Burt Reynolds: Portrait Of A Superstar – what we learned

This article contains hairy Burt Reynolds, manly Burt Reynolds and, er, naked Burt Reynolds...

I’ll be honest, pretty much everything I know about Burt Reynolds comes from Archer. But that’s okay. I’ve got a copy of Burt Reynolds: Portrait Of A Superstar, a 1979 paperback biography by Dianna Whitley, which claims to be “An illustrated tribute to America’s Number 1 box-office male.” While it might be a decade or three out of date, surely it would be an adequate tome to give me a background of Reynolds, who delighted 70s audiences in the likes of Deliverance, Smokey And The Bandit and The Longest Yard, and endeared himself to a new generation in Boogie Nights?


Well, not really. The book, saved from a charity shop by the Den Of Geek braintrust and given to me to dissect, is a strange, fascinating, baffling, frequently hilarious and occasionally offensive thing to behold. Obviously a cheap cash-in, it’s similar to the unofficial One Direction or Jennifer Lawrence paperbacks that you see near the till in HMV that make simple gifts for teenage nieces everywhere. It’s a slim 100 page A4 volume that alternates standard biographical information with chapters of nothing but sickeningly sycophantic praise for its subject, and at its very nadir, basically just erotic Burt Reynolds fan-fiction.

Before we get to the text though, the first thing that grabs you are the pictures. The back cover promises “more that 50 photos of this gifted star,” and while they’re all in black and white, they don’t disappoint. If you like shirtless 70s dudes with big moustaches, you’re in for a treat. It’s basically an unironic Ron Burgundy lookbook. Gaze upon Reynolds wearing nothing but Speedos gallivanting in a swimming pool with legendary stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham. Swoon at Burt and Gator co-star Lauren Hutton wearing one chunky knitwear cardigan big enough to fit both of them. Even better, though, are the captions.

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“Casually holding a glass of champagne, leaning against his Mercedes, Burt is a class act.”

“Burt is very protective to the women in his life, and still holds many values that are considered old fashioned.”

An on-set photo from The Longest Yard of him with two girls, subtly pulling down their tops is captioned with “At work or play, Burt always shows appreciation for the ladies.” Another shot of him with some female fans is accompanied by “Burt always has time for his fans – especially when they’re pretty women.”

The first chapter opens with Burt chilling on the set of forgotten 70s comedy Starting Over. They’re filming in New York, and fans are desperately clamouring to see Burt.

Whitley evocatively sets the scene: “Several women gather round the truck where he is lying down, inches away, and there is excitement in the air just knowing he is there. ‘Is Burt Reynolds REALLY there?’ a latecomer asks. She immediately joins the others, who are clearly planning to wait in the rain to get a glimpse of him.”

It sets the two precedents in tone that will define the book. First, that Burt Reynolds is a demi-god beyond reproach who combines the best qualities of Steve McQueen, George Best, Ryan Gosling and Jesus. And second, a very conservative worldview, where women should be glad of a man’s attention and out of date racial terms are still acceptable. “Two hours pass. The group of people waiting for Burt to appear are an indication of his broad appeal. There are a handful of women of various ages, a couple of blacks, an old man and a couple of kids.”

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The purple prose continues. “The kind of electricity Burt exudes has to do with presence. He has a magnetism that is almost palpable – an energy you can feel across a room… This kind of thing is called power, and there is no question about the fact that Reynolds possesses it.”

The fawning is hideous. And it keeps going. In the author’s eyes, he is a grand thespian, man of the people, bare knuckle scrapper and sex god all rolled into one. “He is the kind of man who commands great loyalty and affection, yet triggers off fear at the same time. You also wouldn’t want to disappoint him, because he is the kind of man you like immediately, and you would never want to let him down. And if you are a woman, he is the kind of man you might do anything just to spend a few hours with.”

The next few chapters go through Reynold’s secret origin, which is all standard VH1 Behind The Music level stuff. Grew up in the south, was a hit with the ladies at school, wanted to be an American football star until an injury dashed his dreams and he discovered acting. It’s full of sloppy journalism, no quotes are ever credited and there are no sources for any events. Whitley writes about him running through football plays in his hospital bed like she was sitting there next to him.

There are few interesting tidbits though. There’s a bizarre anecdote about him hanging around Marlon Brando’s house to beat him up after he disrespected him at a restaurant (Brando never showed up), and apparently he got fired from his first proper TV job because he punched out the assistant director and he fell off a boat (despite Whitley’s hagiographising, Reynolds often comes off as a bit of a dick).

It’s also implied that being an Aquarius gives Burt superhuman acting powers, and there’s this wonderful passage: “It came as no surprise to anyone who knew anything about astrology when Burt showed up, against the advice of his friends and advisers, in the pages of Cosmopolitan, naked as the day he was born, and smiling with the satisfaction of knowing that once again he had broken all the rules. It was revealing in more ways than one.”

But it’s when we get to chapter 6, which details his short marriage to actress Judy Carne, that the real madness starts…

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“It was love at first sight. She thought he was handsome and witty. He thought she was funny and bright and a totally captivating free spirit. He was twenty-six and she was twenty-two. It was a powerful attraction and neither of them fought it. They lived together for a year, and got married. Then, three short years later, it was over, leaving them both with terrible pain and confusion.”

