Burt Reynolds's films, on the surface, address a particularly Southern, regional, audience. But movie stardom, like a successful presidential campaign, expands from its regional stronghold across the entire map. Reynolds the movie star temporally and culturally bridges the period from Nixon to Reagan so perfectly by representing the changing orientation of American identity, not just in terms of ideology—the reddening of America—but also in terms of physical space—the key region, its weather, architecture, and urbanization. Yet critical respect and Reynolds are near strangers to each other. Despite the fact that, by many measures, Reynolds was the most important movie star of the 1970s , indeed one of the most significant stars in Hollywood history, his work and his career have rarely received careful attention. This is a mistake. Reynolds' movies brought to artistic realization a crucial social and political transformation in the postwar U.S. Both his extraordinary success in the 1970s and his critical neglect since are symptomatic of this momentous transformation. Reynolds brought America the New South. Once the region came, during the Reagan era, to seem merely representative of the American nation as a whole, Reynolds' cultural relevance was over.
Stanley Cavell, in trying to understand changes in comedies of remarriage from their apogee in the 1930s to the 1970s, claims that,
I believe An Unmarried Woman is generally thought to be a better film than Starting Over, the comparison invited by the presence in both of Jill Clayburgh as the female lead. I think the reason for that opinion is a reluctance on the part of people of a certain cultivation to see how charming and perceptive a leading man Burt Reynolds can be, when not cast as a good old boy. 1
Cavell moves straight into an analysis of Kramer vs. Kramer, and Reynolds doesn't make another appearance in the book. Academic film criticism's reluctance to look at Reynolds appears in a standard MLA Bibliography subject search: "Burt Reynolds" gets one hit. Other 1970s movie stars-turned-directors have garnered more critical attention: Clint Eastwood gets 195 hits, Robert Redford 23, and Barbara Streisand 11.
Cavell's somewhat tossed-off line about how academic criticism treated/treats/would treat Reynolds describes perfectly the way Paul Young, in Fifty Key American Films, invokes his hometown theater's extended run of Smokey and the Bandit (1977), a run that squeezed out any chance of showing Star Wars. 2 Young uses this anecdote to describe the incredibly unhip nature of his home town. However, it was in no way weird for the good people at Centerville, Iowa's Majestic Theater to keep playing Smokey and the Bandit because Burt Reynolds was a gigantic movie star in 1977, with a track record of recent success that sci-fi could not match. 3 Stars, Richard Dyer reminds us in Heavenly Bodies, "are made for profit. In terms of the market, stars are part of the way films are sold." 4 Reynolds was one of the top ten box office draws every year between 1973 and 1982, inclusive. Reynolds sold tickets to a lot of people for an extended period of time—and not just in backwater burgs like Centerville, Iowa (or my two-screens-in-1977 home town, Carpentersville, Illinois).
But there's more to a movie star—and there's more to Burt Reynolds—than box office success. "The star's presence in a film," Dyer continues, "is a promise of a certain kind of thing that you would see if you went to see the film." 5 On this score, Burt Reynolds, movie star, emerges as the most significant movie star of the 1970s because his films alone consistently represent a certain kind of thing, a thing that you will not see in almost any other film of the era (and in no other star's oeuvre): the contemporary American South. In other words, Reynolds's hits—the films on which his stardom was predicated—continually return to the region where population and economic growth solidified national, political, and cultural power throughout the 1970s.
Dismissing Reynolds as just another good old boy means that he and his films don't show up in introductory-level film text books—David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's Film Art has no mention of Reynolds, nor does Paul Monaco's How to Read a Film. In cinema history, Reynolds has a greatly reduced profile. The decade-spanning Hollywood Reborn: Movie Stars on the 1970s, has a chapter on Divine, but not one on Reynolds; History of the American Cinema's 1970-1979 volume makes a few brief mentions of Reynolds, but nothing longer than one sentence. It's quite curious that Susan Jeffords's Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era does not mention Reynolds at all—even though he was a box office champ and a sex symbol who posed for a centerfold in Cosmopolitan. Taking Burt Reynolds seriously reveals Hollywood coming to terms with the changing center of gravity for American identity and moving toward a greater investment—narrative and institutional—in the South. In the history of Hollywood cinema from New Hollywood through the early years of the age of the blockbuster, few figures, if any, can match Reynolds's underappreciated and long-lasting cultural significance.
With Reynolds, Hollywood could pursue its own Southern Strategy. Data visualization of the narrative locations (not the shooting locations) of films released between 1970 and 1981 demonstrates that, for box office hits, the American South takes two forms: the past, and Burt Reynolds's playground (Fig.1). Although the South has often been represented on film as rural, agrarian, hillbilly, and racially segregated, Reynolds's films take place in an urbanized/suburbanized South that is a taken-for-granted political and economic force moving slowly out of its fraught past. Amongst seventies and early eighties films, this changing way of life appears almost exclusively in Reynolds's films, and their consistent national success places him at the center of the United States's changing geography. Burt Reynolds quite literally resides in the heart of the emerging cultural trends of 1970s American—the cultural reddening fed by the rapidly increasing population of the south, generated by the generally non-union Sunbelt economy—that were the products of a geographic shift in the nation's political and cultural center of gravity.
The South and the Past on Film
It seems an oversimplification, but for the most part, for the South on film, the past is rural and the present is urban-suburban. In Dreaming of Dixie, Karen Cox looks at representations of the South through the end of World War II in
various forms of popular culture that were part of people's everyday lives and experiences—advertising, music, literature, movies, and radio shows. What I found was that regardless of the medium the image of the American south was consistent. Southern belles and gentlemen, mammies and uncles, white columned mansions, fields of cotton, and literally, moonlight and magnolias were employed to suggest Dixie. 6
The films Cox engages span 1915 to 1941, including Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone with the Wind (1939), Shirley Temple's The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel (both 1935), the predominantly African-American-cast films Hearts in Dixie (1929) and Hallelujah (1929), as well as hillbilly films like Puddin' Head (1941) and Sis Hopkins (1941), and their belles, gentlemen, mammies, uncles, white-columned mansions, fields of cotton, moonlight and magnolia combine to identify the South as the rural past. While the 1970s present the challenge of a change in approach to film distribution after the Jaws-driven switch from regional book and road shows to saturation wide release, the top-20 box office hits throughout the decade present a consistent picture of the rural pastness of the South.
