Thursday, November 11, 2010

In Praise of BURT REYNOLDS

Burt as the Bandit, with mustache

It's no secret I dig movies from the 70s but strangely enough I haven't ever spoken about Burt Reynolds. A major oversight many of you would say. Others might say I've lost my cotton-picking mind or finally come out of the closet. No doubt about it Burt is a polarising figure. He's practically a parody of the hairy-chested 70s stud, a role he's been happy to play on more than one occasion, even doing a centerfold for Cosmo magazine. In fact there was a time when Burt was the 70s. He was omnipresent and omnipotent all at the same time. 

Some of that had to do with his incredibly successful series of Smokey and the Bandit, which made bundles of dough in practically every movie outlet on the planet. For us shorties back in the day, when we had to rent a reel on a Friday night, it was either Burt and his Pontiac or Clint's Every Which Way franchise, or something by Bruce Lee...... nothing else even came close.

Burt in his breakthrough role as Lewis Medlock


But Burt was more than just a comedic figure with incredible facial hair, the dude had serious acting chops. I'm talking about Deliverance of course, the movie that blew a lot of people out of the water. People who had no idea that Burt could bring it when he was given material worthy of his abilities.

Burt's role of outdoor fanatic and general he-man Lewis Medlock was a touchstone role for the actor. In many ways it defined the 70s man and created a blueprint for the tough guy role that so many in the 80s would attempt to emulate. The great thing about it is that the movie turns this stereotype on its head when Lewis breaks his leg and becomes as helpless as his city slicker buddies who look to him to save their lillywhite asses from the rampaging hill-billies.

Original poster for Deliverance


As it turns out it is fellow 70s icon Jon Voight who gets to play hero and pull the group out of the very tricky situation they have landed themselves in. The movie is based on the equally powerful book by James Dickey, for many years America's poet laureate. Dickey wanted to show what it means when the trappings and niceties of civilised society are ripped away and man is pushed to extremes. 

So what is meant to be a pleasant weekend of enjoying nature's beauty for a group of friends gets turned into a nightmare of epic proportions, when the group are confronted by a duo of backwoods in-breeds who clearly have taken their relationship with their livestock to a whole new level.

Deliverance is also interesting because its a movie about the vanishing wilderness, and man's dwindling respect for his natural heritage. Lewis persuades his friends to undertake the canoe trip because the river is going to be dammed and he wants them to experience it in its true glory before the dam reduces it to a mere shadow of its former self.

Lewis was indeed a curious anomaly for the time. An ultra-macho bowhunter who really gave a crap about the environment. Something of this dichotomy can be found in James Dickey himself, a hard-drinking womaniser who wrote ultra-violent books like Deliverance and To the White Sea but was also a celebrated poet. 

Burt and co-star Ronny Cox on the set


Burt's role in Deliverance was a tremendous breakthrough for the young actor. After Deliverance was nominated for 3 Oscars his future was pretty much set. Unfortunately the material that he chose after that would never quite rise to the level of his breakthrough performance. It would appear that Burt chose popularity and box office appeal over critical approval, and while we cannot blame him for that, perhaps that legendary moustache should take some of the blame. After he sprouted it, it was a lot more difficult to take him seriously. 


 






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