Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.
When you think of Burt Reynolds in the 1970s, you probably think of him as more or less the male sex symbol of the decade, and probably in movies like Smokey and the Bandit or possibly gritty action movies like Deliverance. That’s how I think of him, at least. Starting Over is a change for Burt. In this, he plays a recently-divorced man who wants to get back into the world and begin his life again but can’t quite get over his ex-wife. He’s vulnerable, a little sad, and at times a bit helpless. It’s an unusual role for him, especially in 1979. Much like John Wayne had to prove he could act eventually, like comedians have to do a dramatic role to prove that they can, Reynolds had to do something other than be macho to show that he actually belonged on the screen, and Starting Over was the way to do it.
It’s interesting, because it shows a very different side of the man as an actor. This is a guy who seemed much more at home in broad, raucous comedy, and here he’s playing in a film that is almost a comedy of manners. It’s subtle, which seems like the opposite of who Burt Reynolds was. I’m a little surprised (just a little, mind you) that he wasn’t nominated come Oscar time. I’m a little surprised because his performance really is that good and that nuanced. I’m not surprised because Oscar almost never takes a comic actor seriously on his or her first semi-serious role, or the second, or the third. Jim Carrey is best known as a comedian, and got no love for The Truman Show or The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and it took until Lost in Translation for the Academy to notice that Bill Murray existed.
Anyway, Phil Potter (Reynolds) is forced out of his house by his wife Jessica (Candice Bergen), who wants to start a career as a songwriter and who has been having an affair. Phil moves to Boston from New York for a fresh start and because it’s where his brother Mickey (Charles Durning) and his wife Marva (Frances Sternhagen) live. Shortly after his move, Mickey and Marva invite him to dinner, claiming not to set him up with their friend Marilyn Holmberg (Jill Clayburgh). Since this is a comedy, we get an interesting meet-cute before the dinner. The two are interested in each other, but Marilyn is wary. Phil, after all, is recently divorced and she’s not prepared to be a rebound.
Of course, things get complicated when Jessica shows back up, an event that happens when she calls Phil’s brother on Thanksgiving and Phil refers to Marilyn as their friend and not as the woman he’s currently seeing. Phil tries desperately to patch things up with Marilyn, but finds Jessica impossible to resist, particularly because her songwriting career has suddenly taken off. Phil finds himself torn between the two women, wanting only what he wants and desperate to not hurt either of them, particularly Marilyn, who has evidently been hurt multiple times before.
There’s a lot to like with Starting Over, starting with the vulnerable and realistic performances of Jill Clayburgh and Burt Reynolds. Reynolds, as mentioned above, is the most surprising aspect of this film because it wasn’t clear that he had this sort of nuanced performance in him anywhere. It’s interesting to see him lacking confidence, being scared, and not being the coolest guy in the room. But it’s Jill Clayburgh—nominated for the role—who steals the movie for me.
It’s interesting in the sense that Jill Clayburgh was nominated for Best Actress in consecutive years—here and the previous year for An Unmarried Woman. In a lot of ways, Starting Over is a companion piece for that film, coming from a male perspective. I liked this film a lot more—it’s far more even-handed, for one thing. An Unmarried Woman is not aggressively feminist, but aggressively anti-male, while Starting Over seems to treat both genders as flawed and struggling and doing the best they can with what they have. Clayburgh was clearly the best part of An Unmarried Woman, and she’s the best thing here, too, but by a much smaller margin. She comes across as damaged, but no comically so. No, she’s damaged in the way that real people who’ve been hurt by life are damaged, and that comes across in everything she does.
Starting Over gets a lot of the little stuff right, too. Phil takes a job teaching at a community college, and that first moment of walking into a classroom for the first time as a teacher is right on. It’s accurate in terms of how it’s written, and Reynolds gets the moment perfectly right as someone new to teaching. It’s the small things like this that elevate the film in general.
It’s also smart in how it handles the characters and conflicts. Phil frequently spends time at a male divorce support group (frequented by such classic character actors as Austin Pendleton and Wallace Shawn). It’s here more than anywhere that we get insight into his emotions and his conflicts.
Is there a downside? Yes. I don’t love Candice Bergen here because she comes across as too much of a comic character and far less real than the other characters we encounter. There’s plenty of humor in the film because of the situations and the characters, and she comes across too broadly to fit with everyone else. That, and while the theme is certainly still relevant to the world today, there’s a lot here that comes across as being dated. That’s not the fault of the movie, but it’s a pretty good indication of why this seems to generally have been forgotten.
Why to watch Starting Over: Burt Reynolds is surprisingly vulnerable.
Why not to watch: Parts are still relevant, but some of it really looks and feels its age.