From roughly 1977-1982 Burt Reynolds owned the American box office. The period marked the culmination of a steady climb to prominence beginning with Deliverance, continuing with The Longest Yard, and exploding with Smokey and the Bandit. Grossing an incredible $126 million, Bandit would be a hit comedy even by today’s standards, and adjusted for inflation the numbers become astounding.
These movies would also mark the transformation of Reynolds into the postmodern celebrity where his life often generated more attention than his work. The Sally Field affair became the template for Hollywood romance hysteria and People magazine covers. If only the hybrid name craze had been in vogue then. Move over Bennifer and Branjelina: Burly anyone?
The change in Reynolds from Deliverance to Bandit remains remarkable. He moves from the classically chiseled leading man to the mustached, gum-chewing, toupeed character that proved so easy to parody and mock. As Reynolds grew in success and power, he became ever-more sensitive to criticism. To combat the outside world, he slowly gathered around him a group of friends that would form the core of almost all the movies he made beginning in the late 70s. This group would include some genuinely funny actors like Dom DeLuise and Chalres Nelson Reilly (I know, hard to believe now. Trust me, these guys had some chops and timing), business partners and friends like Burt Convoy, musicians including Jerry Reed and Mel Tillis (He stutters! Comedy gold!), fading stars such as Dean Martin (oh, Dean, we hardly knew ye), The Women (Lauren Hutton, Adrienne Barbeau, Loni Anderson) and the endless stream of friends making cameos: Terry Bradshaw, Peter Fonda, Telly Savalas, various members of the Brat Pack.
By all accounts Reynolds created an incredibly enjoyable atmosphere on the set and could prove very generous. Watch Charles Nelson Reilly’s one man show sometime, delightful in its own right, to see the regard he has for Reynolds and his kindness. You can tell watching the movies from that time the fun being had by all. Except of course for the audience. The work Reynolds churned out slowly became more interesting to hear anecdotes about on The Tonight Show than it did to actually watch.
An actor with raw talent on the ascent. A string of movies made with the same comfortable friends to insulate oneself from critical noise. Movies that become ever more predictable and formulaic. Let us call this state of affairs the Burt Reynolds Syndrome, or BRS, and investigate.
If Adam Sandler hasn’t come mind to mind yet, you aren’t trying very hard. The parallels seem almost unbelievable at times. It’s as though Sandler faced the same dilemmas as Reynolds and decided to follow his lead by becoming even more cocooned (he does almost no press and doesn’t make his films available for review pre-release). When he does speak, Sandler is adamant about how little he cares for critical reaction and how much he values his friendships and circle of collaborators. The movies at this point appear to be a by-product of the Sandler Fun Machine rather than the focus. His remake of The Longest Yard seems more of an endorsement of Reynold’s lifestyle than any interest in reimagining the film.
To see just how infectious BRS can prove, consider Chris Rock, the greatest stand-up comedian of this generation. He appears regularly in Sandler films with almost no outlet for his comedic genius. But he keeps coming back for more and seems satisfied to do so. Will anyone ever harness Rock on film? What enabled Richard Pryor to thrive in movies but not Rock? Perhaps the ability of Pryor to inhabit and write other characters made the difference. Many people don’t realize he wrote screenplays for himself and others, including Blazing Saddles. He was ultimately deemed too scary to play Bart and the part went to Cleavon Little. But he seems to have had a more cinematic mind that allowed him to move out of the almost monkish devotion stand-up requires. Perhaps Rock’s recent Top Five, where he takes control of writing and directing, marks a new chapter for him in film.
The desire to assemble a creative team to make movies, especially comedies, only makes sense. The timing and chemistry required needs repetition and familiarity to mature. One of the enormous advantages of the old studio system was the ability of actors and directors to work together on a regular basis. Like a great athletic team they came to anticipate each others’ moves and knew how to get the most out of each scene. If we apply the rule of mastery outlined by Malcolm Gladwell and others, that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve expert performance, then one reason the overall quality of movies down the line seemed better in the past was that far more people got the reps necessary to produce at a high level. Just watch Turner Classic Movies for a week; the weakest film you’ll see will still have a professional quality that leaves little to criticize.
Whether you like their comedy or not, the Marx brothers and Woody Allen at their peak demonstrate the advantages of the ensemble approach. The Marx brothers, who started on the stage in vaudeville and Broadway, would tour their material before live audiences before shooting their movies. Simply try to reproduce the timing and pace of any Marx routine and you will come to appreciate their talent. Working with his core actors and production team, Allen wrote and directed Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall, and Manhattan in a six-year period. Those movies remain incredibly entertaining, and Manhattan’s black and white shots of New York remain among the most beautiful portraits of the city.
Of course the danger of the ensemble is that the work grows stale and tired. The best artists must find new ways to challenge and invent themselves. Reynolds and Sandler cross paths again as having both produced great work with Paul Thomas Anderson: Reynolds in Boogie Nights, which he tried to disavow until the accolades starting pouring in, and Sandler in Punch Drunk Love, his most interesting performance in film. Both roles lead to questions of what might have been. What explains Reynolds turning down roles like James Bond and Han Solo (you heard me) and Sandler not casting his net wider with independent film?
People with BRS often seem unable to know what’s good for them artistically. But the more interesting question becomes why BRS bothers critics and movie fans so much. We stand no risk of infection. If an actor wants to churn out mediocre films while thoroughly enjoying himself in the process, what difference does it make to us? No one coerces you to spend your money on the product. In any other endeavor, if you created a business with a tight knit family of employees and generated enormous profits, you would be lauded and studied and the subject of books with clever titles that promise the same results.
I used to feel the same way. When Allen started his slow decline, it somehow felt like a personal betrayal. We make the strangest investment in our entertainment, demanding whatever our definition of quality is despite the costs to the entertainer. Perhaps we want that wealth and celebrity to come with a horrible price to confirm the notion that you can’t have it all. Only a handful of people escape this fate without incurring our wrath. Paul Newman always seemed to make the right moves professionally and personally and we never begrudged it. I would say right now George Clooney seems to get the same pass but in the way Sinatra did; if you are going to be a star and live a life of excess, then do it with some flair and look like you enjoy it. Just make sure you look good in the morning and keep performing at the highest level. We’ll see what difference his marriage makes in that equation.
A favorite actor, director, singer, in reality owes us nothing. If Woody Allen makes a movie every year to stave off the boredom and terror of existence, more power to him. If Reynolds and Sandler enjoy hanging out with friends and a movie happens to get made along the way, that’s their prerogative. People in the spotlight can never win anyway; all too often the public demands to be entertained in the exact same way as last time as long as you don’t do it in the exact same way. And I subscribe strongly to the notion people only have so much quality in them. If your peak is up it’s up. For some people that’s one movie or book or album while for others it’ a long string of greatness. Yes you can throw away your talent, but you can also just be done.
Let’s not bemoan BRS; let’s appreciate those that live with celebrity on their terms. I’d rather hear the anecdotes about all the good times Reynolds had on set than listen to another celebrity whine about their difficult life. Here’s a news flash: you can do something else. It’s right there in the constitution. The real tragedy occurs when people neither enjoy the process or produce anything of merit. I will now resist the tremendous temptation to make a list of such souls.
No one ever knows how they will react to either misfortune or incredible good luck. Reynolds took his moment in the sun and had a party that reduced him to bankruptcy. You could do worse. You could do better. But to believe you can determine how to avoid BRS is pure folly.