Burt Reynolds’ quiet but powerful performance as adult film director Jack Horner in Boogie Nights (coming to HBO Max on October 1) gives the film a respectability it desperately needs. Despite chronicling how participating in the industry contributed to destroying many of the main characters, Boogie Nights still comes off as a celebration of what is a highly reckless lifestyle and mode of sexual behavior. Director Paul Thomas Anderson takes the viewer on a rollercoaster rush from beginning to end as the main players engage in non-stop partying and porn. The viewer can’t help but think that it may be hazardous to one’s health but what fun it would be to navigate those hazards!
It’s Reynolds that allows that to happen. It’s not just the confidence he shows in the role, and the movie. It’s because it’s Burt f—– Reynolds!
He was not only a major star in Hollywood in the 1970s when most of Boogie Nights takes place. He was mainstream Hollywood, doing such accessible fare as Smokey and the Bandit, Lucky Lady, Gator, and At Long Last Love, not to mention guesting seemingly every week on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. If Burt was in it, middle America was for it. Avant garde was not his bag, man.
By agreeing to play Jack Horner, Burt is in essence telling average folks that watching a film about pornography is okay.
This is why Anderson is lucky that the first person he asked to play the director said no.
His first choice?
“Burt was someone that I was thinking of when I was writing it, and then Warren Beatty read it and called me and said, “I think I want to be in this.” according to a Boogie Nights oral history compiled by Grantland.com. “We talked for a couple of weeks until ultimately he decided against it. I started to figure out that Warren really wanted to play Dirk Diggler (the Mark Wahlberg role, which is the main character.) “You don’t really want to play Jack Horner. You want to be the kid in this movie.” He said, “Yeah.”
Beatty has a slightly different recollection of why he turned it down. He had recently married actress Annette Bening and they already had one kid with more on the way.
“I felt that I didn’t want to do a movie about porn when I was having these kids, and that’s probably a snobby….by the way, I think it’s a very good movie. And PTA is a very, very good director,” Beatty said in the podcast, Happy, Sad, Confused.
Beatty is an exceptional talent, but his reputation as Hollywood’s greatest womanizer would have made him all wrong for the role. With Beatty as the director, it would have felt like a sleazy exercise in hedonism rather than the soft-hearted look at societal outcasts that it became.
Anderson’s luck continued when Harvey Keitel also turned down the role. Although immensely talented as well, Keitel does not exactly evoke respectability. (Seriously, have you seen The Bad Lietenant?!)
So Anderson ultimately went with his original inspiration, Burt f—— Reynolds, and the rest is Hollywood history.