Star Vehicle: Burt Reynolds in WHITE LIGHTNING (United Artists 1973)

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Burt Reynolds labored for years in the Hollywood mines, starring in some ill-fated TV series (his biggest success on the small screen was a three-year run in a supporting role on GUNSMOKE) and movies (nonsense like SHARK! and SKULLDUGGERY) before hitting it big in John Boorman’s DELIVERANCE. Suddenly, the journeyman actor was a hot property (posing butt-naked as a centerfold for COSMOPOLITAN didn’t hurt, either!), and studios were scurrying to sign him on to their projects. WHITE LIGHTNING was geared to the Southern drive-in crowd, but Reynolds’ new-found popularity, along with the film’s anti-authority stance, made it a success across the nation.

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WHITE LIGHTNING takes place in rural Arkansas, and Gator McKluskey (Burt) is doing a stretch in Federal prison for running moonshine. His cousin visits and tells Gator his younger brother Donnie was murdered by Sheriff J.C. Connors, the crooked boss of Bogan County. A raging Gator tries to escape, but is immediately caught, so he makes a deal with the Feds to get the goods on the sheriff. Not that Gator’s eager to assist those damn revenuers… his main goal is to avenge Donnie’s death.

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Gator’s given a souped-up 1971 Ford Galaxie Custom 500, complete with a 429 Police Interceptor/Cobra Jet engine, and a link to mechanic/moonrunner Dude Watson, who’s violated his Fed Pro (that’s Federal Probation to you non-criminal types). Dude’s reluctant to trust Gator, considering him a snitch, but reluctantly agrees to go along, and introduces Gator to runner Rebel Roy Boone, who’s got a hot babe named Lou eager for Gator to “try my shaky puddin'” (he does!).

Gator acts as a “blocker” for Boone, running interference with the law while the good ol’ boy makes his moonshine run. When Boone’s car is temporarily disabled by Dude, Gator is allowed to accompany him to Big Bear’s still, a large enterprise out in the hill country. The Sheriff gets word the Feds have sent a spy to nose around, Dude gets killed, Gator and Lou are captured by Big Bear, who’s in cahoots with Connors, and things begin to look bleak….

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That Reynolds charm is on fine display here, with his sly smile and that unmistakable laugh. Burt’s physical acting takes precedent over his dramatic skills, but hey, it’s an action flick! Besides, his charisma is more than enough to carry the film, even without his trademark 70’s ‘stache, that and all the car chase scenes, staged by stunt coordinator/2nd unit director Hal Needham, who’d later direct Burt in five films, including the SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT series.

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That Ford Galaxie’s not Burt’s only co-star here. Ned Beatty plays the coke-bottle-glasses wearing, pot-bellied villain of the piece, and he’s meaner and ornerier than Sheriff Buford T. Justice could ever hope to be. Jennifer Billingsley (Lou) is a sweet Southern potato, best remembered for her film debut in 1964’s LADY IN A CAGE. Matt Clark is funny and poignant as Dude, and Bo Hopkins is good as the jerk Rebel Roy. Perennial Western baddie R.G. Armstrong makes a nasty Big Bear, while Diane Ladd (billed with one D, for reasons unknown) elicits sympathy as Dude’s wife (her daughter Laura Dern appears unbilled as one of their kids). Director Joseph Sargent was a four-time Emmy winner who had his good days on the big screen (THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE) and not-so-good (JAWS THE REVENGE); this is one of his better efforts.

Every character in this film hates the system! Sheriff Connors hates the Commies infiltrating Washington, the moonshiners hate the IRS, and those damn long-haired, pot smoking hippies are always protesting. This is because screenwriter William W. Norton was a rebel in his own right; a card-carrying member of the Communist Party since the paranoid 50’s, Norton’s life is as interesting as the story. After a career in Hollywood, penning THE SCALPHUNTERS, I DISMEMBER MAMA, BIG BAD MAMA, and this film’s sequel GATOR, he moved to Ireland in the 1980’s and became a gunrunner for the INLA (Irish National Liberation Army), until he and his wife Eleanor were busted in France, and sentenced to prison. After doing his time, and learning a warrant was issued in America, he sought asylum in Nicaragua, where he killed a man who broke into his house. Then he moved to Cuba, but found living under a Communist regime was a lot different from just carrying a card, so he fled to Mexico, eventually being smuggled back into the USA by friends, where he lived out his life. He summed up how he felt about his film career to a nurse who asked him if she’d know any of his movies; Norton replied, “I don’t think your IQ is low enough”. His son William “B.W.L” Norton is still active in movies and television.