Between 1970 and 1981, hit movies with a narrative set in the South tend not to deviate from this past-rural/present-urban tendency (Fig. 2). To run quickly through the hits: Song of the South (1946, re-released in 1972) is set in antebellum Georgia, on a plantation. Sounder (1972) is set in the early 1930s, on a sharecropping farm in fictional Landsdown, Louisiana. Lady Sings the Blues (1972) flashes back to the 1950s South. Ode to Billy Joe (1976) is set in 1953, in rural Choctaw Ridge, Mississippi. The Godfather: Part II (1974) is set, among other places, in 1958 Miami. Mid-seventies Southsploitation hit Walking Tall (1975) takes place during the mid-sixties, in rural McNairy County, Tennessee. Lenny (1974) and Coal Miner's Daughter (1980) are biopics, by definition a backward-looking genre. Lenny spends some time in 1960s Miami while Coal Miner's Daughter's path-to-success narrative carries Loretta Lynn out of one rural South and into another. The film's end credits re-narrate Loretta Lynn's life story in terms of location. The film begins in 1950s coal mining Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, then heads to rural Washington state, then, with Loretta's success, makes a stop at the Grand Ole Opry in 1960s Nashville, Tennessee, but leaves the city pretty quickly for the open spaces of the road on Loretta's tour bus throughout the 1970s. The end product of all this effort is the Double-L Ranch in rural Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. Thus we see in these films a vision of the South as a predominantly rural-small-town place located temporally, at best, in the recent present.
When the contemporary South appeared in a hit film without Burt Reynolds, it was likely to have either a tourist focus or a rural weigh-station setting (Fig. 3). The two Bond films Live and Let Die (1973) and Moonraker (1979) treat New Orleans and Cape Canaveral with the tourist vision common to Bond films. A group of New England friends vacation in rural Virginia in The Four Seasons (1981). Airport '77 (1977) holds out hope for getting to a tourist-destination museum near Miami, but spends much of its time under the water in the Bermuda Triangle. Both The Jerk (1979) and The Muppet Movie (1979) begin in the South before fortune-seeking elsewhere. The brief time Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) spends in Fairhope, Alabama doesn't stick in your mind like Devil's Rock, Wyoming; the same can be said for Deep Throat's (1971) Miami and Fort Lauderdale settings. Little Darlings (1980), sets its coming of age narrative in a rural Georgia summer camp. Brubaker (1980) spends most of its time in a rural Arkansas prison farm, and Stripes (1981) is set on a fictionalized Fort Knox-like Army base that prepares the boys for duty in Czechoslovakia. All the President's Men (1976) takes place in the northern Virginia suburbs, but its one extended shot of non-monumental exteriors echoes an earlier shot of the Library of Congress reading room—reinforcing the film's "claustrophobia" and interest in the things hidden in interiors rather than the "impossible vision of totality" in exteriors. 7 Only two non-Reynolds hit films between 1970 and 1981 are set almost entirely in a contemporary urban South setting—the Sidney Poitier-Bill Cosby caper Let's Do It Again (1975), set in Atlanta and New Orleans, and the Paul Newman vehicle Absence of Malice (1981) set in Miami. All told, of those fourteen box office successes, nine explicitly engage the contemporary urbanized South that had become home to more than sixty percent of its population. Burt Reynolds, between 1970 and 1981, starred in six films set in the contemporary urbanized South all on his own—with no Southern period pieces to link him to the region's past.
Burt Reynolds in the Contemporary South
In terms of box office success, Reynolds has few peers in 1970s American cinema. Mapping the narrative locations of Reynolds's catalog of box office hits reveals the geographical territory of his stardom and cultural importance and, it bears noting, also makes visible the quite politically significant southward drift of the national center of gravity (Fig. 4). Industry-centric Quigley Publishing, publisher of International Motion Picture Almanac, places Reynolds at number two in "All Time Number One Stars," tied with Bing Crosby, Clint Eastwood, and Tom Hanks, ahead of John Wayne and Robert Redford, and behind only Tom Cruise. Not every star has as clear a regional identity as Reynolds, and no major star before or since has been so identified with the South. Wayne is a distinctly Western star, Eastwood reached stardom through Westerns (then moved to San Francisco to become Dirty Harry), and Doris Day had a fair number of New York-set hits, but it is quite difficult to locate other top-ten performers like Cruise, Crosby, and Hanks. We can, however, locate where Cruise, Crosby, Hanks, and Day are not: the South. (The possible exception is Hanks in Forrest Gump, a case that deserves more attention than I can give it here.)
Burt Reynolds starred in six hits set in the South: Deliverance (1972), The Longest Yard (1974), Semi-Tough (1977), Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), and Sharky's Machine (1981). He also starred in a trio of region-spanning Southsploitation films, White Lightning (1973, Little Rock), WW and the Dixie Dancekings (1975, Nashville), and Gator (1976, Savannah). Cannonball Run (1981) shares a star, director, screenwriter, and genre, if not a location, with the Southern Smokeys, and Hooper (1978) transplants its Southern good ole boys into Hollywood stunt work. Derek Nystrom, in Hard Hats, Rednecks, and Macho Men: Class in 1970s American Cinema, identifies a "Southern cycle" in American film, invoking the historian James C. Cobb's assessment of the "crucial part played by Burt Reynolds's various 'good ole boys' roles' in recasting 'working class white southerners' as 'harmless, fun-loving, and well-intentioned.'" 8 For Nystrom the buried working-class politics of the Southern cycle are so strong that they overcome Reynolds's lack of political engagement:
[T]he films of this cycle, for all their conservative elements, were often powered by the radical energies of working-class militancy and solidaristic action as well. Even the apolitical Burt Reynolds defined the typical hero of his films as "a good ole boy who fights the system with dignity and, above all, a sense of humor." 9
Thus for Nystrom, a film can be politically complex where Reynolds cannot. Deliverance's "encounter and conflict between the hill people and the canoers can be read as the cinematic transcoding of the historical juncture between the civil rights era South and the Sunbelt that came to take the former's place in the national imaginary," while the "apolitical" Reynolds is simply along for the ride. 10 Yet even here, it is Reynolds's assertion of agency that marks the film's political pivot. It is his Lewis, after all, who takes decisive action when the hillbillies rape Bobby, intervening in the contemporary historical moment. In either case, Reynolds's films are compelling political documents, the very sort of thing major movie stars ought to produce.
