Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Neglected Works of Burt Reynolds

     Although he will forever be instantly associated with Deliverance (1972), The Longest Yard (1974) and Smokey and the Bandit (1977), a film that Alfred Hitchock once mused was his favorite movie, Burt Reynolds was once at the absolute fulcrum point of the Hollywood celebrity stratum. He used this hard earned place at the zenith of the movie industry to nurture into fruition some truly better than average projects. Today we'll be looking briefly at three of Burt Reynolds' all-time best and seldom examined films.

The End (1978)
Before Reynolds' moderately successful yet forgettable stuntman trifle Hooper (1978), he fought hard to get this self-directed opus about suicidal depressives made. No studio would touch the little black comedy that not only pokes its stick at the health care system but also the Catholic Church. Fortunately, he was able to get many of his Hollywood pals to make cameo appearances (Sally Field, Strother Martin, David Steinberg, Joanne Woodward, Norman Fell, Myrna Loy, Pat O'Brien, Robby Benson, Kristy McNichol, Carl Reiner and James Best), insuring that the million and a half budgeted project finally got a green light. Reynolds is front and center the whole show and his natural charm (even when trying to off himself) and comic timing really shine through. You can tell he really relished playing the part of a neurotic, but he wasn't by far the craziest nut in the loony bin. The film really hums thanks to a truly wacked-out supporting performance courtesy of Dom DeLuise. Their hilarious scenes together more than make up for a slightly disjointed and uneven ride. This is one of those films that you love despite any glaring flaws. It was a true labor of love for its director/star. And what a theme song by Paul Williams.

Starting Over (1979)
Director Alan J. Pakula had already made Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974) and All the President's Men (1976) before turning his politically salient viewfinder to this sweet natured little romantic comedy adapted and co-produced by James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, 1983). Reynolds plays a straight-laced lonely guy, looking for love in the wake of a failed relationship, and ultimately having the greatest panic attack scene in a department store ever captured on film. There are two other central roles in the film played effortlessly by Jill Clayburgh (as the quirky nursery school teacher Burt was meant to be with all along) and Candice Bergen (as his ex who exorcises most of her marital demons with some dubious songwriting skills). Clayburgh is nothing less than adorable (sometimes annoyingly so) throughout the film, but Bergen elevates the typical rom-com trappings to something quite different. She scores in several scenes evolving from the outwardly confident partner of the threesome to the near heights of emotional derangement. The song she writes and performs for Reynolds' character with hopes to win him back is a true show-stopper. Charles Durning also lends great support as Reynolds' protective brother.

Sharky's Machine (1981)
Reynolds directed this seemingly standard issue cop thriller at the tail end of his unprecedented reign of superstar popularity. For the most part, it's a by-the-book pulpy police saga, based on the breakout novel of the same name by author William Diehl. Reynolds plays Sharky, a no nonsense cop who loves women as much as talking trash with his cadre of law enforcement cronies. It is this particular ensemble of actors that distinguishes the film from just another pedestrian police procedural or Dirty Harry ripoff. Sure, there are the tongue-in-cheek riffs on the standard issue heavies (even a ninja or two) but it's the banter and interplay amongst the good guys that we remember most. Charles Durning, Brian Keith, Earl Holliman, Richard Libertini and Bernie Casey collectively knock this one out of the park. Rachel Ward as Dominoe provides the alluring eye candy and Henry Silva battles Vittorio Gassman for the slimiest villain on Earth award. It also happens to have one of the best soundtracks of the 1980s; a song score featuring the likes of: Sarah Vaughan, Julie London, Peggy Lee, Chet Baker and the classic tune Street Life performed by underrated jazz queen Randy Crawford. Tarantino even stole that particular tune for his own pulpy crime tale Jackie Brown (1997). But Reynolds did it first, and better.

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