-up of his self-directed action pictures. His characters (and the films themselves) are guided by a nearly naïve yearning for goodness, while being driven by an archaic ethical justification for retribution. “There’s money and there’s money,” Gator says to a poor cohort, implying that one is fine and the other is tainted, and thus untouchable. It takes a while for Gator to turn on his criminal pal, but once he does, the funny and tender stuff is discarded for no-nonsense combat—a pattern that is amplified in Sharky’s Machine and Stick, which bring out a surprisingly melancholy quality with their sharp turns from intimacy to violent action.

Mostly loose and upbeat, Gator only intermittently delves into this darker side; its tone is set by an exhilarating speedboat chase in which multiple police pursuers are shipwrecked by Gator before he’s coerced into police duty by a New York cop (Jack Weston), whose displacement in the South provides one of the running gags. Others include a local old lady given to active protest against the system while caring for her cats at the most inappropriate moments, and the sly banter Gator exchanges with interested females. One young girl drawn into the prostitution racket first appears as a wholesome cheerleader at a political rally, where she gives Gator the old come-on “Where have you been all my life?” “All your life? In prison!” he counters with a grin. But Gator’s true object of affection and supporting crimefighter is a strong female TV journalist (Lauren Hutton), whose cheeky retorts to his advances make him gush: “Women’s lib, I love it!”

Shockingly undervalued (except on TV’s Archer, where the two Gator films serve as touchstones for the show’s lovingly ironic Burtmania), Reynolds’ assured and eminently enjoyable directorial debut (not counting an elusive episode for his 1966 series Hawk) showcases the special sensibility he was to develop. Retooling the formulaic set-up in the film’s predecessor to add grace notes and generosity, Reynolds prefers to let the other actors shine while he relies on his charisma and the self-assured ease with which he tackles action. Stunt coordinator and action choreographer Needham largely orchestrates the onscreen dust-ups with humour (the fistfight showdown through deserted beachfront stands is a doozy), though as one cleverly blocked-out execution proves, the impact can also be sinister. Yet through all the good-natured fun, a streak of sadness and longing shimmers through—a wistful preoccupation with loss of innocence and self-doubt, which Reynolds even has Gator explicitly muse on at some points.

Similar self-doubts followed Reynolds, even at the height of his success. “I waited 20 years to do it and I enjoyed it more than anything I’ve ever done in this business. And I happen to think it’s what I do best,” he enthused about directing. But with his usual acerbic self-deprecation (“My films were the kind they only show in prisons and on airplanes, because nobody can leave”), he also downplayed his directorial work: he recalled proclaiming the script for Gator terrible, “Until they asked me if I wanted to direct, and I said it’s a wonderful script.” He was prouder of The End, which allowed him to indulge in his “strange sense for comedy.” Stepping into the lead himself after the intended star Woody Allen was unable to participate, Reynolds loved the project (he did Hooper for Warner Bros. to get it greenlit) and saw himself in its protagonist: “Some people think the guy in The End is as far away from me as anybody could be, but people who really know me realize that it’s very close to what I am. The guy crying in the doctor’s office, that’s me. This guy is totally nude.”

Playing Sonny Lawson, a crafty real-estate salesman who is confronted with the news of his imminent death, Reynolds puts himself through the wringer on a humiliating tour of the anxieties of modern life. After a gross hospital voiceover (culminating in an enema) and ominous X-rays over the credits, Reynolds grants one of his frequent long takes to himself, as viewed through an aquarium, looking increasingly ridiculous as he presses his sobbing face against the glass upon the news of his fatal blood disease. “I thought I discovered a new way of losing weight,” he whimpers before the doctor advises him that suicide is painless. (Down to Carl Reiner’s side-splitting cameo as a terminally ill and euphoric expert for “death therapy,” the image of the medical profession in The End is disconcerting—but so is everything else.) Alas, Sonny finds out he lacks the guts to pull off his exit.

Instead, he embarks on an absurd trip through not-very-helpful public institutions and even more depressing private failures. He gets a joyless pity-fuck out of his mistress (Burt’s then-partner Sally Field), only to chide her: “The least you could do for a dying man is come!” He is welcomed by his parents, only to be ignored: “You never stay to talk,” says mom Myrna Loy, while turning on the TV at blaring volume. He hopes in vain for help from a friend (“You’re my lawyer and you’re Jewish, so you’re used to pain!”) and dispenses self-lacerating advice to his teenage daughter, whose dress he deems too slutty (“All men are dirty rotten beasts”). As his ex-wife (Joanne Woodward) reminds him, “You always relate everything to money,” though the same applies to the whole distorted society on display. With empty lives like this, death seems the most appealing option. The Burt laugh gives way to a crying fit, and Sonny decides to go out “the coward’s way,” chomping down colourful sleeping pills which he promptly spits up on the lens when he chases them with sour milk. (“It’s like Walt Disney threw up!”)

