Burt Reynolds’ Southern Vision

Burt Reynolds’ Southern Vision

How a Legend Chronicled the Region’s Potential

The reckoning of Summer 2020 was supposed to be national, but quickly devolved into the coastal superiority that has deflected the ills of the North onto the South since before Reconstruction. The good ole boys of The Dukes of Hazzard may have indeed done some harm as networks discussed banning the series due to the General Lee’s Dixie paint job. The previous year, the Trans Am that turned Burt Reynolds into the contemporary South’s quintessential icon faced erasure for its Confederate-Flag license plate. The South had to pay for its history. That the Hollywood so vocal about its own lofty moral position manufactured these fraught Southern images in the first place merited few words. This would not be the case if the Bandit were still with us.

Burt Reynolds died from heart failure in the fall of 2018. At the time, he was in the middle of a third career resurgence that abruptly ended days before he was set to begin filming Quentin Tarantino’s Once upon a Time in Hollywood… He had reentered the fray of the talk-show circuit that cemented his fame in the early 70s when his candor made for such compelling television that he was one of the only actors Johnny Carson asked to guest host The Tonight Show. Yet, in the age of Twitter, Reynolds’ ribald spirit came off as antiquated. What the offended missed entirely was that Burt always exuded a playful authenticity, never disguising his Southerness and uninterested in public displays of self-righteousness to win accolades or fans.

Reynolds is the one movie star who transcended every era of Hollywood. Beginning his career on the TV westerns Riverboat and Gunsmoke, he eventually worked with titans of studio-era filmmaking such as Sam Fuller and Robert Aldrich. After attracting the attention of New Hollywood directors Peter Bogdanovich and Woody Allen, he entered the blockbuster arena when Smokey and the Bandit became the highest-grossing film of 1977 after Star Wars. His satirical embodiment of hyper-masculinity in 1972’s Deliverance made him a serious actor before his self-deprecating nude spread in Cosmopolitan magazine torpedoed his award chances that same year.

No one has ever challenged Reynolds’ run as America’s top-grossing movie star for five consecutive years, which he achieved from 1978-1982. In his decline, he won an Emmy for the CBS sitcom Evening Shade and became a staple of the burgeoning mid-90s indie film scene, working with Alexander Payne and Paul Thomas Anderson, whose Boogie Nights brought him closest to an Academy Award. Not a bad career for the man responsible for bringing “hick flicks” into film criticism’s lexicon.

In his essay “Personal in My Memory,” Godfrey Cheshire interrogates Hollywood’s often contentious relationship with the South, indicting the industry’s tendency to prey upon its folk traditions and mythic stature for the sake of lucrative stereotypes that paint the region as a regressive object of mockery and scorn. Though less than half of the films Reynolds made are set in the South, those that are offer a resistance to Hollywood’s gleeful exploitation of the region, largely because Reynolds’ dual status as outsider and adopted son endow his work with a reified allegiance, bringing to fruition a singular South that honors its traditions while offering up a counternarrative to its stereotypes.

A Floridian with Native-American ancestry, Reynolds saw his early career limited by typecasting as he fought to gain roles beyond network noble savages. As Reynolds took up the mantle of what numerous film critics erroneously refer to as the “white bandit,” he actively sought projects that would appeal to Southern audiences and portray the region in a multifaceted manner.

In his first foray into the Southern anti-hero, White Lightning, Reynolds as moonshiner Gator McKlusky seeks revenge against a corrupt sheriff (Ned Beatty) for executing his little brother and other Civil-Rights protestors. Yet, despite the film’s antiauthoritarian strains, it lacks the alienation and assault on tradition typical of the 1970s New Hollywood. In the film and its sequel, Gator (which served as Reynolds’ directorial debut), the moonshiner’s mission hinges upon restoring order to the South rather than upending it in favor of cultural relativism. Such thematic preoccupations remain intact throughout Reynolds’ career from the Bandit’s humiliation of Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) to Miami pro-football player Billy Clyde Puckett exposing the corruption of a self-help cult in Semi-Tough.

Yet, while Reynolds’ legacy hinges on his status as an individualist Southern trickster, all of his films feature a diverse team of characters working against corruption in the region—most obviously in the CB radio call to arms that kicks off the final act of Smokey. Reynolds’ Paul Crewe may be the catalyst for the prisoners-against-guards football game in The Longest Yard, but it’s his active inclusion of African-American convicts that sets into motion the film’s meditations on political power and dominance of the individual. Such collaboration is fully on display in Gator, in which Reynolds must rely on an alliance with a Northeastern Jewish federal agent, a feminist reporter turned love interest (Lauren Hutton), and a grandmotherly left-wing local to take down rural Georgia gangster Bama McCall (future Bandit buddy Jerry Reed).

Likewise, Reynolds’ only acclaimed directorial effort, Sharky’s Machine, finds him as a disgraced detective hunting a crime boss wreaking havoc on Atlanta with the help of a “machine” consisting of a Jew, an Irishmen, a cop nearing retirement and, “Arch” (Bernie Casey), a college-educated African-American Buddhist. Such is the South we live in, but rarely see on screen.

Reynolds’ popular success and critical reputation position him as a central figure in understanding the South as a dynamic culture still reeling from a Hollywood dedicated to exploiting its stories and cultivating the stereotypes that have defined it both in the wider U.S. and globally. His films provide a model forward that preserves the region’s rich cultural legacy while acknowledging its failures without descending into self-flagellation. The Bandit’s Trans Am may no longer bear its original license plate, but it remains no less relevant to the South’s potential for a productive future on its own terms.