Burt Reynolds: An American Legend

September 17th, 2018Burt Reynolds: An American Legend

About 15 minutes into the 1977 hit Smokey and the Bandit, Burt Reynolds performs the sort of career-defining moment only a few actors ever get. The Bandit, played by Reynolds, has just evaded the cops. As he hits the road again, Reynolds drives his black Trans Am right in front of the camera, pauses for a second — then slowly looks right into the lens before flashing a knowing smile.

If you’re in the theater watching Smokey and the Bandit, you can feel the entire atmosphere lighten thanks to that grin. In a single moment, Reynolds invites every viewer right into the movie with him. He’s not just a lanky, devilishly handsome wheelman. He’s a friend, and a conspirator. Burt Reynolds was more charming than anyone, and Smokey and the Bandit turned him into a superstar.

Superstar

[Credit: Universal Pictures]

In 1977, Burt Reynolds was already pretty much the biggest movie star in America thanks to movies like White Lightning, The Longest Yard, and Gator. The actor had realized the box office potential of movies set in the American South, and was already exploiting that opportunity. More importantly, he had a remarkable ease in front of the camera and could make just about any character feel casual.

So Reynolds was primed to play Bandit, a legendary but kind of lazy trucker who has built an underground network of friends and conspirators connected by CB Radio throughout the South. (Cell phones were barely a dream at the time.)

Money, Glory, And Fun

[Credit: Universal Pictures]

The character has a real name (it’s Bo Darville) but “Bandit” is perfect. Reynolds plays him like the ideal outlaw. His first close-up in the movie shows him cackling at the exaggerated appearance of Big and Little Enos Burdette, the father/son duo in powder blue leisure suits who hire Bandit to run hundreds of cases of Coors beer from Texarkana to Atlanta.

Even the plot for the movie is a mechanism designed to promote the star’s personality. The interstate beer run proposed by the Burnetts has never been done before. Bandit needs no more prompting; he wants to prove he can do it, even though there’s no real reason to care.

Well, the promise of a big financial reward helps, too. But Reynolds even makes that sound more like a spiritual concept than a mercenary one. Asked why there’s any reason to make the run, he glows. “For the good old American life,” he says. “For the money, for the glory, and for the fun. Mostly for the money.”

Natural Charm

[Credit: Universal Pictures]

The Bandit’s easy laughter sets the tone for the whole movie. We’ve already been seduced by Reynolds’s natural charm long before Bandit picks up the runaway bride played by Sally Field. Once he does, their repartee shows us Field’s character, eventually nicknamed Frog, falling for Bandit a little more in every scene.

Eventually something almost mature at the center of this movie. As the attraction develops between Bandit and Frog, we know there’s no life for the two of them. Not together, anyway. Reynolds and Field are both so likable, however, that we want them to get together as badly as they do — and the film lets them find a way that feels real, even when everything else around them is kooky and over the top.

East Bound And Down

Burt Reynolds did have some help to make him look good. Sally Field was as perfect a co-star as you could find. And Jerry Reed, as Bandit’s truck-driving partner Cledus “Snowman” Snow, feels like someone Reynolds has been friends with forever. We don’t need complicated backstory about their characters; the way they interact, and a few lines of dialogue, fills it all in.

Then there’s the music. Reed performs a few songs for the movie, but ‘East Bound and Down,’ which is heard several times, does a lot of heavy lifting. The good-natured and upbeat jangle constantly reinforces the idea of the plot (“we’re gonna do what they say can’t be done”) while the irrepressible banjo playing soundtracks Reynolds’s grinning derring-do.

As good as the songs are, Smokey and the Bandit could be a hit as a silent movie. That Burt Reynolds grin, combined with his capable physicality and trend-setting style, is all any movie could need.

Smokey and the Bandit is playing in AMC theatres through September 20.