The subversive punch line of The End is that Sonny is doomed to survive. Waking up in a sanatorium, he befriends a clumsy schizo (Dom DeLuise) who is willing to facilitate his demise, resulting in slapstick scenarios of epically failed homicide. If the first half of the film feels like Albert Brooks avant la lettre in its social comedy of embarrassment, the pratfall-masked despair later on suggests a kinship to Blake Edwards rather than Mel Brooks (who is usually invoked in regards to The End because of the DeLuise connection, not to mention Reynolds’ cameo in Silent Movie [1975]). “You can deal with death on a totally Mel Brooks level, but when you try to make a film with parts that are really real amidst the comedy, that’s a big risk. What’s really funny is what’s real,” Reynolds explained. Edwards—the rich man’s Billy Wilder—surely would have agreed. He went on to use the Burt persona with a similar vengeance (and melancholy tinge) in his superior remake of Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women (1983). City Heat was one of Edwards’ most cherished personal projects, until he got fired and replacement Richard Benjamin deprived it of all personality. (If only Reynolds himself had taken over the reins.)

While the mise en scène of The End has neither the rigour of Brooks nor the richness of Edwards, it is such a heartfelt work that minor flaws hardly matter. (In films by Reynolds, they usually add in atmosphere and character depth what they dilute narratively.) Giving his players reaction time and using copious close-ups—he invoked Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties (1975) and Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein (1976) as models for creating a feeling of suffocation—Reynolds nevertheless knows when to go for the grand flourish: the finale is a keeper, moving from a devastating cue of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” to a zinger monologue directed at the heavens, in which Sonny tries to negotiate for percentages with God himself. Although Reynolds settled on a “happy end” to make his abrasive film “not too depressing,” The End remains unforgiving; with any dutifully imposed positive aspirations contested by DeLuise’s murderous madman, even the humorously sped-up blowout finale barely masks the overwhelming existential sourness.

If The End represents the contradictory charm of Reynolds’ filmmaking by being both his funniest and most despairing film, Sharky’s Machine is the epitome of his “serious” side, pulling off an irresistible shotgun marriage of intense romanticism and ruthless brutality. Reynolds acquired the rights to William Diehl’s bestseller after Eastwood sent him a copy with the note “This is Dirty Harry in Atlanta!” and he cherished its fusion of two of his favourite movies, Laura (1944) and Rear Window (1954). He hoped to reunite with his Deliverance director John Boorman, who proved too busy with Excalibur (1981) and suggested Reynolds direct it himself. Envisioning “the kind of film Robert Aldrich would have been great at”—less The Longest Yard one presumes than the outstanding policier Hustle (1975), a Reynolds pet project that proved too downbeat for audience appeal—Reynolds assembled a sterling cast of reliable character actors (including Aldrich stalwart Charles Durning, Brian Keith, and Henry Silva at his most psychotic) and even selected some of his own personal jazz preferences for the soundtrack.

The film kicks off with a failed drug bust that leads to a bloody bus hijacking shootout and results in Reynolds’ detective Sharky being demoted to a grungy vice squad worthy of Aldrich. Sharky’s department follows a trail of assassinations connected to a gubernatorial candidate, leading to a prolonged stakeout of the politician’s prostitute-mistress Dominoe (Rachel Ward). While listening to the long on-the-job monologues of his colleagues, Sharky is silently drawn towards the subject of his investigation in the high-rise opposite. An amazing, long-held two-shot shows Sharky and his partner (Bernie Casey) through a windowpane: Casey talks about abstracting himself during a deadly encounter, yet seems grounded behind a skyscraper reflection, while Sharky is rendered a fleeting entity by street traffic. Observation turns to voyeurism turns to longing romance from afar as if through telepathic connection: “Roll over,” says Sharky as he hears Dominoe snore  over the police radio—and, promptly, she does, while choice versions of “My Funny Valentine” yearningly connect them on the soundtrack.

