Monday, November 9, 2015

The Man From Jupiter

This past Friday, I posted a story to our Facebook page from Vanity Fair that I'd seen trending on Facebook and several other places. The topic was the long, dark retirement of Burt Reynolds.

I know that for some, Burt Reynolds is the punchline to a joke we've long forgotten. Emblematic of a certain kind of now-vanished masculinity, in the 1970s he was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. And then, in the 1980s, just as suddenly, he slid into professional purgatory. Some (like the author of this Vanity Fair piece) argue it was his marriage to Loni Anderson and their subsequent reign as the king and queen of American tabloid journalism in the 1980s that led to it. Others might suggest that Burt himself was never that strong of an actor in the first place, and the era of the blockbuster was not built for his laconic old-school cool. But by the mid-1990s, Burt Reynolds was divorced, 15 years removed from his glory days, and on the precipice of bankruptcy.

Some might ask why Boogie Nights didn't propel him back to the A-list, as Pulp Fiction did for fellow 1970s casualty John Travolta. It's pretty well-known at this point that Reynolds had problems with director Paul Thomas Anderson, but that conflict, that energy, fuels what is likely the best performance of Reynolds's career. Maybe the financial and emotional desperation going on in Reynolds's real life at this point was a factor as well; but it's noteworthy that his Oscar campaign, as mentioned in the Vanity Fair piece, was apparently a non-starter despite all the buzz and despite the reality that none of the performances of 1997 – not even the Oscar-winning performance of Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting – could match up with Reynolds's Jack Horner. (Okay, maybe Robert Forster in Jackie Brown could.)

One thing that I think is worth noting, and this is going all the way back to our first season podcast episode "Rock Throw, WV," is that Burt Reynolds was fully of and a favorite son of the Old South. Playing football in the South in the 50s and 60s (and really, the role of football in this particular time and place must have made Burt feel like a king among men at a very early age), he was recruited to Florida State on a football scholarship but suffered an injury and so never played in any substantive way and thus turned to acting. His breakout role in Deliverance is one that indelibly marked mainstream America's view of the South, as much as Smokey and the Bandit did later in the 1970s. And the story of his financial rise and fall in the 1970s and 1980s is also the story of the rise of the New South: boom and bust. The Vanity Fair article mentions his disastrous restaurant venture "Po' Folks," but there's also this little gem in his Wikipedia entry (which sounds suspiciously written by a publicist, to be honest): "In the late 1970s, Reynolds opened "Burt's Place", a restaurant/nightclub in the Omni International Hotel in the Hotel District of downtown Atlanta, Georgia." How much more New South could you get than a nightclub in the midst of the corporate spires of downtown Atlanta?

I'm going into depth on Burt here because in Wednesday's podcast, we talk about the phenomenon of 1970s macho, and Burt's place in that particular pantheon. And WKRP obviously is inexorably intertwined with this, given both the themes of the episode "Jennifer Falls in Love" and the real-life Burt-and-Loni drama. The 1970s were a unique inflection point for American masculinity, given the tensions of a "Free to Be You and Me" generation coming of age, the rising women's lib and gay lib movements, and the overall perceived decline of the United States geopolitically. Burt Reynolds's rise and fall are a pleasingly metaphorical echo of that crisis and its resolution in the Reagan years and beyond.

No comments:

Post a Comment