Reynolds might have had his name above the title in Deliverance, but his career up to 1972 more often found him in supporting roles on television and westerns or the lead in low budget or exploitation films. After Deliverance, Reynolds was a big star. Whereas the "where you goin' city boy?" rapists represent the violent hillbilly Southerner we must leave behind, Reynolds embodies the type of Southerner who will carry the region and the national forward: a fairly forward-looking professional-managerial class type with roots in a different soil.
Five years after Deliverance, Reynolds made his first of many films with director Hal Needham, Smokey and the Bandit. Bandit opened the same week as Star Wars and took in $126 million at the box office by selling tickets to more than 56 million people, a quarter of the nation's population. Smokey and the Bandit was, in fact, a safer box office bet than Star Wars. As Quentin Tarantino says during his commentary track to True Romance:
When you listen to [Alabama's] answers to the questions, a little of them seem kind of like cool and retro but when I wrote it they weren't cool and—they were literally [. . .] [Clarence] says who's your favorite actor? And she says Burt Reynolds, alright? Well, Burt Reynolds was a big star when I wrote this script. You know, he was a star of the people—so it wasn't like this she was being all cool and retro, alright. 11
Reynolds later explained Smokey and the Bandit's (and his) trans-regional appeal in an interview with Film Comment:
People said to me, "Smokey and the Bandit will only work south of the Mason-Dixon line." It grossed $42 million in the South, before they even opened it anywhere else. Then they released it up North and it did $49 million. So they said, "Wait a minute. We underestimated the North." Well, we realized what were doing was underestimating the film. It's funny, and funny is funny. 12
Reynolds appears to claim that the Mason-Dixon line presented no obstacle to Smokey's merits as a piece of filmmaking. But his incredibly specific dollar amounts and timeline—to say nothing of the missing thirty-five million of the film's $126,000,000 take (one would guess from the Midwest and West)—address the still-not-solidified-in-1978 cultural prominence of the South. A hit movie sells lots of tickets by expanding its appeal beyond a niche audience, to a wider audience—from Florida, from Detroit (like True Romance's Alabama and Clarence, respectively), from Rancho Cucamonga. The same is true for a big movie star. Plenty of comedies get released every year, but a Burt Reynolds comedy promised certain kinds of things on top of the laughs—a different setting, and a new set of "Southern" cultural references on which some of the humor is based. That regional constellation would become simply "American" by the mid-1980s.
Deliverance, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Air Conditioning
In the 1970s the South experienced the greatest population growth in the nation while the northeast and Midwest barely grew at all. The 1970s' key regions were the declining Rust Belt and the ascendant Sun Belt, and their population changes spurred major economic and cultural shifts. In The Emerging Republican Majority (1969), Kevin Phillips, the architect of Nixon's Southern Strategy, described the post-1968 electoral landscape of this South-and-West-driven population expansion as "Unluck[y] for the Democrats, [because] their major impetus is centered in stagnant Northern industrial states [. . . .] Because of this demographic pattern, the South and West are gaining electoral votes and national power at the expense of the northeast [. . .] the northeast is steadily losing relative political importance to the Sun Belt." 13 But James Cobb reminds us that, "the migration patterns of the 1970s favored the South, but the numerical importance of this influx of new citizens was exaggerated. Without fast-growing Florida, 65.5 percent of the Sunbelt South's population growth in the first half of the 1970s would have been the result of natural increase." 14 Indeed, the electoral college vote change between 1940 and 1980 was, in fact, small. Even though the South (I include border state Kentucky) gained but one vote in the electoral college (four if we include Texas) before the 1980 election, the industrial Midwest, New England, New York, and Pennsylvania lost a combined twenty-four electoral votes. Such a swing meant far greater relative power for the South beyond the legislative branch.
But even before the South started to pick up presidents, the Federal government invested massive sums in the region in hopes of moving it out of its agrarian past and into the industrial present. I will offer three brief descriptions of factors in the South's growth after World War II. The first, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), was established in 1933. As the TVA's website tells the story,
Even by Depression standards, the Tennessee Valley was in sad shape in 1933 [. . . .] TVA built dams to harness the region's rivers. The dams controlled floods, improved navigation and generated electricity. TVA developed fertilizers, taught farmers how to improve crop yields and helped replant forests, control forest fires, and improve habitat for wildlife and fish. The most dramatic change in Valley life came from the electricity generated by TVA dams. Electric lights and modern appliances made life easier and farms more productive. Electricity also drew industries into the region, providing desperately needed jobs. 15
While the Rural Electrification Administration, established two years after the TVA, and the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 were concerned with bringing electricity to farms, the TVA was a far more comprehensive program, interested in not only electrification but also a general integration of technology into southern life, an approach made necessary by the region's relative poverty and underdevelopment: in 1930 the Southeast census region's per capita income was a mere 48% of the national average. By 1950, aided in no small part by the TVA, the region showed marked improvement, with per capita income growing to 67% of the national average. 16
All that government-generated electrical power enabled the increased spread of air conditioning throughout the region. Yet even as late as 1984, as Raymond Arsenault noted, "With few exceptions, historical works on the twentieth-century South published during the last forty years make no mention of air conditioning or, for that matter of anything related to climate control. The recently published The Encyclopedia of Southern History contains 2,900 articles, covering everything from 'Abbeville' to 'Zwaanedael,' but incredibly it has no article on 'air conditioning.'" 17 Such an omission is interesting because, without indulging in a climate-is-density argument, a hot, humid region like the South can benefit economically from near-universal climate control. Air conditioning spread slowly through the South, first in industrial locations before the 1920s, then into banks and theaters in the 1920s, then into railroad cars and hotels in the 1930s, then into department stores and shops in the 1940s, and finally, in the late 1950s into school buildings and the majority of new housing developments. The late arrival of air-conditioned houses can be explained in terms of government action. Recognizing the likely return on investment air conditioning offered the region, in 1957 the Federal Housing Authority changed its rules so that mortgages would cover central air conditioning, meaning that air-conditioned houses were much more within the reach of the less affluent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the next thirteen years saw a four hundred percent increase in households with air conditioning, which, coupled with "the cost advantages and favorable business conditions that made Dixie even more appealing to market-conscious industrialists" made the region a desirable location. 18
The TVA and air conditioning, among other factors, helped to change the South's business climate, and out of this business climate came a change in political climate. Bruce Schulman identifies three key changes between 1950 and 1980, included two that undergird the Southern Strategy,
First, migrants arrived from outside the region. The same businessmen, professionals, and skilled workers who filled new positions in defense firms and research laboratories swelled the Republican rolls in the South [. . . .] Native urban businessmen and southern migrants from small towns joined the transplanted Yankees to form Republican strongholds in the South's economically vital urban and suburban communities. 19
As Schulman makes clear, migration in this period was not solely non-Southerners coming into the South; Southerners were moving within the South as well. The jobs that the professional-managerial class (PMC) whites once held in Rust Belt central cities moved to Atlanta and Miami and their suburbs, and the professional-managerial class followed. And in the same white-flight pattern visible in cities like Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit (all of which shrank between 1950 and 1980), suburbanization marched away from Southern city centers one interstate highway exist at a time.
