WHITE LIGHTNING (1973) & GATOR (1976) When it comes to Burt Reynolds’ good ol’ boy persona, the films that instantly spring to mind are Smokey & The Bandit and its sequel. When you boil it down, however, they’re kind of like the milder, less raucous country cousins of White Lightning and Gator, two bona fide backroads belters that showcase Reynolds at his funny, macho, hard-driving best as Gator McKlusky, an ex-con who throws in with the local law to take down (in the first film) a moonshine ring and (in the Reynolds-directed sequel) a protection racket. Sexy and tough, McKlusky is a great Reynolds hero, and he’d probably have a lot more traction today if the actor hadn’t supplanted his own good self with his indelible performances as the somewhat similar Bo “Bandit” Darville. “Gator was a criminal and a felon, but he had a good heart…he’s probably a cousin to Bo,” Reynolds said in 2016.
THE END (1978) What do you do after you’ve established yourself as the seeming embodiment of the idealised American male in films like The Longest Yard, White Lightning, Gator, Smokey & The Bandit, Deliverance, and Semi-Tough? Well, if you’re Burt Reynolds, you direct and star in The End, an off-the-wall black comedy about a real estate huckster who looks for a painless way out when he’s diagnosed with an incurable disease. That’s right, this largely forgotten 1978 flick sees tough guy, Burt Reynolds, playing a man unwilling to fight, and who can’t even succeed when it comes to killing himself. Yes, there’s a shift at the film’s climax, but for much of its duration, this is far from the Burt Reynolds that had won over the world’s movie audiences. Rarely spoken of today, The End is biting, uncompromising, and very funny, and a fine example of an actor going wildly against the grain.
STARTING OVER (1979) “Without my trademark moustache, I played my part closer to the real me than I’d ever done before,” Burt Reynolds writes of his 1979 film, Starting Over, in his autobiography, My Life. Directed (in a major change of pace) by Alan J. Pakula (Klute, All The President’s Men) and scripted by the great James L. Brooks (who would later go on to direct Terms Of Endearment, for which he would create the role of former astronaut, Garrett Breedlove, specifically for Reynolds, who had to turn it down due to scheduling conflicts, whereupon he was replaced by Jack Nicholson), Starting Over features Reynolds in one of his most “normal” roles, playing everyman, Phil Potter, who is perilously caught between an unhappy marriage with Candice Bergen (!) and an affair with Jill Clayburgh, then hot off the major hit, An Unmarried Woman, which was an obvious influence on this rarely mentioned little charmer.
SHARKY’S MACHINE (1981) One of Reynolds’ five big screen directorial efforts, Sharky’s Machine is a grim and gritty 1980s cop flick of the first order. While he keeps the action lean and mean from behind the camera, Reynolds is superb in front of it, breathing true life into the character of Sharky, an undercover narcotics cop who gets busted down to the vice squad, where he is charged with surveilling a hooker called Dominoe (a fine turn from Rachel Ward), who is mixed up in a major crime conspiracy. Sharky eventually falls for the mysterious call girl, but things don’t pan out in the way that you might expect. Jamming his cast with top-tier character actors (Brian Keith, Charles Durning, Bernie Casey, Earl Holliman, Henry Silva), and stoking a mesmerising slow-burn, Sharky’s Machine makes you wish that Reynolds had directed more often.
BREAKING IN (1989) Written by the great John Sayles (City Of Hope, Matewan) and directed by low-key British wonder, Bill Forsyth (Local Hero, Gregory’s Girl), Breaking In was quietly touted upon its release as the first film in which the then 53-year-old Reynolds was “playing his age”, and there was even mild talk of a possible Oscar nomination for the actor. But the film pretty much sank without a trace, and Reynolds had to wait until Boogie Nights to get a real sniff of Academy Award gold. Reynolds is slyly funny and utterly engaging in this warm comedy as Ernie Mullins, a veteran house burglar who takes gormless young thief, Mike Lafebb (Casey Siemaszko), under his wing. Now largely forgotten, Breaking In is one of Reynolds’ sweetest and most endearing efforts.
CITIZEN RUTH (1996) A pitch black comedy about a glue-sniffing screw-up (gloriously played by Laura Dern) who finds herself caught in the middle of a war of words being waged between the equally rabid ideological armies of the activists for and against abortion, Citizen Ruth is a typically biting and acerbic work from Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, About Schmidt). It also features a brilliant comedic turn from Burt Reynolds, just a year prior to his much heralded comeback in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. As he so often did during his richly diverse career (on camera and off), Reynolds ingeniously deflates his relentlessly macho persona as Blaine Gibbons, a conservative pro-life activist who also happens to be well and truly in the closet.
OTHER LESSER KNOWN BURT REYNOLDS BIG SCREEN WINNERS: FUZZ (1972), SHAMUS (1973), THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING (1973), HUSTLE (1975), A BUNCH OF AMATUERS (2008)