Showing Off: Laughter and Excessive Disclosure in Burt Reynolds' Star Image

By Smith, Jacob | Film Criticism, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Showing Off: Laughter and Excessive Disclosure in Burt Reynolds' Star Image


Smith, Jacob, Film Criticism


In the 1970s, Burt Reynolds had a powerful hold on the American consciousness. He was declared Cosmopolitan magazine's "Perfect Man" in 1972, and within a few years became the top grossing male film star in the world. He was voted Photoplay's favorite Motion Picture Actor in 1973, 1977 and 1978; People's Choice Best Actor in 1978 and 1979; the Top Money-Making Star by US Film Distributors in 1978, 1979 and 1980; and the Male Star of the year by the National Association of Theatre Owners in 1978 and 1980 (Streebeck 11). What was it about Burt's star image that struck such a chord? What can he tell us about that time in history and about acting in the cinema?

In Richard Dyer's influential description of film stars, "star images" are seen to function "in relation to contradictions within and between ideologies, which they seek variously to 'manage' or resolve" (34). One way to look at Burt Reynolds is in terms of how, for a time, his star image managed contradictions about gender, work, and class before succumbing to its own inner contradictions. I want to show how much of this ideological work was done on the level of his performances, especially by means of one of his distinctive mannerisms--his laugh.

Much of the meaning of star performances exists on the level of physical gesture or subtleties of the voice, although Virginia that "we have no language with which to discuss" the nuances and textures of such things (205). Nevertheless, the work of socio-linguistics in general and Erving Goffman in particular can help to provide a language for looking at the laugh: an expression that exists in a fascinating gray area between speech and gesture. My study will underscore the importance of intertextuality and synergy between media in disseminating Burt's laugh, because his appearances on TV talk-shows and in magazine centerfolds were an integral part of structuring and creating his movie persona. I am especially interested, however, in a cycle of films he made between 1972 and 1983, all of them involving collaboration with director and former stuntman Hal Needham. These are the films that did most to establish Burt as a major star and that constructed his southern, "Good-Old-Boy" image. They were part of a larger cycle of "Country" movies made primarily for drive-in audiences, and they are of interest in their depiction of class and regional identity, as well as in their use of the figure of the trucker. A description of the cycle of films that feature the trucker will help to situate the emergence of Reynolds' star image and my discussion of his laugh in a particular cultural context.

The trucker, long a heroic figure in country music, became a mass cultural icon in the early and mid-seventies. A timely hero for the film industry, the trucker could resonate both as outlaw hero and mythic cowboy. C.W. McCall's hit song "Convoy" was the best selling single of 1976 on both country and pop charts and spawned both a feature-film in 1978 and a national CB radio craze. At this time, other films such as White Line Fever (1975), Citizen's Band (1977), Breaker! Breaker! (1977), and High Ballin' (1978) hit national screens. In a sociological study of the trucking life, Lawrence Ouellet describes the appeal of the trucker: "It is traditionally manly work, and the combination of travel, danger, mystery, the potential for adventure, and the public handling of huge machinery suggests the existence of heroic qualities." Further, like the motorcycle gang member and some musicians, the trucker was part of a "somewhat deviant subculture" that possessed "the power implicit in loosened social ties" (179). The "somewhat deviant" nature of the trucker had a marked sexual dimension. Truckers were thought, like touring rock musicians, to engage in multiple sexual partners, oftentimes in casual truck stop flings. This deviant sexuality made them "sexual objects for some people" and supported the notion that truckers were macho folk heroes (Ouellet 175). …

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