The changes developers and mass suburbanization write on the Southern landscape are on view from the first moments of Deliverance, which takes the urbanization—or better yet, suburbanization—of the South as a given, as a precondition for what happens in the country. The opening credits run over a series of images showing the massive scale of a hydroelectric dam under construction (Fig. 5), an ambivalent reminder of the TVA projects that increased industrialization across the previously agricultural South. However, the rapid post-War industrialization that allows suburbanites to pursue safe risks like white water rafting, skydiving, and survivalism—Lewis's jacket is festooned with Boy Scout-like achievement badges—certainly brought real and significant improvements to the quality of life in the South, which was by far the poorest region of the United States when the TVA began. We can see this in the Aintry locals who feel slightly differently about what the dam means. When the three survivors of the canoeing trip wash up near Aintry, Lewis is severely injured. The taxi driver gives Ed (Jon Voight) and Bobby (Ned Beatty) a sense of Aintry's limited life on their way to the hospital:
Right there's the town hall. Right over there is the old fire station. Played a lot of checkers over there. Sure did. All this land gonna be covered with water. Best thing that happened to this town.
The Sheriff (played by the novelist James Dickey) sums up the film's ambivalence over the tradeoffs involved in major public works like dam building when he tells Ed: "Don't ever do nothing like this again. Don't come back up here. I'd kinda like to see this town die peacefully." The South on view in Deliverance exists as an ideological force working on the land—and across the land. Lewis gives a heavy-handed assessment of something worse than being lost when he mourns the disappearing wilderness, telling his buddies, "we didn't lose it—we sold it."
Before a human face appears on screen, Reynolds's Lewis introduces the South that he and his friends, the very people responsible for putting it into danger, will visit as tourists:
Just about the last wild, untamed, unpolluted, unfuckedup river in the south. Don't you understand what I'm sayin'? They gonna stop the river up. There ain't gonna be no more river. It's just gonna be a big dead [. . . .] That ain't progress, that's shit! [. . . .] You just push a little more power into Atlanta, little more air conditionings, for your smug little suburb and you know what's gonna happen? We gonna rape this whole goddamn landscape. We're gon' rape it!
The surface-level seriousness in the woods threatens to obscure the changing world that the film abjects. Nystrom, using the language of a 1975 Newsweek story on the changing South, describes the city boys as "PMC canoers from the 'glassy-massed office parks and instant subdivisions' of the Atlanta suburbs, the film presents us with the exemplars of the region's new order." 20 Lewis, Ed, Bobby, and Drew are certainly professional middle class Atlantans who enjoy the air conditioning that drives the need for hydroelectric dams, but the office parks and subdivisions are pure speculation. The film begins in medias road trip, on a lonely bit of Highway 23 in rural Georgia, and ends by moving Ed from the backwoods to the interior of his suburban-Atlanta house in a straight cut. We never see Atlanta, even though the growth of Atlanta is the motive force behind everything that happens. On the one hand, this formal disavowal mimics the troubling way in which Ed seems not to connect his ordeal in the wilderness with anything larger—showing that the quandry Lewis identifies in the film's first scene has no easy solution for the people in the new South.
Football: The Longest Yard, Semi-Tough
While white-water canoeing is a four-person bonding experience, football offers a shared experience on a much greater scale. As a professor in Atlanta, Ed would no doubt be familiar with college football's standing in the South. Throughout the 1970s, members of the SEC all played to sell-out crowds in sixty-thousand-plus capacity stadia. By the mid-1970s professional football had established a strong presence in the South, with teams in Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, and Tampa. Hometown reflected glory; and, as so many pregame film packages labor to show, glory maters a great deal to a team's fans. Thus it's a bit shocking to see The Longest Yard begin with disgraced points-shaving ex-jock Paul Crewe every inch the misogynistic good ole boy—getting drunk, hitting a woman, leading an extended car chase, and finally getting arrested. Crewe is sent to "Citrus State Prison," where the guards gleefully chain him to Granville (Harry Caesar), a black prisoner, as a way of humiliating him. However, immediately after the white-black shackling, Caretaker (Jim Hampton) explains to Crewe that the other prisoners—white and black—dislike him for class-based reasons:
Most of these old boys don't have nothin'. Never had nothin' to start with. You—you had it all. Then you let your teammates down, found yourself with your hand in the cookie jar [. . . .] I ain't sayin' you did or you didn't. All I'm saying is that you coulda robbed banks, sold dope, or stole your grandmother's pension checks and none of us woulda minded. But shavin' points off a football game, man that's un-American.
As it's early in the film, Crewe misunderstands Caretaker, replying, "You take your football down here real serious, don't you?" For the prisoners, class solidarity and a chance to hit the guards in a football game trumps racial difference: that is to say, The Longest Yard repeats the old American story of regeneration through violence.
