It’s impossible to eulogize an artist whose work you’re largely unfamiliar with.
That’s why this won’t be a memorial to Burt Reynolds. Rather, my lack of knowledge regarding his illustrious career serves as an interesting reflection of how cinematic legacies are, or aren’t, preserved.
When I was a budding cineaste desperately striving to catch up with the history of a medium that I literally wasn’t alive to witness, two entities curated my viewing syllabus: the Academy Awards, and the auteur theory (the recommendations of friends and family of course played a role as well, but they vary wildly from person and person, and thus even imperfect generalizations cannot be deduced from them). Since it’s practically impossible — and becoming ever more impossible, if that’s even possible — to be perfectly versed in all things cinema, everyone’s approaches are grounded on different foundations.
With the Oscars, I stuck mostly to Best Picture winners and nominees. Sometimes, I’d check out the same in the Best Director category, which connects to my fidelity to the auteur theory. If you consider directors as the primary authors of movies, then, when educating yourself on the form, you’d of course focus on making sure you’ve seen the best of the best oeuvres.
Few Burt Reynolds films fall within this framework. There’s Best Picture-nominee Deliverance, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (Burt’s only Academy Award nomination)…and that’s it (I also watched The Longest Yard in preparation for Adam Sandler’s 2005 remake, which featured Burt — who says endless remakes serve no positive purpose!). I also caught a handful of his newer releases, though by then he was so past his prime that it was hard to imagine, for those of us who didn’t actually live through it, that he ever even had a prime in the first place. There are a few holes I should’ve filled at some point — namely, Hal Ashby’s Shampoo — but his more famed (or is it infamous?) outings, delightmares such as Smokey and the Bandit and Striptease, simply pale in importance to some of my more regrettable gaps.
And that’s what I’m left wrestling with in terms of how he will be remembered by generations to come. This titan of the screen was undeniably one of the biggest movie stars in the history of movies, but tapping into a specific era’s zeitgeist in no way ensures a lasting legacy. Conversely, the Oscars and the auteur theory run counter to what convinces people to see new movies; it’s all about franchises — AKA box office receipts — and (though less so now than in Hollywood’s Golden Age) movie stars. There will always be the Chris Nolans of the world, but for the most part, cultural discourse tends to revolve around the likes of Chris Evans and the Avenger$$$.
And yet, how many of these moneymakers will be cherished by my children? As much as everyone loves to bemoan Academy Awards mistakes, the list of Best Picture nominees provides a far richer treasure trove of resources than what you’d get if you focused instead on the top 10 grossers every year.
Popularity might be all the rage nowadays and every day, but sometimes what’s most popular now will be forgotten later.