Barefoot in the Park
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here
Who is Robert Redford? Movie star? Rebel? Political activist? Visionary? Upsetter of the industry’s proverbial apple cart? The glib answer is: yes, all that and more. We think we know him but, closer to the truth, we know the Robert Redford he wants us to know. He is an intensely private man who understands that the things he wants require a very public engagement. He is complex, contradictory, and sometimes confounding.
Even today, he still frets about the undue attention to his youthful beauty. For him it has been almost a straitjacket. “You want to be seen for what you can do… The ‘golden boy’ thing became a screen in front of everything else,” he told Playboy in 2007. By the time fame struck, he was a married father of two—a bit stunned by the fuss about his looks. He just wanted to work.
Redford will surely be amused to learn he’s only Number 24 on a website that ranks the 33 Most Handsome Male Movie Stars of All Time—lodged between the young Clint Eastwood (at number 25) and Christopher Reeve (number 23). Today’s generation of beautiful people follow Eastwood’s early lead to downplay their looks. It’s their only escape from the stifling leading-man syndrome; a way to be taken seriously as an actor. Plus, now it’s smart to alter one’s appearance: to put on weight, or take it off; grow a beard; become physically challenged—you could win an Oscar.
Redford wouldn’t have been allowed to do that and, besides, he’d look silly. Aside from being handsome, he has a distinct look, starting with his thatch of hair—still in place at age 78. He knows perfectly well that his appearance is an indisputable key to his fame and fortune, but why couldn’t anyone see past his face to a real performance in, for instance, Three Days of the Condor (75)?
Had Redford come up in the Forties, he’d have been just one in a long line of dazzling male stars—Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Gary Cooper. But the culture changed in the Sixties. Soundstages were out, streets were in; movies with gritty urban settings like Dog Day Afternoon needed an “ethnic” actor like Al Pacino, and The French Connection a proletariat like Gene Hackman, while a host of flicks welcomed Robert Duvall. Fairest of them all were Redford and Warren Beatty, each of whom went on to produce, direct and (sometimes) write their own movies—and get Academy Awards for doing it: Beatty for Reds in 1981 and Redford for Ordinary People (80). But neither man has ever won an acting Oscar.
Redford grew up in Los Angeles, but the cute, freckle-faced kid of Scots-Irish parents didn’t dream in Technicolor. He was visually oriented, however, drawing well enough to win a prize at age 9. He was also an excellent athlete who fled his home city at 17 for Colorado, where he would hike, climb mountains, and deepen his love affair with the great outdoors. He enrolled in the University of Colorado, on a baseball scholarship that was withdrawn in his sophomore year. He blamed himself for lack of discipline; more likely it was inner turmoil from his mother’s sudden death.
Little Fauss and Big Halsy
After more than a year in Europe, mostly Paris, he returned to Los Angeles where he met Lola Van Wagenen. A Mormon from Utah, she introduced him to the state that would become his permanent home as well as a staging ground for his political activism and creation of the Sundance Institute. She also encouraged his interest in art. He was just 21 when they married and relocated to New York, where he studied at the Pratt Institute. According to legend, he took an acting class to familiarize himself with scenic design. Bam! His looks and style quickly drew the attention of agents and casting directors. Within a year, he was a working actor. In less than 10, he was a star.
Redford made his feature debut in 1962, in an independent film, War Hunt. The title card, “Introducing Robert Redford as Roy Loomis,” suggests a newcomer being groomed for stardom. In actuality, Loomis is a co-starring part opposite John Saxon—though Redford has the edge throughout. Set during the waning days of the Korean conflict, War Hunt is a potent, unambiguous antiwar film.
It is also uncannily prescient about Redford. Though he holds the screen like the charismatic star he was destined to become, the focus is on his character’s principled stand against wrongdoing. Teasingly called “chaplain” by a fellow soldier, Loomis is a man of fierce morality, greatly concerned about a bizarre relationship between Saxon’s character and an orphaned Korean child. He presses to rectify things at no small risk to himself.