The formal expression of this regeneration comes across in a TV sports visual stye that takes its cues from the class-based solidarity on view. For example, during a Mean Machine huddle, the film's multiple split-screens are cut in rhythm to the team's chant. The Longest Yard pushes ever so gently at the edges of formal orthodoxy. Robin Wood argues that The Longest Yard is also thematically outside the Hollywood norm. The Longest Yard, he argues,
is probably the closest the American commercial movie can get to a genuine revolutionary cinema—which is to say, scarcely closer than Z. Its subversiveness is qualified by characteristically Fascist overtones (the People turn out to be helpless without their Leader), but [Robert] Aldrich has certain useful negative prerequisites for the development of a revolutionary mentality—a natural coarseness of sensibility combined with a total lack of interest in the cultural tradition. 21
The mid-1970s South is an ideal location for this kind of ambivalent revolutionary spirit and rejection of a cultural tradition that has tended to exclude or marginalize the region. The Longest Yard's "coarseness"—perhaps best exemplified in the "I think I broke his fucking neck" sequence—emerges on a national scale, out of the South's longstanding distance and difference from the normalized American experience, and on a regional scale, from class-based difference within the South. Football facilitates class's ability to cut across racial and regional identities, putting The Longest Yard in a position to enjoy trans-regional success.
Three years after the success of The Longest Yard, Burt Reynolds made another football movie. Richard Dyer answers the critique of a star "always playing himself or herself" by nothing that "if you like [Gary] Cooper or [Doris] Day, then precisely what you value about them is that they are always 'themselves'—no matter how different their roles, they bear witness to the continuousness of their own selves." 22 In many ways Reynolds could easily draw on his own experiences to play Semi-Tough's running back Billy Clyde Puckett: he was a Florida State Unviersity player and he had starred in The Longest Yard three years earlier. (In 1983 he even became minority owner of the USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits, a team named after his character in the Smokey and the Bandit films.) In football terms, the film is ahead of the curve: Miami team owner Big Ed Bookman berates his "Goddamn commie" kicker Vlada Kostov (Ron Silver) for loafing during practice by screaming, "You think you're over here for détente?" Kostov responds by kicking a field goal from midfield, barefoot. In the late 1970s, there was détente, but there weren't any Eastern European players in the NFL (although the handful of foreign-born players were mostly kickers), nor was there an active barefoot, "soccer-style" kicker. In addition to predicting changes in the kicking game, Semi-Tough takes the globalization of football for granted, even though it wasn't a part of the league's plan until the late 1980s. That is, Reynolds's star persona and commitment to filming in the South made plain the financial advantages of relocating the action from the novel's Los Angeles to the film's Miami. Because of this Semi-Tough builds on the expansion of the NFL into the South by linking it to another kind of expansion that would affect the entire nation: globalization.
Sharky's Machine, the Weather, and Southern Architecture
To understand the magnitude of Reynolds's stardom, consider the big summer 1981 releases. Twentieth Century Fox released on of its tent pole pictures, the Burt Reynolds vehicle The Cannonball Run, on the same weekend as Superman II—and a week after Raiders of the Lost Ark. As the year's number six box office success, The Cannonball Run was hardly overwhelmed by the competition. Unlike Reynolds, Christopher Reeve and Harrison Ford didn't have films coming out that winter as well. In December the "Dirty Harry Goes to Atlanta" thriller Sharky's Machine—starring and directed by Reynolds—was released. Four weeks later it was the top box office draw in America. To place Sharky's Machine in its particularly Southern setting, and to establish the importance of Reynolds to that sense of place, it will help to take a quick look at Reynolds's directorial debut, Gator, a sequel to the superior White Lightning.
After the success of Deliverance, Reynolds used his star status to stay close to home—in the South—while still making movies. Scott Von Doviak's Hick Flicks: The Rise and Fall of Redneck Cinema offers a brief history of the role staying in the South played in the making of White Lightning: "When a routine action script titled McKlusky came his way, the actor was reluctant to sign on. The producers agreed to shoot the movie entirely in the South and populate it with Southern actors, an idea that greatly appealed to Reynolds, and the movie that would become White Lightning was a go." 23 White Lightning is grubby Southsploitation, but in amongst the moonshining and car chases, we have a villain, Sheriff J.C. Connors, who kills Gator's long-haired protestor brother, allowing the film to repudiate the Bull Connors of Southern history (again, so much for the apolitical Reynold). Three years later, Reynolds was offered the chance to direct White Lightning's sequel, Gator. Moving the action from fictional Bogan County, Arkansas to the Savannah, Georgia area seems an odd choice, but Gator's closing credits offer some insight: "Our thanks to Gov. George Busbee, State of George; Ed Spivia, Georgia Department of Community Development; Al Henderson, City of Savannah; The Cities of Savannah Beach, Valdosta and Lakeland, Ga. for their cooperation in the making of this film." While Burt Reynolds used his limited power to infuse White Lightning with a greater sense of Southern reality—the opening credits read "Filmed in ARKANSAS"—the state of Georgia used Burt Reynolds (and vice versa) to infuse their state with Hollywood magic. By the 1990s it was common for states to offer incentives to film on location, but it was less common in the 1970s. The potential for a Southern movie star like Burt Reynolds to make a movie in his backyard gave local government officials incentive to institutionalize their attempts to lure production to the South.
And so, familiar with the South, Reynolds directed the Atlanta-set Sharky's Machine, and in a brief bit of dialog and a set of visual clues reveals a great deal about everyday life in the South. As the opening credits run, Reynolds's Sergeant Tom Sharky walks through the rail yards and seedy neighborhoods of Atlanta, finally stopping in a parking garage. There he meets drug kingpin Highball Mary, and by way of greeting complains that he's cold, "freezing to death," in fact. This complaint (Fig. 6) shows that there is indeed a winter in the south. It can get near freezing in Atlanta in the worst parts of winter—the average low for December, January, and February is in the mid-30s and it's not unthinkable for a little snow to fall. Not that you would know this from watching any of the other South-set films in the 70s (or any other decade, to tell the truth). Much as the South has a time, it also has a season—summer. In spite of all of the air conditioning available, one shot that appears throughout Southern films is the close up of a sweaty browed face—and there's no shortage of such shots in Deliverance, White Lightning, and Gator. Not so in wintry Sharky's Machine, the exception that proves the generic convention: a gritty cop picture that doesn't take place in a northern city which is also a Southern-set film that doesn't take place in the hottest and most humid part of summer.