But the lady of Sharky’s dreams is under the spell of gentleman godfather-pimp Victor (Vittorio Gassman, who imbues his powerful crime lord with a weary, aristocratic quality), and is lined up for execution by his drug-sniffing brother (Silva): a shotgun blast leaves only a meatball face on her perfect body. Connoisseurs of Laura will intuit that this is not the end, and the remainder of the film plays off the intimate rapport built up between Sharky and his love interest (as well as his colleagues), which gets literally besieged by the extreme violence of a second half presaging the excessive action of the upcoming decade, ninja attacks included. The suspenseful crime plot culminates in the henchman and a cop shooting each other to bits without batting an eye—to be topped by a then-record-setting freefall stunt jump—while the love story is magically rekindled amidst a series of accusations and slaps. (Burt takes a volume of Karl Marx to the face.)

With its startling juxtaposition of tenderness and outrage, Sharky’s Machine condenses the fairytale-like quality of Reynolds’ directorial work. This hovers over Stick as well, but in a strangely muted way. Adapting Elmore Leonard’s novel, Reynolds casts himself as the eponymous ex-con trying to protect various innocents as he gets entangled in the evil doings of a drug kingpin who rules through mysterious mind-power voodoo. Lacking the vulnerable passion of its predecessors, the melancholy undertow characteristic of Reynolds is barely articulated yet omnipresent in Stick. His character remains aloof, probably because he agreed to reshoot more conventional action scenes per studio demand and kicked out many generous bits usually afforded to his co-players, which tended to ground the detachment of his persona; here, it’s more of an existential residue, making the result difficult to parse even as it’s clearly still very personal.

Coming to regret his bow to studio pressure after Stick flopped, Reynolds moved to television and continued in the same spirit, but in a minor key. He pursued his strange sense of comedy in episodes for the new Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Amazing Stories, and gave it a mellow spin in the long-running early-’90s sitcom Evening Shade (for which he directed 35 episodes), with his ex-football-pro/high-school coach going through characteristic persona(l) problems; one episode pivots around his son shaving off half of the Burtian beard, whose different incarnations (none/moustache/full) are frequently a subject of self-definition in his movies. With similar restraint, Reynolds cruised again on the crime beat in the short-lived detective series B.L. Stryker, directing three episodes (the one with a young Neil Patrick Harris as an insufferable preacher is especially recommended), and made a reliably sincere Americana version of his fairytale redemption stories in the made-for-TV movie The Man from Left Field (1993).

But despite his minor renaissance as an actor, Reynolds never fully found his footing again behind the camera. Maybe he was too busy with other dubious pastimes: it’s definitely worth checking out the online catalogue for his big 2014 get-out-of-bankruptcy auction, which apart from expected items like his trophies (including two Golden Globes) offers a cornucopia of egocentric memorabilia (from the personally customized—with gold plaque!—Smokey and the Bandit Pontiac Trans Am to a “Forget the Dog! Beware of Burt” sign) and mostly very bad Western-themed art. Or maybe it was just lack of opportunity and laziness, for Burt’s films ultimately come across as deeply felt but made-to-order, not conceived out of intellectual or artistic necessity—which is part of their All-American allure.

As it stands, The Last Producer proves a perfect goodbye, as well as something of a self-portrait. As movieland satire it is mildly amusing, peppered by the occasional good punch line (“The Germans gave us Das Boot and we give them Baywatch!”). But as a memento of the declining Hollywood system it is almost piercingly bitter, a culmination of the alienation and sadness simmering under the veneer of entertainment in Reynolds’ directorial efforts. Playing washed-up veteran producer Sonny Wexler, who lives out of his damaged car (the trunk opens to reveal his wardrobe) but habitually and desperately acts as if he were still on top of the game, Reynolds traverses a wasteland of nostalgia (Charles Durning returns as a former award-winning buddy, now scraping towards a pension in the studio backlot) and treachery (“How do you say ‘Fuck you’ in Hollywood?” “Trust me!”). There’s no place for Sonny amidst the new generation of studio execs who have no sense of history, much less conscience.

Although nominally a comedy, The Last Producer feels more like a farewell round marked by fatigue and self-doubt. While the energetic younger Burt glanced ambivalently at his insecurities in his own films, here he excels at the spectacle of humiliation: projecting optimism and opportunity-taking by habit, Sonny repeatedly, unconsciously strokes his graying hair during conversations as if to distract from the embarrassment he feels at the discrepancy between what he says and what he can really achieve. But, really, as a director Burt had already achieved more than enough.