Happy Birthday, Burt Reynolds: “My love is unironic.”

I will always be glad that I was assigned to review The Last Movie Star (2018), Reynolds’ final film, because it meant I got to pay tribute to him – not just his performance in the movie, but to HIM IN GENERAL – while he was still with us. So often I write about people who are already dead. But it’s wonderful to pay tribute to people while they are still here. I put my heart into that review. Not every review requires it. But that one – and Reynolds – I felt, did. Don’t just write off the film. Don’t focus on what’s wrong. In so doing, you are rejecting the enormous gift of a man like Burt Reynolds. He’s a figure who deserved – and deserves – serious critical appreciation … and if you DIS Last Movie Star and then write a heartfelt obit when he dies a couple of months later … well, okay, you do you. But I judge you for missing what’s really important. Here we were, with a film designed for him, written for him, prioritizing him, placing him at the center. Stop being so goddamned stingy.

Who in their right mind would look that gift horse in the mouth? Turns out, many critics did. And my heartfelt review brought me so many emails, some of the nicest emails I’ve ever received. I share this not to say “Look how great I am” but to say “Look at how much Burt Reynolds mattered to people that they would write me emails like this.” That’s what matters.

Here’s my review of The Last Movie Star over at Ebert.

I’m going to share an email I received about my review. I’ve removed the name of the sender. It’s the most extraordinary email I’ve ever received, and I’ve received some truly amazing letters – but this email speaks to the love people have for Mr. Reynolds. This person wrote it to me after seeing the film, so Reynolds was still alive, and out there promoting the film still. This person wrote to me in frustration with the other reviews, with critics who were dismissive of the film, treating it as not worth their serious attention. This person was CORRECT to be irritated by that.

I just saw “The Last Movie Star” and was in tears I was so overwhelmed and moved. I read your review yesterday and was just floored. It was absolutely wonderful to read. I read it after being wildly frustrated by Ben Kenisberg’s review. Sure, he doesn’t have to like Burt Reynolds or the movie, but he wrote like he didn’t give a crap and I was so put off by his laziness and by the Times for publishing such crap. It’s disheartening as a fellow writer and lover of film, and for sure, as a lover of Burt Reynolds. Your writing not only told your audience you give a crap, but that you care about the context, you care about the bigger meaning, you took the time to share the wonderful and profound and ridiculous nuances in the film, in Burt’s career.

I met him a couple weeks ago after a screening of Deliverance and I grew up with him but when I got to meet him I found that I was so overwhelmed. It’s like not until that moment did I even understand how much his Joie de vivre and the joy of that laugh and how it brought my family together—it’s like it wasn’t until that moment that I registered that impact. I told him how much I loved his work and that I grew up with him, and the man took my hand in his and kissed me on the cheek. It was one of the most magical moments in my life.

Some friends think I’m kidding around because I am still talking about him, but my love is unironic. And I can even see how someone reading this could think I’m nuts. But I can see the bigger pieces, the indelible stuff that is larger than life, that is life.

I don’t know why at 35 all of this is hitting me so intensely now, and I type this rapidly on the subway because your writing, your review, it’s life, it’s the dirt, the sun, the rain, the wind, the scent, the sky, it’s the plants getting trampled and starting over, it’s blooming, the ebb and flow of the seasons. It so movingly captures and shares the film’s essence, his essence, and the fact that you give a shit.

Let me tell you something. I hear from a lot of people. I hear from Cary Grant fans, Elvis fans, John Wayne fans, Kristen Stewart fans, because of this or that thing I’ve written. Many wonderful emails from passionate fans, who really really care about the thing that they love.

But that email about Reynolds? That’s something else entirely. And it speaks to what I was getting at in the review: the love of him was something unique to him, and something far far more intense and passionate than “admiration” for his talent, or “appreciation” of his acting. It was HIM. People loved HIM. PERSONALLY. As I wrote: agents and marketing people and studios wish they could figure out a way to manufacture what Burt Reynolds had. They try. They fail. Because what he brought to the table was his and his alone. It can’t be manufactured.

Nobody said it better. Happy birthday, Burt.

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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4 Responses to Happy Birthday, Burt Reynolds: “My love is unironic.”

  1. Larry A. says:

    Mine, too. And once the man has shaken your hand, introduced you to his dog, asked your opinion of John Barrymore and clapped you on the back, well, it doesn’t get much better…

    • sheila says:

      It doesn’t get much better at all! I’ve always loved your articles on him, Larry.

      I would love to have heard your conversation on John Barrymore! How interesting!!

  2. Bill Wolfe says:

    This is a lovely letter. Thank you for sharing it.

    It’s not that I took Reynolds for granted when I was growing up, it’s just that he was always THERE – on Carson, in the movie theaters, the biggest star going all through my teen years in the 1970s. It wasn’t until he hit on some hard times through the 1980s that I realized how much I’d enjoyed him and how much I missed the joy he brought to the world in his salad days. That’s why I was so happy when Boogie Nights finally gave him the role he’d always deserved.

    • sheila says:

      Bill –

      // It wasn’t until he hit on some hard times through the 1980s that I realized how much I’d enjoyed him and how much I missed the joy he brought to the world in his salad days. //

      Yes! It’s kinda like you don’t know what you have til it’s gone. It’s so refreshing – a sex symbol with a sense of humor about himself. I do think at a certain point he lost that sense of humor about himself – for a while. Things got weird there for a decade or so. It can’t be easy to be an aging sex symbol!

      I loved that he got a chance to reflect on all of this in Last Movie Star – he actually got to SIT with his own fame and think about it – in front of us.

      and yes – Boogie Nights was so exciting!

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