Outside of the weather, Reynolds the director links himself to the South—Atlanta in particular—through his recurrent use of the Atlanta skyline. Sharky's Machine opens and closes on slowly zooming traveling shots of the skyline and the Peachtree Plaza (Fig. 7), a building that announced Atlanta's "arrival" as a global city, which Jay Watson details in "Mapping out a Postsouthern Cinema: Three Contemporary Films." These opening shots simultaneously provide a general orientation and an insistent reminder of the film's specifically Southern location. During Sharky's surveillance work, three key images combine again and again: Burt Reynolds's face with a set of binoculars, Atlanta's newest and biggest architectural marvel, the Peachtree Plaza Hotel, and highway interchanges reflected in glass (Fig. 8 and Fig. 9). This repeated Burt-building-byway combination reinforces the Atlanta-ness of Reynolds's film. In perhaps the most self-aggrandizing moment of the film, a sex scene dissolves from a shot of Burt Reynolds and Rachel Ward in bed to a low angle shot of the Peachtree Plaza, modestly equating Sharky's/Reynolds's erection with Atlanta's signature building (Fig. 10). He is some kind of Southern man—he is a landmark of contemporary Southern architecture.
While the great majority of the recognizable major architectural works in the U.S. are in older, established cities like Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, the South by and large lacks signature buildings. Part of the Chicago or New York identity emerges from the built environment—from fifth-floor walk-ups to the subway/El to iconic buildings. The difference in scale between cities like New York and Chicago and their hinterlands is essential to their cultural gravity. However, when it comes to the South,
It can be said with a reasonable degree of accuracy that the South had within its borders no cultural and intellectual capitals of the sort that London was for Englishmen, Paris for the French, Berlin for the Germans, or Boston for the New Englanders. When the Southerner has gone to the metropolis, when he has felt the strong pull of the cultural and intellectual forces concentrated in a great city, it has been to what was in many respects to him a foreign land. 24
The South's late turn to urbanization can explain the low profile of its urban architectural identity and the more common conflation of the rural with Southern identity. The architecture on view in Reynolds's hit films is different from that on view on most South-set films. The first establishing shot in Semi-Tough is of a Miami boulevard lined with fairly anonymous fifteen-story apartment buildings (Fig. 11). The Biscayne Bay-facing apartment Billy Clyde Puckett and Marvin Tiller (Kris Kristofferson) share is not part of a gloriously extravagant beast like the Fontainebleau, but a run-of-the-mill modern apartment building. The houses in The Longest Yard's opening scene in West Palm Beach, Florida show a Beverly Hills-like French next to Spanish eclecticism. Cledus's house in Smokey and the Bandit looks like every other house on his street: two-story weatherboarded houses with a dash of local color in the form of covered porches or verandas (Fig. 12). Sharky's childhood house is much the same (Fig. 13). The South has vernacular architecture—shotgun shacks at the low end and plantation big houses at the high end—and recognizable monumental architecture like Biltmore. But neither group figures much in Burt Reynolds movies, which take place in an everyday middle-of-the-road South whose aesthetics owe just as much to the power of developers and mass suburbanization as any other region.
Smokey and the Bandit I & II: The Decline of Burt Reynolds and the Rise of the South
Smokey and the Bandit cleans up and suburbanizes the good old boy moonshining tropes found in Burt Reynolds's Southsploitation outings like White Lightning and Gator. The Bandit films are fairly conventional in their use of the highway system to express freedom—but the freedom of the highway serves simultaneously to accentuate and dissolve regional differences. In Tico Romao's "Guns and Gas: Investigating the 1970s Car Chase Film," Reynolds figures, without being named, in the definition of the 1970s car chase typology. He has an exemplary film in each of Romao's three categories: police/crime (White Lightning), pursuit (Smokey and the Bandit series), and comedy chase (Cannonball Run 1 and 2). While Romao concentrates his attention on the institutional (drive-ins, youth market) and technological (lenses, car rigs) changes in the 1970s that drove the evolution of car chases on film, Reynolds's chases on Southern highways represent a narrative aspect that Romao notes, mostly in passing, as key to the 1970s car chase. As part of his discussion of the shit from process shots to moving-vehicle shots, Romao notes that "The pursuit sequence in Bullitt [. . . .] has been explicitly designed to showcase its ability to situation characters in their respective vehicles without relying on rear screen projection [. . . .] This ability to credibly situation characters in dangerous narrative contexts, be it car chases or other perilous scenarios, as character placement" 25 Romao uses Smokey and the Bandit to demonstrate how "one can distinguish the stunt as an instance of local spectacle from narration as the process in which different stunts are interlinked into a broader narrative chain." 26 But beyond the chase sequence's function in advancing the Smokey-versus-the-Bandit narrative, the moving-vehicle and driving-POV shots also perform character placement. Bandit behind the wheel is very much in the South. The South in which Reynolds is placed is the one visible from the interstate, the modernizing South, not the old South found on back roads.
In Smokey and the Bandit the excuse for the series of car chases is the "commission" to ship a trailer of Coors from Texas to Atlanta; in Smokey and the Bandit II the excuse is the transport of a pregnant elephant from Miami to Dallas (to say nothing of Smokey and the Bandit's sequel-bait promise of a chowder-delivery service from the northeast to Atlanta). Smuggling in western-identified beer and trucking the Republican party symbol across the South enact the region's changing identity. The question of whether Smokey and the Bandit would work north of the Mason-Dixon line, mentioned above, becomes easier to understand when we consider the ways in which Burt Reynolds's Bandit is a legend not only to Southern whites, but also to African-Americans, who come to Bandit's aid with a rolling roadblock at one point. Bandit may be a good ole boy moonshiner type, but he doesn't bring along the type's racist baggage, especially compared to his foil, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) (sexism and homophobia, on the other hand, are present throughout the films, and not just in the Bandit's antics). The Bandits, and other Reynolds hits, may be fairly monochromatic in casting the leads, but the roadblock, not to mention the cross-racial class solidarity in The Longest Yard, and the multiracial police machine in Sharky's Machine reveal a contemporary South that was, as the Atlanta slogan put it, "too busy to hate."
