“The audience will always forgive you for being wrong and exciting, but never for being right and dull.” — Burt Reynolds

A couple of years ago, during a lengthy conversation about many different stars, Mitchell and I discussed Burt Reynolds. I recorded the whole thing. It was a game we played: I would throw a name at Mitchell, ask him to boil the person down into one word, and then elaborate. Here’s the transcript of the Burt Reynolds conversation. I knew it would be good and insightful – because it’s Mitchell – but our chat surpassed my wildest dreams.


SHEILA: One word.

MITCHELL: Charisma.

Burt Reynolds had that thing that you can’t define. He was likeable. In a way, he’s sort of like the stars of today, who are learning to act on our time. They’re beautiful so they get some movie roles, and then we have to suffer through watching them learn to act if we choose to see movies that they’re in. Burt Reynolds was like that. He was so physical and so he could start in Westerns and those sorts of things, it didn’t require that much acting, but he could sit and he could study and he could watch. Burt Reynolds did one of those little TCM bios about Spencer Tracy.

MF: Spencer Tracy was his idol, his ideal. You never caught Spencer Tracy acting. Burt Reynolds was one of those people who took his charisma and took his opportunity and then became an actor. My favorite performance of his is in Starting Over with Jill Clayburgh. I think he’s wonderful in it. It was written by James L. Brooks, and Alan Pakula directed it. My point is that Burt Reynolds took his charisma and learned how to act. He took it seriously, he wanted to be good at it, and he did it. He was good in Deliverance, he was good in Starting Over.

I know we both hate the expression “guilty pleasure” but a movie that I love that isn’t great is him and Goldie Hawn in Best Friends.

The thing I want to say about Burt Reynolds has less to do with acting and it has to do with the way that he was as a person and it has to do with the kind of men that I have in my life. You know, I love a dude. I love a guy who’s a guy and is a big goofball of a guy.

MF: Look at David. Pat and Sam and all the guys in my life. They’re dudes. And Burt Reynolds was such a dude, and other dudes loved him, and dudes wanted to hang out with him, and yet one of his best friends for his entire life was Charles Nelson Reilly so he’s also the kind of dude that I like, who is not a homophobe, in a world where it would have been very easy for him to be one. This is part of Burt Reynolds’ personality that I have always really liked. I think that shifted as he got older.

My favorite Burt Reynolds was when he used to be on Carson. I have this whole thing about people who have the ability to be a talk show guest.

SOM: It’s like Neil Patrick Harris doing a magic trick on Jimmy Fallon.

MF: Yes. Neil Patrick Harris has it, Hugh Jackman has it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has it. They have a charisma that shines through, they have a personality. They have prepared something smart and a schtick and something that’s going to be cool to listen to, not like Robert Pattinson who is boring and feels like he has to pretend to have lucked into a movie career, which I think is bullshit. Or Kristen Stewart who has the personality of wet toilet paper, although I think she was good as Joan Jett. Talk shows now are all about selling a product and my point is that Burt Reynolds had that thing where he was so funny “on the couch”.

MF: I want more people to be funny “on the couch” today. He had that stupid laugh, he was rakish, he used that persona, he used it in the Smokey and the Bandit movies. Charles Nelson Reilly and Dom DeLuise were his best friends? I mean, that’s fucking funny.

SOM: And he and Cary Grant were very good friends. They would go to the track, and do the guy things, but Grant also advised him on how to be a movie star, certainly.

MF: And then something happened. His personal life took over. When the tabloid era really kicked in, and he split with Loni Anderson, we ended up knowing too much about him and he seemed a little bit bitter, like time had passed him by. And then he got sick, people thought he was dying of AIDS, but it turns out he had this whole issue with his jaw and he couldn’t eat.

MF: It’s a little bit like that Lanford Wilson play, Serenading Louie. There’s nothing worse than an aging high school jock. I think he sort of let that get the better of him. I am sure he is a very charming man but there’s a desperation there that is the flip side of charisma.

SOM: The anxiety of losing your looks.

MF: P.T. Anderson gave him that amazing gift of Boogie Nights and he was so good in that.

