“That’s what Jackie’s house is for: to have a good time.” —Burt Reynolds, Boogie Nights
Because editors tend not to offer prime real estate to completely inexperienced writers, most critics’ careers get off to an inauspicious start, and here’s mine: The first movie I ever reviewed was 1993’s Cop And A Half, un film du Fonzie, starring Burt Reynolds and Norman D. Golden II. Reynolds plays a veteran detective forced to partner up with the world’s most obnoxious 8-year-old. He won the Razzie for Worst Actor, but the award was a long time coming—any acceptance speech would have to start by thanking the last 10 years of his career, a post-Stroker Ace losing streak that includes City Heat, Stick, Heat, Malone, Rent-A-Cop, Switching Channels, and Physical Evidence. (The one bright spot, Bill Forsyth’s lovely 1989 comedy Breaking In, at least had the benefit of being good, though few showed up to see it.) Cop And A Half is now mostly famous for inspiring one of the funniest disagreements between Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert: Ebert liked the film, and Siskel, aghast, said, “Where’s your big red suit and beard, Santa? You just gave them a gift.”
From this low moment came others in the few years that followed, including the Razzie-festooned Striptease—though Reynolds was the only one of seven nominees not to “win” for that film—a made-for-TV Sinbad vehicle called The Cherokee Kid, and and a minor role in the less-celebrated Rodney Dangerfield comedy Meet Wally Sparks. (Second bright spot: A brilliant turn as a suave, vain anti-abortion ministry leader in 1996’s Citizen Ruth.) Given this parade of misfortune, the opportunity to play Jack Horner in Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling ensemble piece about the adult filmmaking industry, must have felt like a life preserver tossed to a drowning man. Reynolds won more accolades than anyone in the cast and crew, earning him a Best Supporting Actor award from all the major critics’ guilds and the Golden Globes, as well as an Oscar bid that was grumpily conceded to Robin Williams. And for all this, Reynolds fired his agent.
Granted, Reynolds fired his agent before the acclaim for the film and his performance started rolling in; he had seen the rough cut and hated it, and his contentious relationship with Anderson throughout the shoot and promotional campaign deepened his regret. Cinema history is littered with examples of perceived disasters turned canonical classics, and it seems likely that Boogie Nights simply wasn’t to Reynolds’ taste. Whatever the case, there are two important things to consider about the casting of Burt Reynolds in the movie.
First, Anderson understands as well as any other director what an actor can bring to a movie—not just in terms of chops, but general persona, too. By casting Philip Baker Hall as a veteran gambler in his debut feature, Hard Eight, Anderson not only gave a rare showcase to an underappreciated character actor, but aligned himself with Robert Altman, who filmed Hall as Richard Nixon in the riveting one-man show Secret Honor. In Anderson’s hands, the seen-it-all quality of Hall’s crevassed face and the steady authority of his voice are right for a man who’s been living a rogue lifestyle for decades, but his hard-won wisdom also masks the vulnerability of a lonely degenerate. Anderson made an even more brilliant choice when he wrote Punch-Drunk Love around Adam Sandler, foregrounding the rage and violence that surfaces in Sandler’s popular comedies, and drawing out the primitive, childlike sweetness at his core. These are not merely actors playing roles, but a comment on their history as performers, the accumulation of parts that have led them to this point.
By casting Reynolds as Jack Horner, a top adult filmmaker in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Anderson brought the star back to his heyday, when he set the standard for hirsute masculinity in movies like Deliverance, The Longest Yard, Smokey And The Bandit, and Semi-Tough, and in his famous/infamous bearskin rug shot in Cosmopolitan. Though Jack is a middle-aged man in Boogie Nights, Reynolds plays him as a grey fox, someone who’s perfectly happy as the king of a hedonistic empire, but has the pragmatism and creeping regret that comes with his age and changing times. The role is both a throwback to the good times of old, when Reynolds was a popular and supremely confident sex symbol, and a reflection of the fallen idol he became after 15 years of unrelieved big-screen futility. Much of the impact of his performance comes from the audience knowing who he once was, where he was in his life and career, and how Anderson exploits both those factors to touching effect.
