I fell in love with Burt Reynolds in 1972 on a CYO field trip.
An eighth grader at the time, I was too young to wonder why the Catholic Youth Organization of St. Catherine’s Church in Kansas City had included among their schedule of mixers and amusement park field trips, a few outings to the local theater for first-run films like Deliverance and Cabaret.
1972 was a gritty, racy year for movies. It gave us The Godfather, Portnoy’s Complaint, and Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), but it also gave us more youth-group-friendly titles like 1776, What’s Up, Doc?, The Poseidon Adventure, and two version of Treasure Island. So, in hindsight, I can’t help but wonder why both of the CYO movie outings I attended contained shocking homosexual climaxes—one, the infamous hillbilly rape scene, and the other, the revelation that the leading man was involved in a bisexual triangle. I’m surprised the CYO directors, whom I vaguely remember being a priest and a nun, didn’t plan further trips to see Deep Throat and Pink Flamingos, which also came out that year.
The best I can image is that, in the decade that followed the Vatican II reforms, younger Catholic nuns and priests struggled to identify their own relevance in the changing world—violent and sexual as it was—and the thought might have been that it was better for us youths to see these films with morally responsible adults rather than on our own.
Whatever the rationale, I was coming of age right there in the theater and there were no morally responsible adults with whom I could discuss what I felt. At least not to my knowledge at the time.
Early in the movie Deliverance, just after the four canoe trip buddies have safely navigated the ominous locals and the first set of quick rapids, there is a scene in which the two main characters are floating alone together on a quiet bend in the river—Jon Voight’s character, Ed, and the trip organizer Louis, performed by Reynolds with unmatched machismatic brooding and swagger. Animalistic Louis, his thick dark fur and muscles busting out of his tight rubber vest, stands god-like at the front of the canoe fishing with his archer’s bow and arrow, while hard-working family man Ed lounges subserviently in the rear, gently steadying the craft with his oar and sipping a beer. As Louis preaches his theory on the inevitable fall of society and the survival of the fittest, he asks a pointed question of his straight-and-narrow friend: “Why do you go on these trips with me, Ed?”
I missed the social-Darwinistic discussion altogether. I was a thirteen year old stunned by Reynolds’ hairy meat-slab forearms and roguish grin. I was sitting, looking up from Voight’s place in the canoe and Reynolds was looking down into my soul. What could I have answered when he asked a second time, this time to me—me alone, “Why do you go on these trips with me?”
Like a moment when star-crossed lovers meet, that still point in the movie lasted an eternity and ended too quickly. The horrific scenes that followed later in the film only served to solidify my belief that no one should ever find out that I was gay, but Reynolds’ presence complicated everything. He totally seduced me in the first part of the film, and then saved me and the rest of his companions from the evil homosexuals that threatened to destroy us. I would be destined for years to come to fall for handsome heroes that I believed might save me from myself.
Reynolds remained one of my heartthrobs throughout my teen years. He was far more self-effacing and playful in interviews with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show than his character in Deliverance would lead one to believe. I watched at every opportunity and privately tried to mimic his laugh and longed to grow a mustache. And, somehow, certain issues of Cosmopolitan and People magazines found their way under my mattress.
The horrific scenes that followed only served to solidify my belief that no one should ever find out that I was gay, but Reynolds’ presence complicated everything. He totally seduced me in the first part of the film, and then saved me from the evil homosexuals that threatened to destroy us.
The tributes following Burt Reynolds’ passing this week reminded me that his legacy won’t necessarily have a place among those of the great leaders and humanitarians of the 20th Century. But in my memory, he will remain that powerful god standing firmly on the water with his bow and arrow, asking me seductively what I want from him.