Goodbye Burt Reynolds, a Sensitive and Emotional Man's Man
I just so happened to have read Burt Reynold’s memoir But Enough About Me… the weekend before he died. I would have been sad either way since I am a big fan, but the news of his passing hurt even more after reading him tell his own life story. Especially given how, with his stamp of approval and with his own words, Burt spent most of his autobiography expressing how vulnerable, sensitive, and emotional he actually was.
What I’ve always appreciated about Burt Reynolds (even before I saw any of his movies or knew much about him) was the physical. We’re all adults here, we can all admit we’d pay to see prime Burt Reynolds do nothing but clean a toilet for 90 minutes. Fortunately for us, since he was funny, could act, and loved stunt work, we got to pay to see him do a bunch of stuff. That didn’t matter to me when I first encountered Burt, though I wouldn’t know who he was for several years. In an episode of The Twilight Zone, a show I’ve watched on a continuous loop since I was about ten, a very young Burt Reynolds plays a Brando-esque character speaking to a struggling playwright. My initial probably-12-year-old thought was, “wow, that guy looks so much like Brando,” a reaction neither of them would have loved but Burt would find funnier. Loving Marlon Brando the way that I did, it was a huge thrill to see that there was more than one of him. For a decent amount of time, Burt Reynolds was known to me as merely that Brando-y guy from that episode The Bard.
Enter Boogie Nights. Did now teenaged me figure out that Jack Horner was the same mumbly actor from The Twilight Zone? No, of course not, but I did find my eye being drawn back to Burt even when the young, ripped body of Mark Wahlberg was prancing around in front of me. For someone who was never into older men, that was a bit surprising. I found myself doing research on him to find some of his other work. Naturally, Deliverance came next and I knew I had found my Brando-esque boy. I then proceeded to watch a lot of dumb shit that Burt Reynolds made and read about other dumb shit he almost made, e.g. Zardoz. Admittedly, when I saw Zardoz for the first time as an adult at the Castro theater, I couldn’t help but think that I probably would have liked it more if it was Burt in that low-key bondage suit instead of Connery but I still feel he dodged a bullet.
Reading about Burt’s life put so many of these movies, performances, and disasters into context. For some of them, I understood how he could see something as a fun project because he got to drive around all crazy in cars and jump off of stuff. That sounds like a blast. For others, it seemed like he was pushed into something that he otherwise would have passed on. The funny thing though is often those are the roles that gave him the most “esteem” as an actor. He discusses Boogie Nights at some length, and while he’s diplomatic about the movie, he hated the subject matter. He mentions not enjoying pornography and feeling uncomfortable to be playing a character like Jack Horner. This is a movie that was nominated for and won numerous awards yet we get the feeling that if Burt was making a time-capsule, he’d pick Cannonball Run over Boogie Nights. Possibly even Cannonball Run 2.
But the role of Jack Horner fits quite well into Burt’s filmography; a resume filled with masculine, powerful, and often stoic characters. Reynolds having a sense of humor is well-known enough since he guest hosted with Johnny Carson and played himself on Archer. Less known is what an adorable little mush he is. Now, remember that I read his memoirs – not a biography, not something written by an ex or former friend. In Burt’s own words he openly discusses being emotional, falling in love fast and hard, and being a mama’s boy. I mean, he grew up in the South, and I think people forget that there’s a lot of effeminance in southern male culture. My guess is that people lump the South and the west all together and forget that there was a lot of etiquette and high society crap in the South. Burt makes no qualms about admitting how broken-hearted he would get and how intimidated he would be from time to time. He wrote about boys that he knew growing up and their stereotypical “boy behavior” that turned him right off. Burt was a dude who knew how to hunt, fish, play football, and fall off of stuff without dying but he was also sensitive to a fault. It was a refreshing aspect to learn, and it made me love him even harder.
I know it seems like I’m focusing on Burt Reynolds talking about his emotions (because I am) but honestly, the rest of it wasn’t news to me. We all knew he was a stuntman, we all knew he opened a dinner theater in Miami (because we all watch The Golden Girls), we all knew he was insanely attractive. But the sweetness and the fragility was what really stuck with me, and added another layer to the man I usually referred to as “Buuuuuuuuurt” [insert Homer Simpson drooling noise]. There was a chapter about people in the eighties spreading a rumor that he had AIDS and how hurt he was (not angry, not mad but crying, sad, and hurt) by friends and colleagues who turned their back on him during that time. He doesn’t rip into anyone personally, except for a mention of being disappointed with how Sally Field answered a question about him, as if he’s acting out a vendetta. Instead he just tells us all how much damage they did to him and how awful they made him feel. It could be a form of revenge but if it is, it’s the kind a mother enacts when she cries in front of you, not the “how ya like me now?!” kind of revenge. A deeper and far more vulnerable revenge. Deep and vulnerable might not seem like words people would use to describe Burt Reynolds (unless they were married to him) but after reading his memoirs there’s pretty much no other way to describe him.
Burt Reynolds will always be remembered for being gorgeous, funny, and in some great movies. My goal in life, a recently acquired goal, is to make sure people know that he was also a sensitive and easily shocked mama’s boy from the South, who loved too hard and had more than his fair share of feelings. Move forward now, and spread the word. Good night, sweet prince. And flights of Pontiac Firebirds sing thee to thy rest.