MF: In Boogie Nights, Burt Reynolds is the fully realized potential of everything he had in his entire career. He’s masculine, he has a gravitas that goofy Burt Reynolds as a kid didn’t have, except for his size and his sheer athleticism, but he was also very warm, very real. He became a patriarch. And it’s a shame that there weren’t more opportunities to follow that up. It would have been interesting to have Burt Reynolds to do something like a television show. LIke Sally Field doing Brothers and Sisters. She can occasionally be in a movie and be very effective, but she’s also very effective on TV. Burt Reynolds had that sitcom, and it was all charm and charisma. It wasn’t the greatest show in the world, but he was very good.

SOM: He was the biggest male star in the world for …

MF: A big chunk of the 70s.

SOM: Kim Morgan interviewed the four stars of Deliverance. The first thing Burt Reynolds said was:

I’d also like to mention…as Ronny has said too… that women get this movie much quicker than men. Women also understand. You know, for so many years men threw the word rape around and never thought about what they were saying. And I think the picture makes men think about something that’s very important, that we understand the pain and embarrassment and the change of people’s lives.

That’s a huge admission, I think.

MF: I think it is too. In some way, it says a lot about his persona, when he was younger, because he was very attractive. He was famously in the first famous cougar relationship. He dated Dinah Shore for many years. He was with Dinah Shore, who was his elder, and very beautiful and very famous and very respected and was in everybody’s living room every day. And on some level he was seen a little bit as a Boy Toy. But he was so confident in his masculinity and his sexuality, he didn’t sweat that. You never heard him apologizing for being on the arm of this older beautiful woman.

MF: It also makes you think what a hottie she was, too. Dinah Shore and Burt Reynolds in the 70s? You go get it, girl. She was even more wholesome than Doris Day because she didn’t have the chance to play any roles, she just really was this cheery beautiful woman who aged gracefully in front of us and scored the hottest hunk in Hollywood. The original cougar was Dinah Shore. Forget it.

SOM: One of the things I love about him is I always got the sense that he loved women. Not just as sex partners, but he thought they were hilarious and adorable and fun to be around. He got to be the person he wanted to be most with women.

MF: It’s interesting, right, because the male companions we know that he hung out with were not the most masculine of fellows. Charles Nelson Reilly and Dom DeLuise.

SOM: A lot of young male stars, who are on that sex symbol level now, have a difficult time relating to women, at least onscreen. I think it’s partly because women don’t have the place in films that they had when Burt Reynolds was coming up. Like, he had to get it up for Jill Clayburgh, he had to get it up for Goldie Hawn. These were powerful contenders on the screen. He would have been a wonderful screwball star in the 30s. There is nothing more awesome than a gorgeous guy who doesn’t give a shit and falls on his face.

MF: That’s true of William Powell and Cary Grant and so many of them.

SOM: It’s when John Wayne gets to be befuddled with Katharine Hepburn … “this woman is TORMENTING ME” – and because it’s John Wayne – yes, there is that male privilege thing that can be annoying – but we get to relax because we get to see John Wayne crack a little bit, and that’s always good. That’s what we want to see of these really powerful male stars.

MF: Glimpses of their vulnerability. I do think Burt Reynolds is one of those people, though, who did not always make good choices. Doing Lucky Lady with Liza, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Or doing At Long Last Love with Peter Bogdanovich. He often missed out. He’d be like, “That’s a good director, Liza Minnelli is Liza” and Lucky Lady did not work out, know what I mean? In between his successes, were a lot of dismal choices.

He often succeeded when he was the lead and he was a rogue. Smokey and the Bandit, Semi-Tough, The Longest Yard, Cannonball Run – as stupid as that movie is. His duet with Dolly Parton in Best Little Whorehouse. They are so adorable together, I don’t even care the movie is bad.

MF: And in the movie she sings “I Will Always Love You” to him, which, of course, is perfect.

SOM: He’s wonderful with very feminine women.

MF: Goldie Hawn, Candice Bergen, Dolly Parton. Yes, you’re right.

SOM: He’s very good with Ladies.

MF: It’s that Robert Redford thing with his female co-stars. Reynolds isn’t standing in Dolly’s way. He’s letting Dolly be powerful, so he looks even more manly and successful.