As sloppy and lazy as Smokey and the Bandit II is, it does accurately predict the decline of Reynolds's stardom. Although Bandit and Frog (Sally Field) end the first film as a couple, in the second they have split up, only to be reunited in service of the elephant shipping run. As they chat in the Trans-Am, Bandit tells Frog that he is "basic famous." Not long after, a gas station attendant tells Bandit, "If I was making a list of the great assholes of the twentieth century, you'd be in the top five." Frog tries to drag Bandit away from the confrontation. Bandit pulls away and angrily tells the man, through a closed door, "I'm practically an American folk hero [. . . .] God damn it I'm one of the most beloved grass roots folks heroes of America!" Moments like this lead Frog to tire of Bandit; her kiss-off to him could well be the kiss-off Reynolds got from film-going audiences: "You're a fame junky. They might as well lock you up and give you intravenous feedings of People magazine and National Inquirer headlines and if you're a real good boy they give you the occasional Tonight Show enema." After all, Reynolds was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show—a guest host even. In a Film Comment interview he couches his use for television talk shows in terms of what his charisma allows him to get away with:
When I go on The Tonight Show and they say, "What were you doing today?" and I say, "I was on Hollywood Boulevard being a star," people love it. It's really self-deprecating joke. On The Tonight Show, ninety-nine percent of all the leading men come on to talk about their pictures and their voices get a little lower, you know. They start saying, "I loved the director, I loved the leading lady [. . . ]" Before me, nobody every came on and said, "It's a turkey." I've had an enormous amount of success doing that. People love it [. . .] when you say this and people read it, they think, "The ungrateful shit." But on TV you can somehow verbalize it so it doesn't come out so strong. The guy on The Tonight Show, for me, is a character. 27
However, after six major box office successes, Burt Reynolds, like Smokey, started to run out of ideas, and what was once charming started to fade. Or, as Frog puts it, Bandit/Reynolds "got famous and then you felt you had to do more and more until you were doing what you didn't do best. And now I don't think you're even having any fun." Reynolds got famous because he brought something different to the cinema: the contemporary South, with its burgeoning economic and political power. But by the mid-1980s, the South played a much greater part in the formation of a national identity, thanks in no small part to Reynolds's efforts in the cineplexes and old Majestics across America. In the political arena, Ronald Reagan won every Southern state except Georgia to defeat Jimmy Carter in 1980. Reagan won every state in the South on his way to his 49-state 1984 landslide. Phillips's predicated shift from the solid Democrat South to the GOP South was complete, and subsequent elections showed that the South was key to both Republican and Democratic presidential victories, as well as Congressional control. The 1980s also saw major industries like automobile manufacturing move southward; General Motors, Ford, Toyota, and Nissan opened plants outside the Michigan-Ohio center of auto production. Reynolds's star didn't fade because he was a jerk on talk shows, or because his movies got any worse. His star faded because what was previously new and noteworthy about what Reynolds brought to the cinema had become more visible and common.
Hollywood's shift to event pictures and blockbuster releases took firm root in the early eighties, and while the change was not fatal to Reynolds's stardom, it's possible to see how it diminished his profile. In the introduction to his collection Movie Blockbusters, Julian Stringer admits the difficulty in pinning down a definition of "blockbuster," settling on the "money/spectacle nexus and, underpinning these two, the size factor and bigness and exceptionality as relational terms." 28 The creation of spectacle, as Tom Schatz characterizes it, leads to blockbusters that are, "increasingly plot-driven, increasingly visceral, kinetic, and fast-paced, increasingly reliant on special effects, increasingly 'fantastic' (and thus apolitical), and increasingly targeted at younger audiences." 29 This sounds quite a lot like a summary of Reynolds's hits, with their car crashes, punch-ups, and fairly two-dimensional characters. But one facet of blockbuster-ness remains: its "event" status. If Reynolds's stardom had a significant weakness, it was in his increasing normalcy as the population and political center of the nation moved South. In the 1980s, the contemporary South changed from a rare sight to something common. Burt Reynolds, in helping to build up NASCAR as an owner (he and Hal Needham owned the #33 Skoal Bandit car), made the contemporary South more visible every race day, and thus reduced the special quality of his contemporary-South-set films. It's less of an event to see Burt out-drive Buford T. Justice when you can watch Harry Gant do the same thing to Dale Earnhardt. Thus the diminishing returns of the Smokey and Cannonball Run franchises emerge not just from their declining aesthetic merits, but also from the over-familiarity with the South and its good old boy types.
Beyond the effect the blockbuster mentality had on Reynolds's stardom, hit movies and solid earners turned to Southern locations with slightly greater frequency, peeling away at Reynolds's specialness. Period films like The Color Purple (1985) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989) were joined in the year-end top twenty by films set in and around Southern military installations like Heartbreak Ridge (1986), and in the everyday contemporary south of Cocoon (1985, Florida), Bull Durham (1988, North Carolina), and Steal Magnolias (1989, Louisiana). On television, Nielsen winners Golden Girls, Miami Vice, Matlock, A Different World, and In the Heat of the Night were all set in the South.
