Saturday, September 15, 2018

Burt Reynolds

 This is one of those posts that isn't really about camera movement, or even filmmaking. It's about something more important. It's about the way that movies and the people in them shape our view of the world. Now, if you're like me you read that last sentence as, " Blah blah blah, high minded pretentious claptrap blah." But bear with me a minute. I want you to do something. Go to Youtube. Type in Johnny Carson Burt Reynolds, and watch. Watch every video because they are fantastic. You have the opportunity to watch two good friends who genuinely enjoy each other's company age over thirty years. After you've done that, come back and read on.
  I first remember being aware of Burt Reynolds in Deliverance. I was probably around four years old. Yes, my parents took me to Deliverance at four. It was the seventies and they probably thought at that age I really wouldn't remember most of it. They were right. I don't remember much except a lot of paddling. The thing I do remember is this big dark handsome face. Even at that age I recognized him as someone who was in charge. He was my first impression of silver screen cool. He had a bow and arrow and a wetsuit with the arms cutoff and I wanted to be that guy. Over the next few years I saw him again and again . In White Lightning, where Ned Beatty apparently has recovered from his brush with the hillbillies from Deliverance and become a crooked sheriff, Burt fought the law and drove his ass off to deliver quality moonshine and win Bo Hopkins' girlfriend. Ned Beatty was so effective as the evil sheriff that to this day my mother cannot abide him as an actor. In W.W and the Dixie Dancekings, he was a thief with a heart of gold. He laughed loud and drove fast. I still remember a shot where his car splashed water on the lens and how I suddenly realized there was a camera somehow involved in all this mayhem.
  Then comes the mother of them all. I saw Smokey and the Bandit. And life was never the same. I spent my sixth grade year drawing pictures of Kenworth trucks. Quarters were perfect wheel templates. I listened to East Bound and Down  over and over on my little record player. I remember laughing hysterically when Sally Field said, "Holy shit!" The fact that you could put those two words together was an epiphany. That it was shot in Georgia and Alabama gave me a sense of pride. It felt like it belonged to me. I saw Hooper with my twelve-year-old best friend and marveled at the proportions of the girl jumping out of the cake, you know what I'm talking about. I was excited to learn that some of it was shot near my town. In Cannonball Run it seemed  he was just having a little fun with friends like Dom Delouise and Sammy Davis Jr..With a wink at the camera, he let us know that is exactly what he was doing. Most of all, he showed me that as a Southerner he was one of us. When I was a young boy growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, Hollywood seemed a million miles away. Unreachable. You can't get there from here. Burt changed that. He bridged the divide. He had a home in Georgia. He went to college in Florida. He let me know that you could get there from here.
  As I later grew up and joined the Atlanta film industry, for which I was told Burt was almost single-handedly responsible, it seemed almost everyone had a Burt Reynolds story. There was the time he was directing Sharky's Machine and let a down-on-his-luck stuntman do needless retakes so he could earn more money. I met a camera assistant who had worked on Deliverance.  There was the transportation coordinator, JL Parker, a legend in his own right, who was one of his best friends. Burt often stayed at his house and JL's  son who later became a Best Boy I worked with called him "Uncle Burt." He told me a story of going out to LA in the 70's and Burt letting him take his car out for a spin down Laurel Canyon.  We lost JL recently. Like Burt, he, his wife Cindy and the rest of his family are inseparable from the Atlanta film community.  I'm sure the stories are flying up there. Burt and the Atlanta industry were intertwined.  It always seemed like he was just around the next corner, or that I had entered a room he had just left. DammitJust missed him....
   As the years went by, like the rest of us, he he got older. He lost a little of his swagger. He went from being the number one box office draw for much of the 70's to doing direct -to -video action movies like Malone and Rent-A-Cop. He had been injured on a film in the 80's called City Heat with Clint Eastwood and had never really recovered. He spent a lot of time on pain medication. But it was always a sense of comfort to me to know he was in the world. When I thought of him, I imagined him down there at his estate in Jupiter, Florida entertaining famous friends or hosting fancy parties. Then this past week I learned he had left us. My best friend texted me. Then my wife. Both texts were variations on the same sentence, "Burt Reynolds died."  The sense of comfort that he was somewhere in the world has gone.
   I worked with Burt a few years ago. It was a little tv movie, I can't remember the name. He was rather frail by then. His injuries from a million stunts and the accident on City Heat  had worn him down. I have worked with everyone from Al Pacino to Robert DeNiro and never really got star struck, but the day he walked onto set I was mesmerized. There was the guy I saw when I was four! The one with the bow and arrow! He was nice. Cordial. Clearly medicated for whatever pain he was in, but still sharp; giving acting tips to a younger cast member. I meekly said hi and had a picture taken. Like all of us who work in this profession, I tried to be dispassionate, businesslike. As the news of his passing broke a few weeks ago, though, I find myself wishing I had done more to engage with this man I'd known my whole life but had never met. The man I had recognized from my earliest memories, who had always left the room just before I arrived, was finally in the room. I kept my head down, said my starstruck "good mornings" and before I knew it, it was over. He left the room and went back to Jupiter, Florida and I went on to the next job. Dammit. Just missed him.
  Watching the videos of him now in his later years, it's almost like watching two different people, from the self-assured swaggering box-office favorite to the frail older man he became. Watch the videos. Remember him as he was, as he would want you to.

  Keep the hammer down, Bandit. I'll see you soon.