You know who I think today has the Burt Reynolds charm is Ryan Reynolds, and it’s not just because I saw him do Celebrity Autobiography, and he read Burt Reynolds’s autobiography and he did a brilliant Burt Reynolds imitation. Ryan Reynolds read Burt, Sherri Shepherd read Loni Anderson, and Rachel Dratch read Burt Reynolds’ assistant. Ryan Reynolds did it AS Burt Reynolds. It was twofold: A, that was brilliant and his last name is Reynolds. But also, Ryan Reynolds walked into this very small space that this show takes place in. And Ryan Reynolds the movie star walks in, and he had to walk in through a very tight crowd from the back of the house because there’s no backstage. His charisma, his sexual charisma, his athleticism, his muscles, made the room blush.

MF: You can feel the sexual charisma of Burt Reynolds. And Ryan Reynolds has that. He also has that thing where he is very masculine, but also funny and self-deprecating, and also very charming with women.

SOM: I’ve enjoyed him very much. I like him in interviews too. He’s got some miles on him. He’s been around.

MF: And he’s done a lot of work already.

This is a total tangent. One of my favorite things as a kid was a very short-lived sitcom. It starred Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard. It was called The Mothers-In-Law.

MF: It was very short-lived and my brother and I loved it so much and there’s an episode of it on right now. Eve Arden’s daughter married Kay Ballard’s son. They live next door to each other and so they are constantly trying to meddle in their kids’ lives, and getting into trouble. It’s very Lucy and Ethel. These two brilliant comediennes. I haven’t seen it 30-something years and there are four episodes on today. Eve Arden is another interesting character. She set a precedent that people are still trying to reach. There’s a high watermark in her comic delivery that has yet to be matched. It’s the lost art of delivering the one line with a withering look and a gesture and an exit. Exemplified in Mildred Pierce.

MF: You want to study comic timing? Watch Eve Arden.

SOM: It’s deceptively simple. Otherwise more people would do it.

MF: You can’t really catch her doing it. It has to do with so many things that people take for granted now. Like, the study of voice. Back then, you didn’t even get famous unless you had a voice. She started out in radio, she studied. She worked on the freeing of her natural voice that the Brits do so brilliantly. For example, if I were to play for you tape recordings with your eyes closed, of James Mason, Vivien Leigh, Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, you could tell me who they were instantly. This isn’t true of some of our best American actors. Nobody sounded like Eve Arden. She had her own show, a very successful radio and television show for years where she played the school teacher – Miss Brooks – and it was the misadventures of this lady who was unlucky in love but everybody loved her.

SOM: I just love these people who are in it for the long haul. That’s a casualty of being someone like Burt Reynolds. It’s not that I think he wasn’t in it for the long haul, but becoming that big a star is going to be a challenge for anyone, obviously.

MF: It’s almost easier for someone like Eve Arden to have a late-in-the-game success. Because she wasn’t so famous. One of the very few major movie stars who is continuing to do really interesting work is Catherine Deneuve because she is not denying what made her a movie star in the first place.

SOM: And that was what was interesting in how P.T. Anderson used Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, or used Tom Cruise in Magnolia. This is what the old studios used to do so brilliantly which we don’t do so much now: casting people because of what they remind us of. It’s like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. We bring to it so much emotion already and he’s messing with the persona, but also deepening it. It’s been a whole second wave of his career. And for Burt Reynolds, that didn’t happen. Of course he was a sex symbol in a way that Bill Murray wasn’t. And it’s very challenging to grow old as a sex symbol.

MF: I think he did get caught up in that. The whole idea of using people for their persona: It’s not the greatest movie although it is a very successful movie, but when Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand did Meet the Fockers. I can take or leave that movie, but their scenes in the movie is why that movie worked.

MF: And part of it is that we are bringing to it our emotions about them both. We are excited to see her, we are excited to see him. It’s Benjamin from The Graduate and it’s Tootsie and it’s Funny Girl, and it can be very very effective. The movie itself, blah blah, but that’s an example of how that can work. Figure it out, Hollywood.

SOM: It’s hard because film captures you in time. There are very few men who are as gorgeous as Burt Reynolds was during his prime. In Deliverance, the vest with the arms. When you’re captured at your prime on film like that, you have to have, I imagine, some sense of courage to get up there when you don’t look like that anymore. Because people are vicious. And I don’t know Burt Reynolds, obviously, but perhaps that is painful for him.

MF: With all of his charisma and confidence, and I don’t mean this in a stereotypical way, but I’m saying it in a stereotypical way to make a point, I think he does suffer from a woman’s vanity. He’s suffering from the same thing that has happened to the women of that era. Google pictures of him right now. He has had so much surgery. He is seemingly suffering from a level of vanity about his looks that is, for better or for worse, very feminine.

