Burt Reynolds has always done a fine job of de- and re-constructing himself. In the film "Boogie Nights," however, the ever self-reflexive Burt has
stunned even me with his hard-core disdain for ego protection. He is so
un-precious in the role of Patriarchal Porn Papa that you actually kind of
wince for him; YOU want to protect him from the bang-up job he's doing of
savaging his own persona.
In the '70s Burt took himself unseriously as a sideburned and
shirtless priapic tusk-totem, but he always kind of WAS the thing he was
laughing at himself for being, too -- jokey or not, the fact was that his
hirsute bronzeitude and barely-concealed cho-cho in that '70s issue of
Cosmopolitan made a lot of needy women lather up into the same Dionysian
estrus normally reserved for Barbara Cartland books or the Chippendale's
dancers. Burt, the undisputed king of being In It But Not Of It, is a model
for survival in this fickle age of whiplash celebrity In/Out and Hot/Not.
Burt successfully weathered the crippling overexposure of his unmasculine
personal habits at the hands of his ex-wife, denim 'n' diamond show-pet Loni Anderson, and is now triumphing as a guy who makes a living making fun of the way he made a living in the '70s.
Burt seems to have cracked the code of American redemption, which can be had in three easy steps.
Step One: The rise. Attain celebrity and all of its trappings for some insubstantial, uncontrollable reason: your looks, for example, or some accidental sex-hum that occasionally wriggles through your behavior in front of the Right People. During this phase, be talked into indulging a shameful tightness of clothing and runaway ego hemorrhages that involve abusing your entourage as you would a disobedient llama. Purchase and co-design a fantasy ranch home filled with that year's cacti, velour sectional couches and too-creative handloomed art-rugs and clotty hangings. Flow around Los Angeles with a sense of monumental grandeur that is reignited by every valet car parker or ambitious waiter or poor unfabulous suckhole unfortunate enough to run up to you thinking that a Celebrity actually wants the love of their fans and an explanation of exactly how that very personal love came about. When your face appears on TV in a million homes simultaneously, the angstroms of all that attention will collect around your persona and make you luminous, and that luminosity will make you important. That importance will make you think you're RIGHT.
Step Two: The fall. The weight of your collective wrongness starts to outweigh your collective star angstroms. This does not happen overnight, even with a major scandal attached. Your personality begins to sag, despite surgical bunting, and incrementally you lose the Swerve, the elusive lustmagic that led celebrity to your door in the first place. You begin to lose yourself and have public weaknesses and faults; your Look twists wildly away from a manifestation of your own style and taste into an advertisement for some homosexual couturier. Your more dignified friendships evaporate and you are left surrounded by your now overfamiliar grocery-carrying sycophants. There could be drugs involved, divorces and a horribly abortive comeback attempt.
Farrah Fawcett is a great example of a late Step Two in action. She recently made a very tottery, self-humiliating veer into the nether realm of scronky withered nudism. Apparently fueled by some kind of terrible secret, she turned herself into a naked, writhing paintbrush for the art lovers of the Playboy Channel -- the kind of sprawling,
non-discriminating succubus commonly found on velvet over Persian waterbeds. Farrah chucked over years' worth of respectable TV workability to careen into a rut that even most ancient porn stars like Porsche Lynn won't stoop to. Porsche, battling long-in-the-toothitude, correctly became a Classy Lady: a dominatrix for foot fetishists. She doesn't take it off anymore; Porsche wears severe jodhpurs and bowler hats and gave up trying to work the unconscious-blonde-flesh role specifically designed for runaway 18-year-old girls from small American towns who fall in with the wrong boyfriend. There is no fecundity wafting off the page in an airbrushed shot of debased old Farrah, whose vividly comestible sexiness was quietly beaten to death by Ryan O'Neal in the '80s. As a Step Two celebrity, you are wallowing in life-lessons so extreme you will most likely end up dead, like Elvis, or living, like Elizabeth Taylor or Michael Jackson, as an utterly self-ruined medico freak who needs to be frantically reassembled by teams of laser surgeons every time you want to step out of the oxygen chamber. Anyway, this will be the most dangerous part of your journey.
Step Three: You make a successful comeback as a total mockery of yourself and all your former hubris, like a repentant coke fiend who tells his bloodcaked-face-on-the-men's-room-tile story again and again as a morality tale to other coke fiends at NA meetings. Reynolds, new reigning Master of Step Three, is now a true American Hero. In Wagnerian fashion, he is now crushing himself gloriously under the ruins of his former empire. He isn't trying to front as a sexual commodity anymore and slog his breastly man-midriff into Ladies' Home Journal as whack-off material for the menopause set. He has become extreme: His toupees are no longer tastefully invisible, but are ironically curling into the size of tricorner hats. Burt has seamlessly become a grotesque commedia dell'arte version of himself, complete with papier-mâché codpiece and sausage-nose, and he has gracefully Zambonied over a potentially huge possible landscape of ugly comeuppances by being the first guy on the block to fuck himself.
Farrah can really learn something from our Burt, once she shoos the sharks out of her hydrocephalic skull. For Christ's sake, woman, Burt would say. Fame was all nothing, smoke and mirrors, vapor and amphetamine. Let go. Drift into the joke, don't fight the inexorable pull of your own ridiculousness. Float over the abyss, dance, cackle and spit down at your craven, huddling past. Maybe you can learn to love yourself at 60.
Maybe in Boogie Nights II they can find a role for Farrah as the ancient porn star, still trying to turn that awful trick at 55, and she can be brilliantly painful in her guttered, carnally obsolete flesh. If it worked for Burt, it can work for everyone.