One of the reasons we love movies so much is that they allow us to project a little bit of ourselves up there onto the big silver screen. Movie stars become avatars for our own fantasies about ourselves. We love to imagine being that handsome, that swashbuckling, that suave, that funny.
In the late 70s and early 80s, Burt Reynolds was all that and more. His dark good looks set the standard for male sex appeal – moustache and copious chest hair required – and his devil-may-care-attitude was one to be envied. Best of all, he could fire off his own quips on the Tonight Show sofa as smoothly as he could drop scripted one-liners on screen.
The old saw is so true in this case: women wanted to be with Burt Reynolds, and men wanted to be Burt Reynolds. It’s no mystery why so many of us flocked to see his movies.
His moxie served him well over the years, but not perfectly. His career and life were filled with dizzying highs and catastrophic lows, much of it caused by his own choices.
As an interviewer, I would have absolutely loved to sit down for a chat with Burt Reynolds. He was remarkably self-effacing and candid, particularly in his later years, and that honesty coupled with his trademark humor would have made for some fascinating moments.
With his passing this last week, I regret that I won’t get that chance. Even so, here’s my take on Reynolds’ moxie:
People with moxie are just fine being themselves.
With few exceptions, seeing Burt Reynolds on screen seemed a lot like you were just seeing Burt himself. Perhaps that’s why people loved him so much, and loved his movies even when they weren’t a critical success.
Reynolds brought a certain authenticity to many of the roles he played, because the characters were close to himself, or at least the “himself” he carefully cultivated over the years.
His career started out slowly, with a series of TV roles where he played key but secondary roles. It wasn’t until he became a regular on the talk show circuit that he truly broke out. Once people had the chance to get to know Burt Reynolds, they wanted more of him. And they got it, on screen and off.
People with moxie have regrets, too.
But perhaps that swagger was hiding some self doubt. Reynolds stayed in his lane and seemed afraid to challenge himself, even though he perhaps had the ability to take on more complex roles.
His career was bookended by two significant, substantial roles: as Lewis Medlock in Deliverance, and as Jack Horner in Boogie Nights. Both roles earned him critical acclaim, and offered tantalizing glimpses into a much broader range than audiences saw in much of his other work.
Between those two roles, he turned down many others that might have offered us a chance to appreciate him on a whole other level, roles like Michael Corleone and Han Solo and even James Bond. If I had the chance to ask him, I would ask him why he made the choices he did. Did he not see the potential in himself others clearly saw in him? Was he playing it safe? Was he afraid he would fail?
People with moxie make it right.
Take a high-profile divorce, a few bad investments and wild spending and add to it questionable career choices and a reputation for being difficult and what do you get? Bankruptcy.
Reynolds earned and lost a considerable fortune over the years, and spent the waning years of his life trying to settle debts and hang on to his beloved estate, Valhalla, in Jupiter, Florida. In the end, he was successful. He sold off memorabilia and sold his estate, and made right with his creditors.
The result might have left a lesser man feeling broken and defeated. But it gave Reynolds peace. The memorabilia sold for much more than he thought it would, and reminded him that he was respected and appreciated for this work. He was able to negotiate the right to remain in his estate after it sold, so he was able to live out his days in the place that he loved.
If Reynolds’ life was a movie, I think I’d still want to see myself in him in a few significant ways. I’d like to be the guy who can enjoy life and have the confidence to not take things too seriously. I’d like to be the guy who can look back and reflect honestly on my choices, and call out both the good and the bad. I’d like to be the guy who settles up his tab before he checks out.
Bandit is 10-7. Thanks for the great ride. Over and out.