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Norton’s opinion aside, I thoroughly enjoyed WHITE LIGHTNING. It’s a fast-paced film filled with plenty of action, solid character actors, humor, and Burt Reynolds lighting up the screen as only Burt could. His movie output from ’73 til about the mid-80’s were all for the most part entertaining, and worth rediscovering if you only know him as the old guy from BOOGIE NIGHTS. I recommend you start right here with WHITE LIGHTNING.

Before the Force 2: George Lucas’ AMERICAN GRAFFITI (Universal 1973)

amer1After the box office failure of THX-1138, George Lucas had an idea for a different kind of film. A comedy-drama based on his experiences growing up in early 1960s Modesto, California. AMERICAN GRAFFITI was the first movie produced (by Lucas’ friend Francis Ford Coppola) under his Lucasfilms banner. The new project was rejected by all the major Hollywood studios, until Universal decided to take a chance and green light the production. A wise choice, for AMERICAN GRAFFITI was one of 1973’s biggest hits, garnering Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Editing, and Supporting Actress (Candy Clark), and putting George Lucas on the map as a “Force” to be reckoned with.

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The story follows four friends on the last day of summer 1962. Steve (Ron Howard) is heading east to college, much to the displeasure of high-school sweetheart Laurie (Cindy Williams). When he tells her they should see other people while he’s away, they break up and make up and break up again. It’s a typical teen romance, done realistically, and the duo make you actually care if they’ll stay together.

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Laurie’s brother and Steve’s best friend Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is supposed to accompany him east, but is having doubts about leaving. He spots a beautiful blonde in a white T-Bird (Suzanne Somers), and goes on a quest to find her. When he runs afoul of local gang the Pharaohs (led by Bo Hopkins, channeling Brando), he gets involved with a prank on the local law (“Holsteins”) by chaining their axel to post in an iconic scene that’s been duplicated but never topped.

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John Milner (Paul LeMat) is the town’s King of the Hot-Rodders, who’s never lost a race. While cruising the strip, he ends up getting stuck with a pre-teen named Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) who drives him crazy. Milner and Carol make an odd couple indeed, but they have great chemistry together. Meanwhile, there’s an out of town greaser named Falfa (Harrison Ford) in a ’55 Chevy looking to take him down as racing champ. (BTW, there’s a couple of in-jokes in AMERICAN GRAFFITI. One is Milner’s license plate number…THX 138! The other is the movie playing at the local cinema. You’ll have to try and spot it for yourselves.)

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Then there’s Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith), everyone’s nerdy pal, who’s given the honor of using Steve’s car while he’s away. Terry tries to be cool, and picks up a girl named Debbie (Clark) while cruising. Terry’s efforts to buy booze to impress the been-around Debbie are hilarious. The two end up parking down by the canal, and when things start to get hot and heavy, they grab a blanket and go outside, only to find the car’s been stolen when they return! Terry and Debbie’s story is probably my favorite, as everyone knew (or knows) a Terry.

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These four stories are woven together in separate scenes, culminating in the showdown race between Milner and Falfa at Paradise Road. The whole movie is held together by the vintage 50s-60s songs played throughout, with legendary DJ Wolfman Jack broadcasting from a radio station on the outskirts of town. Jack himself makes an appearance when Curt goes to the station to have a song dedicated to the Girl in the White T-Bird. The use of pop music as soundtrack was a first I believe, soon to become de rigueur in films. The soundtrack album was also a best seller, featuring all the original artists (and yes, I own the CD!).  

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AMERICAN GRAFFITI launched the careers of most of the young actors, and ushered in the 50s nostalgia boom in the 1970s. People were sick of Vietnam and Watergate, and eager to return to a simpler time. Soon movies like THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH and GREASE hit the screen, and television joined in with HAPPY DAYS (starring Howard) and LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY (with Williams). 50s cover band Sha Na Na got heir own show, and classic rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley released new albums. George Lucas had made his mark by affecting pop culture in a big way. Four years later, he’d affect it even bigger with the release of his third film, a little space opera called STAR WARS.

 

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