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Burt-athon: Southern son

Dixie rises again in the form of Burt Reynolds



If you were alive in the mid-1970s and not living in some leper colony or bug house, chances are Burt Reynolds was a frequent blip on your radar as the era's defining slice of beefcake.

A Georgia boy born in Waycross who then immigrated to Florida, Reynolds' Southern roots were reiterated in films such as Sharky's Machine (1981), Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Deliverance (1972) and White Lightning (1973), all of which, save the Arkansas moonshining opus White Lightning, took place in or around the capital of the New South: Atlanta.

It's a connection the organizers of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema's third-annual Rolling Roadshow Tour will milk for all its worth when its Burt-athon pulls into town Aug. 14, "celebrating the manliest being in human history."

The Burt-athon is only one leg on the Austin-based tour's geocinematic journey that includes screenings of North by Northwest at Mount Rushmore, Goldfinger at Fort Knox and the man-meets-wilderness Deliverance screened on the banks of the Chattooga River.

The reason for the semi-ironic cinephile tribute is clear: On screen, Reynolds remains an incomparably hairy, butch presence compared with the metrosexual leading men of today. For hipsters, Reynolds may epitomize their ambivalent relationship to masculinity. He's both slightly laughable with that sphinxlike machismo and simian brow, and enviable for his unapologetic manliness.

With a plot tailor-made for pinball machines, Sharky's Machine stars Reynolds as a too-cool-for-school homicide cop, Tom Sharky, demoted to the vice squad. As the one-man can of whoop-ass that Reynolds consistently played on screen, Sharky almost single-handedly busts open a prostitution ring, telling the racket's pimp with typical finesse, "It feels like you're a lump of shit lying in the bottom of the commode. And I've got my hand on the chain just waiting to pull it."

"Here's looking at you, kid," it ain't, but fairly typical of the rough-and-tumble verbiage Reynolds' characters tended to expel.

Definitive working-man Burt, 1977's Southern-kitsch extravaganza Smokey and the Bandit feels like the precursor to today's ascendent Hooters/NASCAR/Wal-Mart culture. Reynolds is Bo Darville, a smirking ladies' man cheered on by the CB-radio volk as he escorts a semi full of beer through the South with portly Texas Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) in hot pursuit.

Like a red-state Easy Rider, this road movie features Coors-drinking good ol' boys instead of pothead hippies fighting The Man. Sporting an enormous turquoise man-ring and cowboy hat, Reynolds replays a role that served him well in the '70s. He's the down-to-earth redneck Robin Hood, part of a subculture where cops with pendulous bellies and cowl-neck chins are the enemies, and a fast car and pretty women are the wily man's reward.

The best of the bunch, White Lightning continues the theme of Reynolds as a white knight of the working class. As inmate Gator McKlusky, Reynolds first appears working shirtless in the prison auto shop, buff and as brown and polished as a teak coffee table, dripping cornpone sensuality.

Gator learns his hippie brother has died at the hands of a corrupt Southern sheriff (Ned Beatty) who rules a small town; Gator makes a deal with the feds to bust the sheriff and avenge his brother's death. (Reynolds reprised his role three years later in the sequel Gator.)

Though it's a quintessentially Burt setting, it's also the porn-mag South referenced in exploitation nostalgia such as Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse and Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan.

As capable of striking fear in a Northerner's heart as Deliverance, White Lightning takes place in a South where the hot-to-trot womenfolk go barefoot, the local pool hall is packed at midday and endless car chases unfold on rural dirt roads. And Burt?

Burt does what he does best: grinning, driving, lady-killing and putting things right.

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