Hankies ready?

Basically, as the book tells it, Judy Carne was an independent woman with her own career, Reynolds couldn’t handle his wife being more successful than him and they split up. And the staggering thing is the book paints Burt as completely justified in this…

“When they went places together, it was her autograph people wanted, her picture they took. This would be hard on any man… Burt’s ego took a beating every time they stepped out the door. To make matters worse, Judy became the breadwinner of the family.”

Whitley goes on. “It was a situation that the most mature and stable person would have difficulty with. For an insecure person, it was like living on top of dynamite with a chain smoker”. “Her Tinker Bell love of freedom and unconventional ideas about how to live suddenly didn’t seem so appealing to Burt… He didn’t want a kookie marriage.”

There’s a real mean streak directed at Carne, with Whitley constantly criticising her “elflike” looks and casually mentioning that the most of girls Reynolds had previously seen were “been much more voluptuous” than her.

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Things just get crazier from there. The next chapter opens like this: “To understand someone as complex and unusual as Burt Reynolds, it is helpful to take a look at his horoscope.” Yup, we now get three pages of unsubstantiated speculation about Burt Reynolds based on his star sign.

It’s padded with loads more fawning – “He is an original one-of-a-kind-model” – and more crass sexism dress up as nobility: “With women in particular, he has always believed in telling the truth, even when it hurts – which it often does, since he has a well-known wandering eye and a voracious appetite for the opposite sex.”

And then we get to the next chapter, entitled “Burt’s Kind of Woman”, where it really goes off the rails, whipping a furious blend of woman-on-woman body-shaming hate and enough Burt Reynolds erotic fan-fiction to embarrass even the most fervent One Direction Tumblr shipper. “Reynolds is rarely seen with the kind of glamour girls that other men in his position might be drawn to… None of the women he has dated have been the big-breasted, low-cut sparkly type. The woman he married looks more like Peter Pan than most twelve-year-old girls. He himself describes [former girlfriend] Dinah Shore as “chicken soup,” which seems apt. She is a beautiful, charming, and accomplished woman, but there is nothing flashy about her. She is… well, chicken soup.”

Let’s quickly ignore that the book has just sexualised twelve year old girls and chicken soup, and find out what Burt Reynolds looks for in a woman.

“He likes a woman to be totally self-sufficient, and yet says he is something of a chauvinist, definitely preferring to be in charge of the situation.” Yet again, despite the author trying to paint him as a saint, he comes off as a douche. “There are a few other things he finds difficult to accept in a female. One is a woman who swears a lot. Another is a swing mentality. He is also put off by “hip” jargon. He runs in the other direction if a girl dots her conversation with “heavy,” “right on,” and “far out,” just as he is left cold by the kind of trite and brainless approach like “What are your hobbies?” Burt Reynolds does demand a lot from a woman if he is going to invest his time and interest in her.”

We have no source for this information, other than presumably the author’s daydreams.

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It just gets worse.

Women are so attracted to him, because they “instinctively sense his ability as a lover. It seems that if his reputation as a Don Juan is not deserved, his reputation as a lover is. Ex-wife Judy Carne says that is because he is a giver. The thing that gives him the most enjoyment in sex is giving enjoyment. This is a truly rare quality that any woman worth her salt recognises intuitively… As well as being good-looking and funny, he exudes the feeling that he is one of the world’s all-time great lovers.” Ew. Ew. Ew.

Thankfully, the rest of the book goes back to tamer territory. There’s a chapter dedicated to his infamous nude photoshoot in Cosmopolitan, which apparently changed the world but cost him an Oscar. Whitley also goes to great lengths to explain how down to earth a guy Burt Reynolds is, but then offhandedly mentions that he installed an $8,000 carpet in a tree house, and that his ranch sells Burt Reynolds memorabilia. The book ends with his Smokey And The Bandit and Gator success, letting us know that his “filming schedule continues well into 1982,” and the last chapter is basically extended shipping about Reynolds and his then girlfriend Sally Fields, where Whitley excitedly hopes they’ll get married and live happily forever and ever and ever (spoiler: they don’t, and Fields marries another guy in 1984).

Obviously, the book is just a cheap cash-in, and I’m sure Dianna Whitley just wrote it as quickly as she could as her day job. But it’s such a crazy object to have in 2015. It’s worth it for the pictures alone, but the crazy tone is what makes it so memorable.

Up to that point, Burt Reynolds didn’t necessarily have that unique a story, so only half of it or so is actually a biography. The rest is obsessive fandom of him, which in a pre-internet era is I guess was what anyone buying this book would want. It’s just that the attempts to prove his sainthood, when he actually comes across as a bit of a chauvinist prick, the weirdly anti-woman tone, and the use of some outdated racial terms (‘blacks’, ‘negros’ and ‘half-breeds’ – Reynolds has Cherokee heritage – all get namechecked), all just show us what a terrifying place the 1970s must have been.

Still, White Lightning looks pretty awesome though.

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