Saturday, 11 March 2017

Thinking about Burt Reynolds

Burt Reynolds in Sergio Corbucci's 100 Rifles

Burt Reynolds Autobiography - But Enough About Me

I’ve enjoyed reading Burt Reynolds’s memoir. It helped me to fill in a big gap in my understanding of Seventies cinema. The gap was that I didn’t really see why Reynolds was so popular. For much of the decade he dominated the list of the top box-office stars. I’d seen four or five of his biggest hits (only one with an audience, the rest of them on TV) and thought they were nothing more than tele-style enertainments. This was in contrast with my appreciation of the films of Clint Eastwood, the box-office rival he often beat (by the early 80’s I’d seen half-a-dozen major Eastwood films on 35mm). I could see the art in Eastwood.
Of course, I had seen Burt Reynolds in the mighty Deliverance, a true Film of the Decade (though sporting small picky flaws in its hat-on-hat-off continuity and technical flaws in its day-for-night processing) and, like all film fans who didn’t really know then how films got made, I’d pinned the colours for the whole success of Deliverance to John Boorman’s chest.
I was talking about Burt Reynold’s book with an actress friend of mine, who is of Burt’s generation. She cooed immediately when I mentioned his name, and she said: “He is a lovely man.” 
She explained to me that she was close friends with Reynolds’ English lover, an actress still famous in England (probably unknown in America) and alas now dead. Reynold’s English actress-lover is not mentioned in his book, so I won’t mention her name here.
My friend said: “She fell in love with him because he was so different to all the other film stars. He had a sense of fun. He lived for fun.”
And that seemed to give me an introduction to an understanding of Burt Reynolds. Having a ‘sense of fun’ is a rare quality indeed. In fact, among my admittedly not particularly wide circle of friends and acquaintances (all of them older than myself), I don’t know anyone who has a genuine ‘sense of fun’ (doubtless I’m the most miserable of the lot). And that’s probably true for most people. Most people are not ‘fun’. Looking at it like that, the natural rareness of ‘fun’ makes it exotic and appealing. People like Burt Reynolds because he is fun. He is fun in his art and fun in his life.
But fun in itself is not enough to be America’s top box office star. There’s more to Burt Reynolds and his films than fun.
In the book, Reynolds takes the alternative autobiographical path of writing mostly about other folk, people he grew up with, lived with, worked with, loved and met. It works beautifully. It gives us a fully-rounded picture of the man himself, a man whose creed contains the full compliment of Southern virtues - independence, generosity, courtesy, modesty, grace and toughness - and those very attractive non-PC virtues of never saying a bad thing about a woman, and always standing strong to tackle prejudice at its source, with a fist if necessary. To those virtues is added a full measure of the virtues of good humour. Reynolds’s sense of humour extends to the ability to laugh at himself - he’s not one of those personalty-free drones who boast of their charity work when collecting Golden Globe awards - his shoulders are broad enough for him to make himself the fall guy in his some of his own stories. This works best in the punchline to an account of a very exclusive dinner party at the New York apartment of the playwright, William Inge, where the very young Burt’s lust gets the better of his intellect and leads him to a punchline (a name) that is as dazzling as it is hilarious, and which achieves with truth what Peter Cook strove for in a famous fantasy monologue, which is all I can say without ruining it.
Interwoven within these stories are incisive character portraits of Frank Sinatra, Roy Rogers (and Trigger), Johhny Carson, Jim Brown, Dinah Shore, Clint Eastwood and many others, but this is not a name-drop memoir. The stories and portraits are shaped to give us too a portrait of times. For example, Burt Reynolds writes of the night when he and Jim Brown jump the rope to get a close night look at the Lincoln Memorial and are jumped on by the police. Jim Brown gets it harder because of the colour of his skin, and is saved from futher difficulty only because of his celebrity.
But perhaps the most striking story to me, because of it speaks of lost values from a lost time, the values of common sense and decency and fairness, is when the teenage Burt Reynolds tells his father of a local boy, his own age, who is being neglected: 

“My dad knew all about Jimmy’s situation, him being the police chief and it being a small town. “Yes, son, he can live here,” he said. “But we’ve got rules in this house, and you’ll both have to abide by them. Come upstairs.” He opened my closet, put his hands in the middle of the clothes, and went pffft, dividing them in half. “Jimmy, these are your clothes here, and those are Buddy’s over there,” he said.
Gee, I didn’t even get a chance to pick ‘em out or anything,
My parents legally adopted Jimmy and treated him like a son from then on... He became a high school football coach, and when my dad talked about the two of us, he considered Jimmy the bigger success.”

It’s a beautiful story. But it takes more than a few beautiful stories to make a box-office star. As the book reaches it conclusion, and Burt Reynolds has built a theatre, and is teaching, and is putting his money back into his profession and the community where he lived and grew, he lets us into the secret of his art. It’s two words, ‘Spencer Tracy’. He narrows this large words down to one Spencer Tracy film, A Father of the Bride. I watched the film and it was a revelantion. One sees in Tracy’s performance, the template for Burt Reynolds’ art. It’s all to do with the way Tracy and Reynolds hold the space and the pace and the camera. It’s a craft so rare and true and complex that, like all the best magic, it is almost invisible, and so easily missed.


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