|Burt Reynolds (Bandit) gets a lift of a different sort|
Even when a film - or a series of films - on their face, appear to be nothing more than pop culture fluff, if they have reached millions of viewers in global wide release, then odds are there is more going on than one would imagine at first glance. Such is the case with Hal Needham's "stars 'n' cars" Hollywood Smokey and the Bandit cinema franchise.
Needham was an old movie hand working for years as a preeminent stuntman. He both wrote and directed these action/comedy films, which in their time had the top box office grosses in the world, and their star, Burt Reynolds, was the highest paid actor around. Surely the success of Smokey and the Bandit couldn't have been attributable just to Reynolds' sex appeal, lots of action scenes involving "muscle cars," and ensemble casts packed with country music or sports stars like the Statler Brothers and Terry Bradshaw? The films also had important visual and story subtexts which proved very valuable in building an audience. These subtexts employed a strategy of ambiguity that allowed for multiple readings by the viewer, which in turn gave the movies very broad appeal.
|Actor Jackie Gleason as Sheriff Buford T. Justice|
Current events prior and into the 1970s, such as the civil rights and women's movements, caused cultural fractures, which these films reworked for popular consumption by making the issues less polarized. On the gender wars front in the era of 70's second wave feminism, Reynolds for example, on the surface seems to be a macho he-man roaring around in sporty cars and cracking wise. His appeal would come through to a traditional male audience on the movie poster before a word is spoken or a scene is played. But Reynolds also appeared as the first male nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan, a magazine pitched at unmarried working women. Reynolds could thus be read as appealing to the mass market idea of a "liberated women" by allowing himself to be sexually objectified the way only female nude centerfolds had been previously in magazines for men like Playboy or Penthouse.
Smokey and the Bandit also reformed the image of post-civil rights southerners. Southerners to this point were read by the public as violent, racist, lynching-happy rednecks and Bull Conner's dog wielding police. Hal Needham's movie franchise had Burt Reynolds turning southern men back into friendly good-old-boys, and Jackie Gleason's sheriff role making scary southern sheriffs seem like harmless bumbling idiots. Reynolds was doing a live action Bugs Bunny to Gleason's Elmer Fudd. Where the contemporary crop of film rebels to that point had been split along ideological lines - for example Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry appealing to right-wingers and films like Easy Rider appealing to left-wing audiences - everyone in a general audience could go see Burt Reynold's jokey character and see what they wanted to see. Other blockbusters of the era, such as The Godfather, were so popular because they could be ambiguously read by audiences of almost any leaning (like Smokey and the Bandit).
For more information, look at the excellent work of Jacob Smith in "Film Criticism" (2005).