The Risky and Limited Life of Burt Reynolds' Macho 'Hooper'
Burt Reynolds' Sonny Hooper is a carefree and lovable guy whose reckless stunt pro lifestyle symbolizes the self-troubles and limitations toxic masculinity creates.
14 July 1978
A film's opening scene, when done well, may reveal a great deal about the feature's main character. The establishing credit sequence to Hooper (1978) performs the reveal in a savvy way. A camera pan leads the audience's attention across a desk to a nameplate dedicated to "Sonny Hooper". The nameplate hints Hooper is someone of status and prominence. The hints are a little off.
We can hear Hooper moving around the room somewhere, but out of the camera's line of sight. His face remains out of sight, but we see his knee in full closeup. And we can't miss a noticeable scar, indicating he's undergone major surgery. He's wrapping his knee with an obviously previously used Ace bandage. Sonny Hooper may hold a prominent position in Hollywood, but he ain't no star.
Sonny Hooper is the stunt pro whose high-risk "gags" bring action movies to life and make actors appear larger than life. Hooper doesn't make the real stars look good. He makes them look great. But Hooper himself, like so many other stuntmen of generations past, does his work in anonymity. Besides a small notice in the end credits, credits rolling long after audiences left the theater, Hooper's name gets little attention onscreen.
He continues to perform the gags until age and injuries catch up with him. He keeps going long after he should have called it a career, but financial necessities keep him working. He suffers mentally and physically for his work and art. But we can see that his high-speed, death-defying stunt life will soon come to a close. Hooper's lament goes beyond the stunt world. He symbolizes the time when people reach the end of the life they once knew.
Hooper is both a passive and participatory victim in a subculture that embraces "toxic masculinity". Like many people in scores of lifestyles and professions, Hooper and the other stunt professionals suffer from the long-term effects of hazardous-, ego- and image-centric behavior. Outwardly, Hooper suffers physically, but there are also inward troubles his "manly" profession creates. Such troubles coincide with embracing immature behavior and shunning aspects of life beyond his narrow professional and social circles.
At least Sonny Hooper never loses his sense of humor about the situation.
"Never felt better. Or had less," he says.
Director Hal Needham and star Burt Reynolds deliver a 1970s-centric classic film, a feature that effectively balances two different genres. As a comedy, Hooper is hilarious. As a melodrama, the film is poignant. Reynold's low-key delivery of frequently funny lines and his physical reactions to Keystone Cop-like circumstances made Hooper, at the time of its release an enjoyable night at the drive-in and a financially successful one. Hooper played in theaters for 126 straight weeks and earned $78 million at the US box office alone.
Reynolds deserved the top spot he earned as one of the industry's biggest box office draws in the late '70s, not only because he drew money. The actor did more than make people laugh. He allowed his fans to live vicariously through his onscreen characters
Indeed, Reynold's characters often represent the blue-collar worker looking to get a fair shake. In this film, Reynolds lets audiences come alive through a character living in an insulated fraternal world: Sonny Hooper, a stuntman hiding personal pain and regret through humor and reckless living. That decision also blurs the line between masculine fun and how events can take a turn for the toxic.
Dualities about toxic masculinity sometimes contribute to the blurring. "Risk-taking" often appears in discussions about negative behaviors, and risk-taking could come with incredible and unnecessary dangers. Risk-taking also leads to experiences at the highest mountain peaks and the mysterious ocean depths. That said, climbing a mountain or deep diving down while intoxicated stands as woefully unwise for obvious reasons. Taking risks combined with living up to a bravado image can lead many young men astray, and they can remain astray well into their older years. Hooper might not directly acknowledge these issues, but reading his quips and actions between the lines shows he's coming to understand their severity. Hooper knows he made lifestyle and professional choices that boxed him into a tough situation.
And there lies another duality to toxic masculinity: harm isn't always directed toward others.
Middle-age leaves someone with, presumably, "half a life" to go. When your entire life revolves around a particular career and lifestyle that mandates an early retirement age, where do you go when everything comes to an end? What person do you become? What becomes of your life? Hooper struggles with these questions, which he never considered before but now must face. Or rather, he avoids confronting the dilemmas of aging by hanging on to his stunt career for too long.
