Why Burt Reynolds Was Such a Compelling Sex Symbol

Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights. Photo: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

In her tremendous book The Male Body Susan Bordo writes, “When we look at bodies (including our own in the mirror), we don’t just see biological nature at work, but values and ideals, differences and similarities that culture has written, so to speak, on those bodies.” This is never more true than for movie stars like Burt Reynolds. The story Reynolds’s body told at the height of his fame in the 1970s is that of hot summer nights and cold beers, the joy of living thoroughly in the present, and the kind of charisma that carries its own gravitational pull.

An entire book can be written about Reynolds’s understanding of desire, women, and navigating being a totemic cultural sex symbol. After his 1972 breakout with the raw-nerved Deliverance, Reynolds went on to cultivate a unique image brimming with swagger, athleticism, relaxed bravado, and a joyful adventurous streak in Gator, Smokey and the Bandit, and The Longest Yard. He made many career missteps, even at the height of his stardom, which is understandable, given that he was a vehicle for blinding charisma first and foremost. He learned how to act along the way. But even in his misfires, your eyes are drawn to him. What I’ve always loved about Reynolds is how well he worked with women. It wasn’t just plain desire, either. There is a glint of respect and camaraderie he has with the women he shares a screen with. He worked best with highly distinctive, ultra-feminine powerhouses like Dolly Parton, Jill Clayburgh, Candice Bergen, and Goldie Hawn. He didn’t trample over their lines or force scenes to pivot around him — he made room for them. He knew they were powerful and let them shine in a way we don’t quite see in Hollywood anymore.

As Sheila O’Malley writes in her moving review of one of Reynolds’s final roles, The Last Movie Star, “Reynolds acted from pure natural charisma, something unique to him. It won’t win Oscars, but Oscars do not equal actual worth. If you think being ‘charming’ is easy, then walk into a party where you don’t know anyone and try to be as charming as Reynolds. He committed the ‘crime’ of making it all look easy.”

But like most people of my generation, or anyone born after its release in 1972, my first introduction to Reynolds was his nude spread in Cosmopolitan. It’s hard to think of another image that so neatly encapsulates a movie star. Even though I knew nothing of Reynolds when I first saw the image, what I did see still defines my understanding of him — the elegant vulgarity, athleticism, animal magnetism, comfort in his body, and a smile that speaks to private moments he doesn’t mind including you in. The nude spread is tame by the standards of today, but it was a major cultural turning point. A sex symbol at the height of his prowess had never been sexualized and sexy in that way.

Modern audiences may know him even better for his role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film Boogie Nights. And more than any other film in his storied career, Boogie Nights synthesizes Reynolds strengths — his easygoing physicality and lightning-bright charisma — and utilizes his history as a cultural sex symbol who communicated ease and desire.

Boogie Nights is a raucous, biting tale, sweeping through the lives of several characters in order to tell the rise and fall of porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) — in turn creating a ragged portrait of the late 1970s and early 1980s through the strange family of porn stars, filmmakers, and addicts that exist in Dirk’s orbit. He’s discovered in 1977 by Reynolds’s Jack Horner, a porn auteur with a devilish smile, an eye for talent, and an astute understanding of how desire works.

It’s this history that Reynolds brings to his every gesture and word in Boogie Nights, which is why it’s hard to imagine anyone else as Jack Horner. The character seems tailored to Reynolds’s sensibilities and place in our cinematic canon. (Surprisingly, he wasn’t the first choice for the role. It was reportedly offered to Harvey Keitel originally.)

A few minutes into Boogie Nights, after we first meet Jack, Reynolds has to communicate the joy of discovery and curiosity in a single glance. Across the dance floor and low-lit tables of a club run by Maurice Rodriguez (Luis Guzmán), Jack Horner sees the man who would become Dirk Diggler, and communicates to us that he has it better than any other moment in the opening scenes of the film. This moment feels like a portent and promise because of Reynolds. It sets the tone for the film, which suggests again and again that desire is natural and worthy of study. With Reynolds in particular, when I mention desire, I’m not just talking about sex and lust. Reynolds has communicated desire in a multitude of forms — for adventure, love, a good meal, a woman — as if telling us through his confident steps that life is worth living joyfully in the present moment.

His showcase scene in Boogie Nights is essentially a seduction. After Dirk catches his eye, and he later has Rollergirl (Heather Graham) size him up (to put it as mildly as possible) more thoroughly, he’s finally able to get him to a diner for a more thorough conversation. Jack, Dirk, Rollergirl, and porn star/leading lady Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) sit down over cups of coffee, laying out the nature of what you need to do to tempt an audience with your work as a porn star and porn director. It’s Jack who does most of the talking, and Reynolds is simply tremendous in this scene — his salt and pepper hair gleaming, his eyes focused intensely on Dirk. Because they’re seated, you don’t see his traditional athleticism in full bloom. But he still moves in a way that communicates Jack’s knowledge and hunger. Sometimes he hunches over the table, leaning in toward Dirk as if they are sharing a hidden confidence. Other times, he leans back with a natural braggadocio, suggesting to Dirk, “You can move through the world just like me if you follow my lead.”

Paul Thomas Anderson allows his camera to graze over the faces of the others at the table, while Reynolds’s assured voice acts as our anchor. Amber Waves gives a lustful glance at Dirk, who keeps his eyes trained on Jack, as if he holds the secrets to how the world works in his breast pocket. “How do you keep them in the theater after they cum? With beauty and with acting,” Jack intones with graveled certainty. Just as he did when he hit supernova status in the 1970s, Reynolds feels fully, completely, nakedly honest in this moment. This is a man savoring life — how could you not say yes?

Why Burt Reynolds Was Such a Compelling Sex Symbol