I am an unapologetic fan of Burt Reynolds. When I talk about Burt Reynolds films in the 1970’s I occasionally slip into a diatribe not unlike something that would come from the mouth of Sterling Archer.
I’m under no delusions. Most of Burt’s cinematic output is, objectively, bad. But it’s pure entertainment. Just listen to that trademark Burt Reynolds laugh and try not to smile. Go ahead.
In Entertainment Weekly’s Guide to the Greatest Movies Ever Made, one of my inspirations for the CinemaShame project, The Longest Yard was ranked as the highest “comedy” I had not yet seen. And it starred Burt Reynolds. No more excuses.
When, within the first five minutes, The Longest Yard offered me a drunken Burt Reynolds man-whore; a car chase; an unexpected appearance by Bernadette Peters and “the laugh,” I was convinced The Longest Yard might be the best movie ever made. Clearly, I’d become wrapped up in the moment.
And then a funny thing happened after about 30 more minutes. I realized that The Longest Yard wasn’t really comedy at all. Sure, there are funny moments. Indisputably funny. In addition to Richard Kiel’s “I think I broke his fuckin’ neck” bit, this scene in particular had me rolling:
In the end, however, The Longest Yard is about race and privilege, the corruption of the prison system and the culturally accepted violence in sport. For every laugh there’s dire consequences. The warden, played with wonderful, slithery menace, by Eddie Albert (Green Acres) doesn’t pull any punches. He’s not in this movie for cloying broad comedy. He coerces an inmate to burn another inmate (a main character, mind you) by locking him in a cell and rigging the light fixture to explode. Names have been removed to prevent spoilerfication. And even though Burt Reynolds summons all of his mid-70’s superpowers, including a gag about shaving his mustache, he’s only half inside the comedy can and gives a performance that somehow, someway balances and cements the erratic tone of the film into something coherent, funny and dramatic. Burt Reynolds had range, goddammit.
In fact, the influence of The Longest Yard can be felt in nearly every football movie since, comedy or otherwise — yet none can touch the brutality displayed in 1974. Even when it’s funny, it’s a touch uncomfortable. Much like the scene above. Once is funny. Twice is funnier. Three times and I started to feel sympathy pains. Take for example Any Given Sunday — the movie of similar subtext that sets out to acknowledge the socially-approved manslaughter. The gloss and sheen of a modern big budget film makes the violence seem safe and less terrible. The gritty, grainy film stock used in the 70’s, coupled with the trending cinematic realism blurs the line between horror and humor.
Is The Longest Yard a great cinematic achievement? Maybe. Maybe not. What is, however, is a miracle in light of our current, disposable expectations for sports movies and sports comedies in particular. This is something much more… even if I’m not quite sure how to stock it on the video shelves.