Indeed, performers in the stunt world have a limited life-span. Hooper replaced the once-iconic stuntman Jocko (Brian Keith), and now Ski (Jan Michael-Vincent) intends to take his idol Hooper's place as the top stuntman in the business. Hooper faces a potential forced retirement as industry eyes turn to the younger Ski. ("We probably could have done that when we were his age, except that they didn't have buildings that tall.")
In some ways, Michael-Vincent plays a role similar to his character in the Charles Bronson masterpiece, The Mechanic (Michael Winner, 1972). In Hooper, Vincent's Ski character wants a life "outside it all" because he sees the glory, fame, and camaraderie as an escape from loneliness and a lack of meaning. He doesn't see the drawbacks of such a life, despite their presence all around him.
Burt Reynolds as Sonny Hooper and Jan-Michael Vincent as Ski (IMDB)
Hooper hides how his replacement effects him through his frequently inappropriate humor. Maybe if he laughs about his problems, they won't consume him. Or force him to leave the stunt profession behind. Leaving the stunt world means going somewhere else, which he can't. Not professionally, personally, or emotionally. Hooper realizes his stunt career gives him meaning and purpose. Still, the stunt profession also takes him so far out of mainstream life that he can't make an easy transition to "normal" society upon retirement.
Hooper can take solace in his final career act--he can create a legacy with Ski, and Hooper can live on through Ski just as Jocko lives on through Hooper. But that won't pay Hooper's bills, nor will it provide answers to what's missing from his life. Why would Hooper embrace such dangerous living? It is the only life he knows because he hasn't fully matured or ventured into the world. Such self-damaging attitudes could take on different forms, as Hooper's limited life mimics the self-harm we see every day in men who continue to, say, abuse cigarettes as part of social practices at home and work. Likely surrounded by some weak role models, they hang onto outdated times when smoking served as a passage to adulthood.
Wisdom doesn't come with age when it's locked into a vault. A young person who sees smoking, drinking, or using drugs as a factor into "being a man" could stick with these troubling behaviors well into adulthood, supported by a like-minded circle of friends. Eventually, bad habits that started earlier in life deliver consequences. Being a devil-may-care stunt professional might not overtly present the same ills as dependency issues, but addictions to risk-taking and refusals to change have their dangers.
Hooper is a humorous film, but the humor never overshadows the underlying drama. Strip away Hooper's bombast, and you'll see both a moral and cautionary lesson.
"You ain't ever going to learn, dummy."
Hooper serves as a time capsule for a different Hollywood and a different (for some) America. The film conveys moments of life in the wilder, no-mobile-phones-photos-mean-no-evidence era of the '70s. The fictional Hooper and his stunt crew embrace risks nonstop. The outrageous highway racing scene, a comedic scene showing how the stunt crew blows off steam, reveals the team drinking excessively and whimsically speeding down a public road. Such antics would be unthinkable and unforgivable today. Everyone would be going straight to jail--not engaging in silly banter with a highway patrol officer after being pulled over, obviously intoxicated.
While the scene reflects exaggerated comedic melodrama, the risk-taking devil-may-care attitude, along with the drinking and crazy driving pranks, wasn't uncommon in the '70s -- in films and, for some, in life. In those days, you could sometimes get away with it if you were white and male. This behavior provides insight into the stunt team's mindset. They don't fear danger because they don't fear the consequences.
How outrageous is their behavior? The stunt folk risks their lives for pay. What's the big deal about yet another life-threatening risk for fun? Everyone becomes desensitized to danger, as long as they can cheat fate. Doing so, however, relies heavily on youthful folly, immaturity, and good reflexes. Hooper may keep his youthful immaturity, but the reflexes are declining with age.
Still, Hooper wants to have his fun. Life is a series of stunt gags and wisecracks and mischievous behavior. Hooper even finds getting himself in over his head with some tough dudes pushing for a barroom brawl -- a scene worthy of laughter and a vehicle for excessive personal escapism.
