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I Am Burt Reynolds Remembers the Last (Straight, Male) Movie Star

The legendary actor gets the standard biography treatment, which insists on reminding you what a monument to masculinity he was.
  • Burt Reynolds (Screenshot: I Am Burt Reynolds
    Burt Reynolds (Screenshot: I Am Burt Reynolds

    Burt Reynolds — almost always on-screen, and most certainly off-screen — was a man. A virile, hairy-chested, skirt-chasing, boot-wearing man's man. The kind of man that Hollywood doesn't make anymore. The kind of man America doesn't make anymore. Some of the above sentiments are subtext in the feature-length documentary I Am Burt Reynolds; others are plain text. The film, which premiered overseas back in 2020 but is making its American debut on The CW on December 30th, is of the conviction that Reynolds was not only a legendary screen talent but also a rare, authentic Hollywood personality. In a community full of phonies and preening artistes, this film seems to say, Burt Reynolds was a man. And we don't have men anymore.

    One of the final movies Reynolds made before his death in 2018 was The Last Movie Star, in which he played an aging actor reckoning with his life as he neared the end of it. That film's director, Adam Rifkin, is one of many people from Reynolds' life who participated in this documentary, which is incredibly complimentary to the actor, and managed to attract a lot of the big names, including Loni Anderson, Jon Voight, and Bruce Dern. "The Last Movie Star" may well have been the title for this documentary as well, since that seems to be the thesis held by everyone from the director to the talking heads to Reynolds himself, who appears via archival footage from his many interviews and talk-show appearances. As talented as he was on the screen, Reynolds was equally talented as a conversationalist, and through his many TV appearances, he cultivated his masculine, defiant, not-like-those-other-Hollywood-phonies persona. By all indications, that persona was authentic, evident in the roles he chose and his choice to eschew Los Angeles and live in Jupiter, Florida.

    For a movie that's so intent on lionizing an already beloved movie star, I Am Burt Reynolds, by implication, casts a pretty bleak light on the rest of Hollywood. At our present moment when movie stars have been made secondary to intellectual property and brands, the film comes across like one of your old uncles lecturing you about how today's movie stars are all a little light in their loafers, if you ask him. Reynolds himself, in an old interview discussing how he got into acting after he blew his knee out playing football, seemed to hold a similar view of his profession even back then: "I was one of those guys that used to — you know, I hungered for the girl that danced in Carousel," he said. "But I wasn't about to go out and try for the sissy parts. I thought all actors had to be a little freaky and strange. It's quite true. They are."

    Reynolds' masculinity is the first thing everyone wants the viewer to know about him. Marilu Henner can't stop talking about what a great kisser he was: "His power and his manliness was so riveting." Voight and Dern constantly bring up anecdotes about his virility. An ancient and long-forgotten rumor from the '80s that Reynolds had AIDS is revived and then shot down, as if his spotless record of masculinity might be sullied by association with the disease. Buitenhuis even hauls in Reynolds' old football coach, Florida State's Bobby Bowden, to talk about how much he loved the pretty ladies on campus.

    These are the tactics of people who are protesting too much, which seems silly since the proof of Reynolds' masculinity is so readily available on the screen. Yet there's a determination to enshrine Reynolds as the American film industry's alpha male. And the few times where the film delves into his relationship with his father, an emotionally withholding man whose approval Reynolds was always chasing, the film presents a possible underlying motivation to all of his subsequent image making that could have gotten more screen time.

    I Am Burt Reynolds is descended from a series of celebrity biography docs that were commissioned for the Paramount Network, some of which are now airing on The CW. Buitenhuis directed quite a few of them, including I Am Heath Ledger, I Am Paul Walker, and I Am Patrick Swayze. So the film will probably feel similar to an episode of A&E's Biography. As an overview of Reynolds' life and career, it's a decently compelling doc, even if it frequently feels like it's leaving meat on the bone. To have Joe Namath on hand as a talking head, plus an extended segment on Reynolds posing as a nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan, and never once have Namath relate the story to his own notorious pantyhose ad seems ludicrous. To interview Loni Anderson about the moment where Reynolds dropped divorce papers on her, seemingly out of the blue, and then just drop the subject without another word from anyone as to why, makes for frustrated viewing.

    There are so many interesting avenues in Renyolds' life worth exploring. The film touches on the dinner theater he founded in Florida, where he lured Hollywood A-Listers to perform, away from the prying eyes of New York theater critics. This could have been the subject of a documentary all on its own, but we're left wanting.

    Rather than travel too far down any cul-de-sac, I Am Burt Reynolds, especially in its second half, walks a familiar path through marriage, painkiller addiction, late-career highs and lows (Reynolds was not too macho to admit he really, really wanted to win an Academy Award), and ultimately his death. And yet the overall vibe is an elegy to a bygone era of Hollywood masculinity, one that may have only existed in the persona of Burt Reynolds. At one point, Dern laments that Reynolds had to resort to making "a T&A softcore porn movie" in order to score an Oscar nomination (and they still didn't give him the award). When even Boogie Nights, a movie whose poster hung on the wall of every film bro you ever met, is too namby-pamby to suit the legend of Burt Reynolds, truly how can anyone else in the industry keep up?

    I Am Burt Reynolds airs December 30 at 8:00pm ET on The CW. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Burt Reynolds, I Am Burt Reynolds, Bruce Dern, Joe Namath, Jon Voight, Loni Anderson, Marilu Henner