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Saturday
Sep082018

THE BURT REYNOLDS 'COLD STREAK'

Burt had one of the all-time great (bad?) 'cold streaks' – films that either disappointed or plain out underperformed. Guest coloumnist STEPHEN VAGG ponders, "What happened...?"

In 1982 Burt Reynolds was flying high. He’d been the number one box office attraction in the US for five years running. He was big enough to turn director (Gator) and stay director (The End; Sharky’s Machine), he had a powerful franchise behind him (Smokey and the Bandit), he was branching out into romantic comedies (Best Friends, Paternity) and musicals (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). It seemed the public would follow him anywhere.

Within a few years it was over – he’d ceased to be a major star. By the late 1980s, Burt was back to being a TV star again on B.L. Stryker; a few years after that he was mostly to be found in straight-to-video flicks. Until the end of Burt’s life people would talk about him having a “comeback” – but while there were great moments (Citizen Ruth, Boogie Nights), he never regained his former status.

Now these things happen in every actor’s career – indeed Burt survived a large number of turkeys and disasters before he became a huge star: big budget flops (Lucky Lady, At Long Last Love), films where directors were fired during production (Rough Cut) or people died during production (The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, Shark!, pictured above). He’d always managed to bounce back. But from 1983 onwards, he didn’t.

Let’s look at the films in question:

Stroker Ace (1983; pictured, top) – Burt famously turned down a role in Terms of Endearment to do this; Jack Nicholson stepped in, and won a Best Supporting Oscar, while Stroker Ace flopped. In Burt’s defence, this would’ve seemed the surer commercial bet – it was an action comedy involving cars directed by Hal Needham, a combination which had been successful four times previously (Smokey and the Bandit I & II, Hooper, The Cannonball Run). Not this time, though. Burt’s luck had changed.

The Man Who Loved Women (1983) – this would have seemed a safe-ish bet. A remake of the 1977 Francois Truffaut film, directed by Blake Edwards, who was coming off Victor-Victoria and many other acclaimed romantic comedies. But critics were mean and the public stayed away in droves.

Cannonball Run II (1984; pictured, right) – another seemingly safe choice, an all-star sequel to one of Burt’s biggest hits. And it wasn’t an out-and-out flop at the box office but it was a disappointment, making half of what the original did.  Like Stroker Ace, Cannonball II simply wasn’t a very good film – it felt lazy and greedy. The original Smokey and Cannonball films had a good heart – this doesn’t. The public sensed it and stayed away. So Burt decided to go into something even more sure-fire…

City Heat (1984) – what could be more successful than teaming Burt with Clint Eastwood in an action buddy comedy? And indeed the film made some money… but not as much as everyone thought it would. Production was plagued with difficulties – original director (and writer) Blake Edwards was forced off the project by Clint, and Burt was injured during filming, causing him to lose a lot of weight and rumours to start that the actor had AIDS.

Stick (1985) –Burt returned to directing, and picked some strong source material, an Elmore Leonard novel. Burt liked what he did with his rough cut but says Universal forced him to reshoot the second half. The resulting film flopped commercially and critically. Burt would go on to direct three more movies, but none with much acclaim.

Heat (1986) – Based on another strong source material – a novel and script by William Goldman – and Burt is genuinely good in the lead role. If original director Robert Altman had stayed on the project who knows what might have happened? But Altman quit after disagreements with Goldman; he was replaced by Dick Richards, who Burt ended up punching out, and was replaced in turn by Jarry Jameson. Two more directors worked on the film (or three, depending on your sources). The resulting film was a mess and flopped. It was remade with Jason Statham as Wild Card.

Malone (1987; pictured, right) – Burt does more action, in this so-so thriller directed by someone called Harley Cokeliss. In an era of Arnie, Sly, Jean Claude and Seagal, no one cared. The failure of this film may explain why Burt turned down Die Hard – because who knew that Die Hard was going to turn into, well, Die Hard?

Rent-a-Cop (1987) – Burt teams with another 70s legend, Liza Minnelli, in a comedy crime film. Another flop which no one seems to like.

Switching Channels (1988) – a lot of people thought this would turn things around for Burt. A good director (Ted Kotcheff), excellent source material (The Front Page by Hecht and MacArthur), superb co stars (Kathleen Turner and Christopher Reeve). And Burt received some good reviews. But he feuded with Turner, and the resulting film was a box office disappointment.

Physical Evidence (1989) – this was originally written to be a sequel to Jagged Edge with Glenn Close and Robert Loggia but was rewritten – Burt stepped into the part originally meant for Loggia and Theresa Russell was a version of Glenn Close. For some reason they picked Michael Crichton to direct, despite it not being based on one of his novels or having any sci fi/technical angle. Burt actually isn’t bad but he has nil chemistry with Russell and the film was little seen.

Breaking In (1989) – Burt has a strong director (Bill Forsyth), excellent script (by John Sayles) and gives a very good performance as a small time crook which earned him some of his best ever reviews… and it’s a really sweet movie… but no one turned up to see it. (Pictured, below; co-star Casey Siemaszko, l, and director Bill Forsyth with Reynolds)

The scary thing about these films is you can see why Burt made them. They would’ve seemed safe bets on paper: remakes, sequels, buddy comedies, scripts by William Goldman and John Sayles, adaptations of Elmore Leonard novels, directors with strong commercial track records. None of the projects were crazy, weird, artistic choices – they were aimed at being broad crowd pleasers. And crowds weren’t pleased because, as Goldman once wrote at the peak of Burt’s fame, “no one knows anything”.

Maybe Burt could’ve turned it around with Terms of Endearment. It’s a shame he didn’t do The Emerald Forest with John Boorman – the two men had worked together magnificently in Deliverance, and Burt would’ve been perfect in the lead role. (Editor's Note: in addition to Die Hard, he also admits to passing on 'James Bond' as Sean Connery's replacement, M*A*S*H, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Star Wars and Pretty Woman.)  

Mind you, there is the possibility that Burt didn’t have much taste. After Boogie Nights he turned down a role in Magnolia because he didn’t like PT Anderson. His financial demands led to the premature cancellation of his hit sitcom, Evening Shade. He surely could’ve picked better projects in the last thirty years of his life.

Still, it was an admirable career. Anyone whose credits include Deliverance, Sharky’s Machine, Boogie Nights and Hooper, just for starers, deserves our admiration and respect.

R.I.P. Burt.

STEPHEN VAGG is a scriptwriter, journalist and commentator who divides his professional time between Los Angeles, Sydney and Brisbane. He graduated from the Australian Film Television and Radio School with a Masters Degree in Screenwriting and has worked for FremantleMedia, Network 7 and Network 10. His feature film screenplays All My Frends Are Leaving Brisbane (2007) and Jucy (2010) were directed by his wife, Louise Alston. In 2010, his book Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood was published. 

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