But such escapism has its risks that outweigh the perceived benefits. The opioid crisis reflects the sad effects of using drugs as a means of escaping reality. Many men abuse opioid-based pills to dull the pain of limited socio-economic options. Opioid abuse presents an impossible to ignore social plague. Not every abusive lifestyle choice, however, appears so evidently harmful. Look at the "bodybuilding lifestyle", an often drug-fueled escapist subculture that draws men to seek physical perfection to redefine their self-image and hide insecurities.
Do we not see such similarities in Reynolds' film? Hooper finds stunt work's physical performance as a viable way of defining who he is. What makes things so tragic is that Hooper is not a bad person, but he is his own worst enemy, like when he is quick to launch into a bar fight.
How does the fight play out? The stunt team finds themselves menaced by Terry Bradshaw and the always appreciated Robert Tessier, who appeared in Reynold's1974 classic The Longest Yard. The two over-sized SWAT team members aren't thrilled the stunt crew's loudness drowns out the jukebox. Hooper tries to get them a refund by crashing into the jukebox head-first -- you know, to make the change fall out of the machine. At least he has the good sense to wear a motorcycle helmet. A fight breaks out anyway, of course. Tons of haymakers, broken furniture, smashed windows, and lots of bruises all lead to...no hard feelings. Everyone's having fun beating each other up in film history's silliest barroom brawl.
The bar fight scene is right out of a cowboy movie. Who knows? Every actor involved with the fight may have filmed a cowboy movie the day before. The "loose cowboy connection" here is both fitting and ironic. In some ways, the stunt gang is like the members of Sam Peckinpah's Wild Bunch (1969), professionals now finding themselves aging, and their lifestyle part of an era that's coming to a close. They don't want to let go, though. Isn't bonding through barroom brawling something men their age should be over? Not according to them. What's the harm, after all? Hooper laughs about the brawl because otherwise, his feelings might take a turn to the depressing.
After the night of wild brawling, everyone--stunt folk and barroom foes alike--chill at Hooper's place, watching 16mm film footage of his most incredible stunts. Hooper muses about having done a "gag" every day. He gets ahead of himself with reminiscing, as he knows the end is soon coming. The film-watching wind-down session prompts self-reflection among the stunt family.
Jocko asks Hooper about his thoughts on marriage, to which Hooper responds by saying he is an absolute failure. Jocko asks Hooper if he ever thinks about having a baby with Gwen (Sally Field), to which Hooper responds with sadness, "all the time."
The whimsy of dedicating a life to old-time stunt work comes with a price. Hooper never matured sufficiently to take his responsibilities seriously, and he never saved or even earned enough money for his post-stuntman career. As much as he would prefer to have a family with Gwen now, his failure to plan and other shortcomings have caught up with him. Hooper previously escaped those troubles through living the neverending life of the characters he played onscreen and then mimicking a fantasy life off the set. Settling down with Gwen and having a child, however, would be more than he's prepared to handle. That fantasy eludes him.
And then an opportunity arises.
"If you were a horse, I'd shoot you."
So says the doctor, a physician whose warnings Hooper pays little attention to. Hooper knows his condition is terrible, though. Years of injuries add up, and one bad stunt could leave him paralyzed. In pure Hollywood fashion, the diagnosis comes as Hooper accepts even more dangerous stunts to prove he's still "got it".
The most dangerous of all stunts, "the biggest, best car stunt ever done", a 325-foot jump over a canyon performed with a rocket car, turns out to be the one Hooper and Ski can't pass up. Pulling it off means a payoff of $50k.
"You'll never work in this town again. Unless they need you."
The final act comes with an abundance of melodrama. Gwen leaves Hooper when she finds out that he commits to the life-threatening stunt. With so much at risk, will Hooper go through with the canyon jump stunt? Of course, he will. Hooper never backed down from a stunt challenge before.
The stunt show must go on.
Hooper finds meaning in agreeing to go through with his final stunt. The swan song performance represents Hooper's new perspective on life. Maybe he secretly wants to die and go out in a proverbial (or literal) blaze of glory. Perhaps he sees crossing to the other side of the canyon as both a literal and symbolic departure from one lifestyle to another. The old ways are coming to an end, and it is time to grow up and move on -- if he can make it just one more time.
At this writing Hooper is available on streaming via Facebook.
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