In the late 1970s into the early 1980s, Burt Reynolds was the most famous person alive. Arguments can be made against this statement, but those arguments will lose. Though, the question is, how many people today realize this was once the case. Most of Burt Reynolds’ contemporaries achieved prolonged success. But by the early ‘90s, Reynolds was starring in movies like Cop and a Half. P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights secured Reynolds an Academy Award nomination, but through stubbornness or orneriness – or a combination of both – Reynolds’ “comeback” was squandered. For people who remember and enjoyed Reynolds at the top of his game, his career has been incredibly frustrating.
There’s a fascinating movie playing at the Tribeca Film Festival that not too many people are talking about called Dog Years. There’s really no other way to interpret it other than as “Burt Reynolds realizes he’s made bad choices and was a dick to a lot of people and now regrets that.” There’s literally a scene in which modern-day Burt Reynolds rides in a Trans-Am with his younger Bandit self. Current Burt tries to give younger Burt advice, but younger Burt just says things like, “Ha ha!” while driving his car faster and faster.
Reynolds doesn’t technically play himself, he’s playing an aging actor named Vic Edwards – who just happened to be the star in all of the same movies Burt Reynolds has starred in. Edwards is invited to accept a lifetime achievement award from a rinky-dink film festival in Tennessee – and the events that transpire at that festival lead to a wave of emotions and regret.
Honestly, I can’t believe Reynolds agreed to be in this movie.
“I had never met him,” Dog Years director Adam Rifkin tells Uproxx, “but I thought if I wrote him a role that was good enough, big enough, deep enough, had enough stuff for him to say – that I thought might resonate with him.”
That’s what’s so fascinating about Dog Years — it wasn’t written by Burt Reynolds himself as some sort of mea culpa about his career. This was a script written by Rifkin with only Burt Reynolds in mind. Rifkin is admittedly a huge Burt Reynolds fan, so I asked Rifkin if this film was basically, in Rifkin’s mind, what Reynolds should say before it’s too late.
“Well, you know what?,” asks Rifkin, “I never really thought of it in those terms, but that’s a really interesting way to look at it. I think maybe, subconsciously, that is the way I looked at it.”
What makes this remarkable is that Reynolds himself read this script, and by agreeing to be in the movie basically endorsed Rifkin’s interpretation of what Reynolds should say about his career. Rifkin remembers the day Reynolds called to say he’d do the movie.
“I get a call from Burt Reynolds, right? Which was mind-blowing unto itself,” remembers Rifkin. “He said, ‘I had just been telling a lady friend that I was hoping for one last great role before the end and then your script hit my desk.’ And he said, ‘If you had sent this script to me 10 years earlier, I wouldn’t have been able to do it because it deals with things I wouldn’t have been able to face. I wouldn’t have wanted to face them. Today, where I am in my life, I have to do this movie.’”
This is a movie in which Burt Reynolds literally has discussions with himself. As mentioned previously, Reynolds at one point scolds his Bandit self for “going too fast.” Then, in another scene, Reynolds has a discussion with his younger self from Deliverance – the movie Reynolds’ scholars will look at as an almost “what could have been.” Here’s this great young actor who would later be best remembered for doing movies about fast cars. (Rifkin said the footage from those films was easier to secure than he though it would be – the studios involved basically said they’d do anything “for Burt.”)
Whatever Dog Years is, here’s Burt Reynolds – who at one point was one of the most famous people in the world – now in his twilight years, telling us he regrets a lot of his decisions and he regrets how he treated people. This is remarkable.
Rifkin elaborates on this, “Burt is very, very candid about the choices he made in life that have bit him in the ass. He is very candid about the mistakes he’s made, the people he’s pissed off. And he’s even said jokingly, ‘If I met you in those days, I’m sorry.’ He knew by accepting this role it would basically be telling people, ‘I know I made mistakes in life.’”
And the stories about Burt Reynolds’ less than stellar behavior are not falsehoods. I won’t say who, but I was in the middle of an interview a few years ago and the subject of “bad experiences” on a film set came up. The person I was interviewing stopped my recorder and told an unflattering story about Burt Reynolds. Rifkin knows this is the way Burt could be, but this wasn’t his experience.
“Burt is everything I hoped he would be like when I worshipped him as a kid,” says Rifkin. “He was cool, he was funny, he was sweet, he was nice, he was generous, he was inclusive – he was everything I hoped he would be. So I don’t know why, you know, some people have had different experiences with him. All I can tell you is, with me and with everybody on this movie, it was an absolute dream come true working with him. And he worked harder than everybody on the set and he was dedicated. They you shouldn’t meet your heroes, because you’ll inevitably be disappointed. But for me, I met my hero and I couldn’t have been happier about it.”
The thing is, I love Smokey and the Bandit. And that movie was a huge success and is still part of the cultural zeitgeist. The problem is, Burt Reynolds started doing too many movies like this. And maybe the bigger problem: movies like Cannonball Run and Smokey and the Bandit Part II were all really successful. But Burt Reynolds stopped challenging himself. Famously, Reynolds turned down a role in Terms of Endearment to instead play a race car driver (of course) in Stroker Ace. Stroker Ace flopped and Jack Nicholson took the role in Terms of Endearment and won himself an Oscar.
But here’s Reynolds now, 81 years old, and admitting in a film he’s done things he regrets. This feels like Reynolds’ way of making amends. I think he’s earned the right for us to at least listen.
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