Friday, October 25, 2013

Hal Needham's legacy: Smokey and the Bandit

On the occasion of the passing of Hal Needham, here is a slightly revised version of a chapter from my 2004 book Joe Leydon's Guide to Essential Movies You Must See.

A textbook example of a hand-tooled star vehicle that forever labels the star in its driver’s seat, Smokey and the Bandit also is noteworthy for being the movie most often credited – or, perhaps more precisely, blamed – for kicking off an action-comedy subgenre best described as Cross-Country Demolition Derby.

Two lesser sequels and at least one long-running TV series (The Dukes of Hazzard) can be traced directly to this broadly played hodgepodge of high-speed driving, lowbrow humor and spectacular car crashes. But wait, there’s more: Smokey and the Bandit, the debut feature of stuntman-turned-filmmaker Hal Needham, also inspired literally dozens of other pedal-to-the-metal extravaganzas – mostly redneck melodramas and cornpone comedies, along with Needham’s own in-jokey Cannonball Run movies -- throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Decades later, its very title still serves as shorthand for a particular type of undemanding crowd-pleaser with smart-alecky heroes, dim-bulb authority figures and more high-octane action than a month of NASCAR events.

The thin plot is a serviceable excuse for stringing together scenes of cartoonish frivolity and vehicular misadventure. Bandit (Burt Reynolds), a swaggering prankster and maverick trucker, wagers that he can transport contraband beer from Texas to Georgia in record time. While a faithful friend (Jerry Reed) does much of the actual driving in the lager-stocked 18-wheeler, Bandit darts about in a souped-up Trans Am, on the lookout for any “Smokey” (i.e., highway cop) who might impede their high-speed progress.

Complications arise when Bandit arouses the ire of an especially grizzly Smokey, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), by picking up a perky hitchhiker (Sally Field) who just happens to be the runaway bride of the sheriff’s cretinous son (Mike Henry).

Initially dismissed as a freakish regional hit at Deep South drive-ins, Smokey and the Bandit gradually proved equally popular in major metropolitan markets, and wound up in the record books as the second-highest grossing film (right behind Star Wars) of 1977. Some have credited its phenomenal popularity to its subversive allure as fantasy fulfillment: Bandit repeatedly outsmarts and humiliates Sheriff Justice and all other law-enforcement officials who dare to impinge on his God-given right to ignore any posted speed limit. (Some academic somewhere doubtless has earned a doctorate by explaining why so many pop tunes and popcorn flicks of the ’70s equated driving over 55 with all-American rebelliousness.) Most other observers, however, credit the movie’s appeal – for contemporary viewers as well as ’70s ticketbuyers -- to the once-in-a-lifetime matching of player and character.

Even moviegoers not yet born when Smokey and the Bandit first screeched into theaters reflexively think of the hard-driving, trash-talking trucker whenever they hear Reynolds’ name. Part of that can be explained by the virtually nonstop exposure of Needham’s movie on cable and home video. But it’s instructive to consider Reynolds’ own role in erasing the lines between actor and character, man and mythos.

In the wake of his becoming an “overnight success” after years of journeymen work in television and movies, Reynolds embraced typecasting – and tongue-in-cheeky self-promotion – with unseemly fervor. For the better part of a decade, he chronically reprised his Bandit shtick – winking insouciance, naughty-boy sarcasm, zero-cool self-assurance – in motion pictures and TV talk shows. It was funny, for a while, and then it wasn’t. Trouble is, by the time it stopped being funny, the image was firmly affixed in the public’s collective pop-culture consciousness. So much so, in fact, that even after demonstrating his versatility in a wide range of character roles -- most memorably, as the prideful porn-film director in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997) – Reynolds appears destined to always be remembered best for one indelibly defining character.

On the other hand, there are far less pleasant ways for an actor to ensure his immortality. When asked about his enduring linkage to Bandit in 2003, more than a generation after playing the cocky trucker, Reynolds addressed the mixed blessing with typically self-effacing humor.

“I’m very flattered,” he said, “by how some people still respond to that character. I still have guys in Trans Ams pull up to me at stoplights and yell, ‘Dammit! You’re the reason I got this thing!’

“But I also remember a while back, when I was offering an acting seminar in Florida, that I was afraid they’d go over to the auto-racetrack looking for me, instead of the theater. And even when they did show up at the right place, I felt I should tell them: ‘Those of you who are wearing your racing gloves – take them off, we’re not going to need them, we’re going to talk about other things.’”

Of course, if the audience loves a character (and, better still, the actor playing that character) the character can get away with practically anything, even coming off as a bona fide egomaniac. Midway through Smokey and the Bandit, Reynolds recalled, “There’s a moment when Sally asks me, ‘What is it that you do best?’ And I say, ‘Show off.’ And she says, ‘Yeah, you do that well.’ At the time we made the film, I thought to myself, ‘If I can get that line out and they still like me – “they” being the audience – we’re home free.’ Because basically, that’s who (Bandit) was, what he was all about.”

The line got big laughs, indicating just how much the audience really, really liked Bandit. And, of course, the actor who played him.


peter pilgrim said...

Nice article that explores and explains the longstanding appeal of a classic film.

Tim Chris said...

Going to Be Some boring old post, it really Compensated goal for my time.