Which brings me to the second thing to remember about Reynolds in Boogie Nights: He’s a misfit. In charting the rise and fall of Horner and his troupe as they go from the healthy, libertine debauchery of the 1970s to the moralistic, desultory world of the 1980s, Anderson offers the porn industry as a stand-in for the film industry and the culture at large, which had shifted in a more conservative, business-oriented direction. But Reynolds was never really part of the 1970s filmmaking culture Anderson so plainly reveres. While iconoclasts like Altman and Martin Scorsese were out defining an auteur decade, Reynolds was out putting asses in seats. The auteur inmates may have run the studio asylum, but commercial films didn’t disappear in the 1970s, nor did popular stars like Reynolds, who didn’t appear interested in joining any troupes beyond Hal Needham’s. Reynolds is brilliant as Horner, but insofar as Horner represents the thwarted ambitions of 1970s directors who had their artistic license revoked in the 1980s, Boogie Nights is not his story.
Nevertheless, Reynolds does give the standout performance in Boogie Nights, and maybe the only one with a little mystery to it. It’s easier to get a read on Eddie Adams, a.k.a. Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), the earnest busboy about whom Jack, a keen talent scout, has “a feeling that beneath those jeans is something wonderful just waiting to get out.” Dirk, Rollergirl (Heather Graham), Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), and others in Jack’s stable of stars are all lost children, clinging to Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), the fucked-up “mother to all those who need love.” But in the tradition of Anderson father figures, Jack’s relationship to his “children” is more fraught, torn between genuine love for his surrogate family and a pragmatism about his chosen business. When cocaine abuse and erratic behavior hamper Dirk’s performance, it’s on Jack to cast him out and replace him with the next young stud who can perform on cue. Even with the dawn of video, when Jack can shoot forever without fretting over wasted film stock, he only has so much patience.
Though Boogie Nights is Dirk’s story, the film’s overarching themes on art and culture in the 1970s and 1980s belong more to Jack—and Anderson, director to director, treats his odyssey with equal passion. Anderson is exceedingly generous to Jack in much the same way that Tim Burton is exceedingly generous to Ed Wood in Ed Wood: Both Anderson and Burton celebrate the passion behind disreputable art, and allow that the act of creating something silly, like a stilted prelude to a lovemaking session between Dirk and Amber, can have real feeling behind it. Boogie Nights opens in 1977, well after movies like Deep Throat and Behind The Green Door briefly made porn in vogue, but Anderson respects Jack’s vision of movies that couples might see together, with stories that, in his words, “will keep them in the theater after they’ve come.” Even those words of inspiration, part of a sales pitch to The Man Who Would Be Diggler, arrive with a note of compromise. Jack knows “You need the big dicks, the big tits” to get people into the theater, but he desire to do something more is legitimate and infectious.
In the early going, “Jackie’s house” is the place to have a good time; there’s a little of the old Burt Reynolds in those early scenes, puffing a cigar and glad-handing the young, beautiful hedonists jackknifing into the pool or furtively fucking in the corner. But as the 1970s turn decisively into the 1980s—via a New Year’s party that features both an ominous warning about the onset of videotape and the murder-suicide of a crew member—Jack has to compromise in order to survive. By the time Jack’s reduced to a Candid Camera host, trolling the streets in a limo to give some lucky Joe his five minutes with a porn star, Reynolds finally shows his age. The dream is over for him: He’s just a sad old pornographer now, shooting on video, conceding to a new reality where he isn’t saving marriages by spicing up their sex lives, but servicing living-room masturbators.
Ever hopeful about human nature, Anderson ends Boogie Nights on an optimistic note, believing Jack and his surrogate family can support each other even if the industry abandons them. For Reynolds, though, it was back to the wilderness: Neither the awards attention nor new representation revived his career, which found him increasing the quantity of his roles without a commensurate boost in quality. He worked his Needham image into a key supporting role in the Sylvester Stallone movie Driven, and did a brief victory lap in the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard, but otherwise worked to keep working, bottoming out among the rogue’s gallery of mercenary actors in Uwe Boll’s In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. Twenty years before Boogie Nights, Reynolds was among the biggest stars in Hollywood, but the business has a way of cruelly depositing people on the other side of fame.
Jack Horner knows the feeling.