If you grew up in the 1990s and had strict parents, this scenario might sound familiar.
Say you're a budding film buff who spent many a solitary weekend night in a suburban basement watching video after video, immersing yourself in classics, cult curiosities and indie gems.
Every film you watch contains at least one wildly age-inappropriate scene, which you hope desperately is not the moment one of your parents happens into the room but is, of course, exactly when your mom decides to walk past en route to retrieving laundry.
So the fact that the extremely R-rated "Boogie Nights" became my favorite '90s movie, and almost every scene is that kind of scene, meant we had a few long talks. What I wasn't able to properly explain at the time is that Paul Thomas Anderson's film, set in the adult-entertainment industry in the late '70s and early '80s, is an American story as sweeping and archetypical as the "Godfather" films, as dense and rich as anything Martin Scorsese or Sergio Leone or Steven Spielberg have ever done. It just happens to be about the porn business.
"Boogie Nights" is a classic Hollywood tale of a kid from nowhere, full of gee-whiz optimism, who leaves home and finds success, bottoms out and gets a glimmer of redemption. That'd be Mark Wahlberg's character, a budding porn actor who christens himself Dirk Diggler and becomes a star under the wing of filmmaker Jack Horner, played by none other than Burt Reynolds, who died last week at 82.
Reynolds, a Lansing native, himself became a star in the ‘70s after roles in TV shows such as “Gunsmoke” and movies like “Deliverance,” “The Longest Yard,” “Smokey and the Bandit” and “The Cannonball Run.” By the time I had any idea who he was, Reynolds was far past his commercial prime, already the subject of ridicule thanks to a tabloid divorce and Norm MacDonald’s buffoonish impersonation on “Saturday Night Live."
Reynolds drew widespread critical acclaim for his “Boogie Nights” performance, earning a supporting-actor Golden Globe, his only Oscar nomination and more award-season accolades than he’d ever experienced during his heyday of crowd-pleasing but less challenging roles.
The film has aged exceptionally well. Released when Anderson was just 27, it’s a work of striking ambition, full of technically challenging shots and multidimensional characters — an art film that behaves like a popcorn blockbuster, and vice versa.
Reynolds nearly carries the movie as the patriarch in a nontraditional family of broken individuals, the weary, steady-handed titan of a world in the process of crumbling under him, as his industry converts from film to cheap home video. We don’t get much access to Jack Horner’s inner life, but he scratches at something poignant as a man of thwarted ambitions, fighting obsolescence with decreasing enthusiasm. Its setting in a world of sex work and pornography is incidental to something universal.
Reynolds seemed not to realize this. He later said he turned down the role seven times before finally accepting, fearing the subject matter would scare off his older fans. Not accustomed to the rhythms of an indie film set, Reynolds butted heads with Anderson and nearly came to fisticuffs. He said in interviews in his later years that he never even saw the whole film, but still fired the agent who got him to do it. He refused to star in Anderson's follow-up, the equally acclaimed "Magnolia."
“Boogie Nights” did not give Reynolds the sort of comeback John Travolta enjoyed after “Pulp Fiction.” Glance at his filmography and you’ll see a list of obscure duds on either side of “Boogie Nights.” But he did earn some praise last year for his role in “The Last Movie Star,” and earlier this year had signed on to Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” but died before shooting his scenes. So who knows how act three might have unfolded.
Reynolds’ Golden Globe acceptance speech — again, for a film he never bothered watching — contained as good a postscript as any of us could hope for: "Just remember that the old Stradivarius plays better than the new one."