Thursday, February 11, 2021

Quote of the Day (Catherine Deneuve, on the ‘Charming’ Burt Reynolds)

“He was a charming man. He had a great sense of humour. I remember going to his trailer and everything was monogrammed. He said: 'If I could have, I would have put it on my toilet paper.'”—French actress Catherine Deneuve, on working with Burt Reynolds on Hustle, quoted in Nick Foulkes, “I Was a Symbol, I Suppose,” The Financial Times, Jan. 12-13, 2019

Burt Reynolds—born on this day 85 years ago in Lansing, Mich.—occupies a niche in film somewhere between Steve McQueen and George Clooney, two other actors who made the transition from TV regular to big-screen star. Reynolds possessed considerably more skill and self-mocking humor than McQueen, but did not display often enough Clooney’s ambition and daring. At its best, his career amply reflected his laid-back charm, but at the time of his death in 2018, I was dismayed that it could have been so much more.

The dominant theme of Reynolds’ career was a refusal to take the game seriously, starting with his appearance in Cosmopolitan Magazine, where he wore a grin and little else. It was burnished by approximately 60 Tonight Show appearances in which he might say or do anything—shaving half his moustache, spraying whip cream down Johnny Carson’s pants, even joking about how bad some of his films were.

He certainly appeared in movies that any actor would have been proud to have made—notably Deliverance (the one that put him on the map), Starting Over (my favorite of his, when he was inexplicably deprived of an Oscar nomination), and Boogie Nights (which did get him a nomination, along with a short-lived second comeback). But out of 63 films—and given the power he enjoyed at his career height—that list seems paltry.

Every actor in the business long enough will have stinkers in his resume, so Reynolds can’t be faulted for that. An entertainer also makes the most of his assets, and Reynolds maximized his good looks and that ever-present twinkle in his eyes, to such an extent that he ranked only behind Robert Redford as the top male box-office star of the 1970s, according to the Web site Ultimate Movie Rankings.

So, why did his star sink in the Eighties? Several factors account for it, I think:

*Taking the easy paycheck and easy way out. In one sense, Reynolds only mirrored what Hollywood as a whole has done, increasingly so in recent years: go for the seemingly easy score, especially through sequels. Make Smokey and the Bandit? Fine. But by the time he got to Smokey and the Bandit Part 3, the well had surely run dry. The same thing happened with Cannonball Run II. It didn’t help that his screen persona carried over insistently, with little variation, to yet other films.

*Poor career choices. Reynolds admitted he made a big mistake in turning down the chance to appear as James Bond, but his errors didn’t end there. A 2018 article in Variety catalogued roles that others rode to career triumphs, including Harrison Ford (Star Wars), Richard Gere (Pretty Woman), Bruce Willis (Die Hard), and Jack Nicholson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest AND Terms of Endearment—both of which won the actor the Oscar that forever eluded Reynolds).

*Bad health. While filming City Heat with old buddy Clint Eastwood, Reynolds suffered a broken jaw when he was hit in the face with a metal chair. Instead of going to the hospital, he took painkillers. Before he received a diagnosis of temporomandibular disorder and was treated appropriately, he lost considerable weight, leading to rumors that he had AIDS. That put an additional chill on his career prospects for two crucial years in the mid-1980s.

*Sexism. The Cosmopolitan photo session that made Reynolds notorious—and, he suggested with some justification later, kept him from being taken more seriously—may have been sparked when the magazine’s editor, Helen Gurley Brown, taunted him by asking him before a Tonight Show audience if he was sexist. (Later, off camera, she made the offer of the session, according to Brooke Hauser’s 2016 biography of Brown, Enter Helen.) Moreover, as I discussed in this prior post on the making of the disastrous Switching Channels, Reynolds exacerbated what already promised to be a complicated production by telling co-star Kathleen Turner “something about not taking second place to a woman,” as she recalled. With her star then in the ascendant and his close to nadir, it was a foolish thing to say and irredeemably disrupted their chemistry on the film.

Maybe the best concise description of Reynolds, with all his virtues and faults as an actor, came in this statement, released after his death, from TV showrunners Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who created their early ‘90s comedy Evening Shade for him: “Burt won the Emmy for best actor during our first season. He was sweet, brash, exasperating, hot-tempered, generous and wickedly talented. To be sure, it was a wild ride. R.I.P. Burt. May your star never go out."

I’m afraid it has already dimmed, though, and it may continue to do so.

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