It was the Age of the Mustache — and of men who acted genially boyish while exuding testosterone-fueled swagger. It was also the Age of the Burgeoning Female Gaze, when women shed the last vestiges of being the “finer,” relationally attuned sex and began to participate in the pleasures of objectification.
The man for that ’70s moment was, unmistakably, Burt Reynolds, who died on Thursday, and who embodied — in a world before the advent of gender fluidity, metrosexuality and queer theory — an easygoing sexuality seemingly free of conflict. With his gridiron build, manifestly hairy chest and crinkly dark eyes suggesting an abiding sense of humor, Reynolds — hard though it may be to believe now — topped the list of box-office stars for five years, from 1978-1982, a feat equaled only by Bing Crosby before him.
From the beginning, the vehicles — “Shark!”, “White Lightning,” “Smokey and the Bandit” (which eventually went on to a second and third iteration), “The End” — seemed to matter less than the actor’s insouciant presence in them, but there were also the strong dramatic performances he delivered in “Deliverance,” “Semi-Tough” and, much later on, in a brief but potent appearance in “Boogie Nights” as well as his autobiographical role in the 2017 film “The Last Movie Star.”
Part of his appeal lay in the fact that it was never entirely clear whether Reynolds was playing to his strengths or riffing on them; indeed, Pauline Kael once described him as having an “insider’s jokey contempt for the whole entertainment business.” In 1972, right after he displayed his thespian chops in “Deliverance,” he chose to capitalize on his beefcake charm by posing for a nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan, assuming a coyly odalisque position on a bearskin rug. I was in my late teens at the time and not a Cosmopolitan reader, but I still remember going out to buy that issue and staring at Reynolds — an actor I had not otherwise particularly warmed to — in all his glory (well, not quite all) with a frisson of delight, reveling in the fact that the erotic optics were now mine to claim and study closely.
Then again, the whole notion of women assessing men in terms of their looks, of beholding male beauty not just as an add-on or a sidebar but for the ding an sich, the thing itself, is relatively new — starting, I’d guess, with Marlon Brando. Whereas beautiful women have always had a mystique, launching the thousand ships of the masculine imagination (Norman Mailer devoted an entire book to examining the anguished complexity that underlay the bubble-brained façade of Marilyn Monroe), the appreciation of gorgeous men is a different, more uneasy phenomenon.
For one thing, one inevitably bumps up against the homoerotic tradition, which has always venerated the male physical ideal; for another, women have generally been conditioned to love men in the way that the poet W.B. Yeats thought only God loved women: for themselves alone and not their yellow hair. Undoubtedly, this has a lot to do with the unspoken rules of the culture we live in, which allows men to grow old and gray without losing their allure — thereby underscoring the fact that women are valued primarily as decorative where men are not.
Reynolds’s centerfold, much as he might have come to regret it, indicated that a shift was in the air. In 1973 came “The Way We Were,” in which the Sleeping Beauty was no longer a damsel in distress but a blond-haired and blue-eyed creature named Robert Redford — dressed in white, no less. He was gazed at tremulously and kissed into wakefulness by the ugly duckling, Barbra Streisand (more than one myth of beauty was at play here, it seems).
Whereas the 1967 film “The Graduate” had given us the ultimate vision of amorous pursuit, “The Way We Were” skewed that vision one gradation further: The discreet object of desire was not a Beautiful Woman, but a Beautiful Man. And what the inversion showed us was that the ache, the longing, remained the same.
It’s odd to think that fashions in male ideals change as reliably as fashions in what constitutes female beauty, but there’s no doubt that they do. Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman spoke to a different, more imperfect and less suave ethos than Redford or Reynolds, who might be seen as Redford’s dark counterpart.
Although it seems to go against the dictates of our biological underpinnings to think that something as ostensibly organic as sexual desire can seem dated — as well as the cultural ideals that go along with it — one can’t refute the reality that Reynolds and his macho charisma appears from our current vantage point as retrograde as Cary Grant or Charles Boyer’s debonair personas.
After Reynolds came the more bland, pretty-boy variants, such as Brad Pitt, Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise, but these days the heterosexual premium has been leavened by an infusion of perceptibly vulnerable and slightly androgynous types like Ryan Gosling, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck.
Typology, of course, goes only so far. There was more to Reynolds than his hypermasculinity, as was apparent in his uproarious self-send-ups on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” and his romantic involvement with the much older and more sophisticated Dinah Shore. And then there was his relationship with Sally Field, who was not a conventional beauty and seemed to have the sort of depth that didn’t appear to be part of Reynolds’s second wife Loni Anderson’s makeup. Field’s memoir, “In Pieces,” is being published shortly and will surely shed some more light on what made Reynolds tick. Meanwhile, there’s the memory of his bon vivant, old-boy-but-not-quite cinematic presence — and of that defining fillip of a mustache.
Daphne Merkin is a novelist and critic. Her most recent book is a memoir, This Close to Happy. She writes a movie column for The New Republic.