He was a sex symbol. He was a transition for us as well in how we viewed men and their sexuality. Men now are so happy to be objectified. Ewan McGregor‘s like, “Look at my cock” and all of the Twilight boys are like, “I will be shirtless til the day I die”, whereas men didn’t used to do that so much in the same way back then. But Burt Reynolds was the transition. He did that whole Cosmopolitan spread where all he did was cover his dick.

MF: There’s his hairy gorgeous body. That was a big deal. Men didn’t set themselves up in that cheesecake way. It’s a cheesecake photo as opposed to a beefcake photo. I mean, you can see his pubic hair in that Cosmo spread. Robert Mitchum was not showing his pubic hair.

SOM: And we are all the poorer for it.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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12 Responses to “The audience will always forgive you for being wrong and exciting, but never for being right and dull.” — Burt Reynolds

  1. Trav S.D. says:

    Great conversation, guys! As another example of his good work, I was shocked at how much I liked “The Longest Yard”..I found it surprisingly substantive, and Reynolds was great in it. (Even what might be thought of as a relatively light comedy tended to be more substantial than movies are today.) And Reynolds was capable of excellent acting, especially when he had a director who was enough of a heavyweight to wrestle him into a performance. As you say — he already had charisma, no need to gild the lily by winking at the camera all the time!

    • sheila says:

      Trav – thanks!

      I love The Longest Yard too!

      // he already had charisma, no need to gild the lily by winking at the camera all the time! //

      That’s a great point.

      This seems to be especially true in the romances – like Starting Over or Best Friends or Best Little Whorehouse – things where he’s a Leading Man. He could be so charming – and it was so effortless for him – those movies just let him be that. He could “just” (nothing “just” about it) show up, and step into the story. He was gorgeous but he also seemed like a real guy.

      Also thank God for his sense of humor. And that he never seemed to take himself too seriously.

  2. Trav S.D. says:

    and “The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing”! seen that one?

  3. gina in alabama says:

    I thought he was amazing in Boogie Nights and given the opportunity I will still go on at length about the great unmade film where he should have portrayed the mature Hemingway in the 1950s before the sadness and the head trauma that ultimately led to his suicide. Burt had the reflective reach and the physicality for the role, and he could have been so amazing as the aging superstar he-man artist. But it never happened except in my mind.

    • sheila says:

      // I will still go on at length about the great unmade film where he should have portrayed the mature Hemingway in the 1950s before the sadness and the head trauma that ultimately led to his suicide. //

      Wow. What an incredible idea.

  4. John Doherty says:

    God, I look forward to these smart conversations. Thank you.
    John Doherty

  5. Melissa Sutherland says:

    MF: Robert Mitchum was not showing his pubic hair.

    SOM: And we are all the poorer for it.

    God, you two are FUNNY!

  6. Bill Wolfe says:

    Off the top of my head, I’d add Shamus and Breaking In to the list of Burt’s good ‘uns. The former is pure early Seventies in look and feel, and offers another strong woman co-star in Dyan Cannon, while the latter puts him in a role that lets him play the patriarch figure to a younger thief. (It also gave Burt a chance to work with a notable director in Bill Forsythe.) And, while it may or may not be a great movie, I’m fond of The Last Movie Star just because it’s such a sweet farewell to and from Burt.

    • sheila says:

      I’m very fond of Last Movie Star too. He really deserved that kind of retrospective. I’m glad he survived to enjoy that success – all the screenings and QAs and everything.

  7. Scott Abraham says:

    I made the mistake of reading up too much of his biography and such which was a bit sad. One of his good friends said Burt never passed up a chance to shoot himself in the foot which put a lot of things in perspective. I’m glad we got Boogie Nights and Last Movie Star from him in spite of all that.

    Definitely a variation on ‘Never meet your heroes’.

    • sheila says:

      Being a male sex symbol of that magnitude in that era was … a new phenomenon. He owned it. He basically invented it. And so there really weren’t models for him to follow – Cary Grant tried to guide him – but Grant stepped away from his career – he didn’t want to be the old guy in the movie – even though audiences would have accepted it! I think a little bit of Burt’s flailing is understandable because … where exactly do you GO if you’re a male sex symbol like he was? But when he was at the top, he occupied that spot with ease and self-deprecation – to this day there’s been no better late night guest!

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