The end of Burt Reynolds's extended run at the top doesn't look like an end: The Cannonball Run (1981) did exceptionally well at the box office, as did The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). But The Cannonball Run was the last of the Smokey-like films to be successful. Stroker Ace (1983), Smokey and the Bandit III (1983), and Cannonball Run II (1984) showed diminishing returns. The cop movies City Heat (1984), Stick (1985), Heat (1986), Malone (1987), and Rent-a-Cop (1987) did progressively worse, with Rent-A-Cop bringing in less than one million dollars. After his decline as a movie star Reynolds found success in voice-over work, in All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), and especially in television—starring in the Florida-set and shot B.L. Stryker and the Arkansas-set Evening Shade, in which he again played an ex-football player—before returning to film as a character actor. Reynolds's big screen comeback, as a shady Congressman in Striptease (1996), as avuncular porn director Jack Horner in Boogie Nights (1997), as Boss Hogg in Dukes of Hazard (2005), and as himself in the television series Archer (2012) reveal his enduring cultural value. Boogie Nights, Striptease, and Archer all use Reynolds to represent a recognizably outdated "1970s" conception of male heterosexiness, since more than any other actor working, Burt Reynolds is the 1970s. Albert Brooks and Warren Beatty are said to have been offered the Jack Horner role. Beatty was a star in the 1970s, and Brooks was moderately successful. Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, and Al Pacino are all still working after enjoying stardom in the 1970s. However, to see time is to miss space. Burt Reynolds's stardom, I repeat, was predicated on "a promise of a certain kind of thing that you would see if you went to see the film." Unlike any of the other stars of the 1970s, Burt Reynolds came to represent—and get stuck in and as—"the 1970s" by being the only star to promise his audience the 1970s' key region, the South.
Derek Nystrom is right to identify Burt Reynolds as part of the "Redneck cycle" of films in the '70s that coincided with an increasingly southern and conservative turn in national political life, but he's more right than he's willing to argue. As Cavell points out, "people of a certain cultivation," which is to say film scholars, are reluctant to see "how charming and perceptive a leading man Burt Reynolds can be, when not cast as a good old boy." The romps through the South that established Burt Reynolds's star personal were the only widely-seen films between 1970s and 1982 that treated the South's increased importance in contemporary national life as normal. Reynolds was not left behind because he had nothing to offer the new blockbuster-focused Hollywood, or because he lost his charisma, but because by the time Reagan was gearing up his "Morning in America" re-election campaign, he no longer had something special to offer a national audience. The Southern Strategy aimed to bring the good old boys to the fore in national politics, and it succeeded. The regionally-identifiable Reynolds gave way to 1980s stars linked to genre and no region: Eddie Murphy (comedies set in Detroit, California, and New York), Harrison Ford (action films set in space and outside the U.S.), Tom Cruise (action films and coming-of-age films set in California, Jamaica, Chicago, and on the road), and Arnold Schwarzenegger (action films set in Central America, Los Angeles, and various fantasy locations). In other words, Burt Reynolds is not just part of a cycle of Southsploitation Redneck films, nor is he just a performer with a limited regional appeal. He's a distinctly and quintessentially 1970s American movie star because he's in and of the South as it emerges as the region at the forefront of national life.
Christian B. Long lives in Brisbane, Australia, where he teaches in the School of English, Media Studies and Museum History at The University of Queensland. He is the co-editor, with Jeff Menne, of the forthcoming Film and the American Presidency (Routledge 2014). He has a mustache.
- #1 Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990), 26-7. [↩]
- #2 Paul Young, "Star Wars" in Fifty Key American Films, ed. John White and Sabine Haenni (London: Routledge, 2009), 177-84. [↩]
- #3 To translate Burt Reynolds's box office into 2012 dollars (assuming an average ticket price of $8.12): Smokey and the Bandit $458,000,000 (yes, four hundred and fifty-eight million); Smokey and the Bandit II $198,000,000; Deliverance $219,000,000; The Longest Yard $184,000,000; Semi-Tough $133,000,000; Sharky's Machine $93,000,000. And, one non-Southern film: The Cannonball Run: $210,000,000. [↩]
- #4 Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society (London: Macmillan/bfi, 1986), 5. [↩]
- #5 Ibid. [↩]
- #6 Karen Cox, Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011), ix. [↩]
- #7 Frederic Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (Bloomington: Indiana UP/bfi, 1992), 73-9. [↩]
- #8 Derek Nystrom, Hard Hats, Rednecks, and Macho Men: Class in 1970s American Cinema (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009), 57. [↩]
- #9 Ibid., 105. [↩]
- #10 Ibid., 71. [↩]
- #11 True Romance: Unrated Director's Cut. Tony Scott, director. Commentary track: Quentin Tarantino. Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. 2002 (1993). DVD. [↩]
- #12 Joseph McBride and Brooks Riley, "'The End' is just the beginning," Film Comment 14.3 (May/June 1978): 20. [↩]
- #13 Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1970), 466. [↩]
- #14 James Cobb, The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development, 1946-1990 (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1993) , 204. [↩]
- #15 Tennessee Valley Authority, "From the New Deal to a New Century," http://www.tva.gov/aboutva/history.htm. Accessed December 26, 2012. [↩]
- #16 Abner Hurwitz and Carlyle Stallings, Regional Income (Washington, D.C.: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1957): 260-63. [↩]
- #17 Raymond Arsenault, "The End of a Long Hot Summer: The Air Conditioner and Southern Culture," The Journal of Southern History 50.4 (November 1984): 597. [↩]
- #18 Cobb, The Selling of the South, 208. [↩]
- #19 Bruce Schulman, From Cotton Belt to Sun Belt: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South (New York: Oxford UP, 1991), 214-5. [↩]
- #20 Nystrom, Hard Hats, Rednecks and Macho Men, 73. [↩]
- #21 Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York: Columbia UP, 1986), 32. [↩]
- #22 Dyer, Heavenly Bodies, 11. [↩]
- #23 Scott Von Doviak, Hick Flicks: The Rise and Fall of Redneck Cinema (Jefferson: McFarland, 2005), 20. [↩]
- #24 C. Hugh Holman, "The Southern Provincial in Metropolis,"in The American South: Portrait of a Culture, ed. Louis D. Rubin (Washington, D.C.: United States Information Agency, 1979), 268. [↩]
- #25 Tico Romao, "Guns and Gas: Investigating the 1970s Car Chase Film," Action and Adventure Cinema, ed. Yvonne Tasker (London: Routledge, 2004), 132-4. [↩]
- #26 Ibid., 146. [↩]
- #27 McBride and Riley, "'The End' is just the beginning," 21. [↩]
- #28 Julian Stringer, "Introduction," in Movie Blockbusters, ed. Julian Stringer (London: Routledge, 2003), 8. [↩]
- #29 Tom Schatz, "The New Hollywood," in Movie Blockbusters, ed. Julian Stringer (London: Routledge, 2003), 29. [↩]