War Hunt is also where Redford met Sydney Pollack, who had a small role. They became fast friends. Both were married with children and had lost their mothers at an early age. Pollack would go on to direct Redford in seven films, all successful except the first, This Property Is Condemned (66), and the last, Havana (90). Pollack is one of two directors who had an outsize influence on Redford’s career, the other being George Roy Hill who directed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (69), The Sting (73), and The Great Waldo Pepper (75)—a Hollywood game-changer, a massive hit, and an expensive misfire, respectively. Each director brought out a very different facet of the Redford persona—Pollack the unattainable romantic side and Hill the rascal. All of Redford’s films with Pollack are dramas, those with Hill comedies or seriocomic.
Pollack accentuated Redford’s romantic image through his devotional lighting and framing of the actor, especially in The Way We Were (73), Out of Africa (85), and Havana. With Pollack at the helm, all eyes were front and center on his star. In Elisa Leonelli’s fine book, Robert Redford and the American West, Pollack speaks about their long relationship: “In some ways, he’s been the alter ego for me . . . I believe he’s played the same character [and] I’ve sort of watched that guy grow up and get older and come to the end of the line in Havana . . . [T]hat’s the same guy that started out in This Property Is Condemned. He’s really essentially this unpossessable, unattached individualist, who believes there’s some utopian way for him not to have to bend to the needs of a structured society.”
Pollack seems to be speaking about Redford himself as much as the characters he plays; he may have envied the actor’s non-conformism. Still, he was genuinely devoted to his star. “There’s something mysterious about Redford. You have the feeling that, if he had ten dollars, five stays in his pocket. I mean, he would give you five dollars, but he’s not giving you everything; and that, I think, is a great deal of his appeal . . . He’s a withholder.”
The Way We Were
The Great Gatsby
The Great Waldo Pepper
He also said: “Redford sometimes gets attacked for not messing himself up . . . but he’s not a character actor . . . You want Redford to be a hero, that’s the way he’s most fulfilling for the audience.” But is it? Hill saw him more as an antihero. Abraham Polonsky, who directed him in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (69), perceived something else altogether: “Redford . . . is very good at playing parts where he fundamentally is defeated in everything he wants.” According to Leonelli, Redford “from a young age was able to see the hypocrisy in American society.”
Pollack exemplified the best in mainstream filmmaking; he embraced commercial movies’ reliance on heroic archetypes. Hill clearly got a kick out of Redford’s thumb-nosing independence. Polonsky, a Marxist whose career was cut short by the blacklist, zeroed in on the side of Redford that would become dominant—the need to actively try to make things better, be it movies, the environment, or the hearts of men.
During the first half of his film career, Redford’s irreverent comic spirit prevailed. As he has aged, his style has changed significantly and his films have became darker and more pessimistic—more Aeschylus than Aristophanes. Of these, all made in the past 15 years, All Is Lost (13) is the most astonishing. Redford is the only character in this searing survival story of a man lost at sea. His every action is in an effort to stay alive after a rogue shipping container rips a hole in his sailboat. The film has aptly been compared to Jeremiah Johnson (72), made 40 years earlier, in the physical demands it placed on the actor. Filmed in Baja, Mexico, on the open sea, and in the special water tank originally built for Titanic, it required the 76-year-old to swim, dive, climb and, above all, stay focused on the tasks at hand while also revealing his thoughts and feelings.
Redford and the film were festooned with honors, and he received a New York Film Critics Circle award for his performance. An Oscar nomination was widely anticipated but… still no cigar for Robert Redford: Actor.
Cool, observant, nuanced. Ironic. Honest. Like most actors whose careers were launched in the Sixties, Redford played a wide variety of roles on television, usually in episodes of long-running series such as Maverick, Perry Mason, or The Twilight Zone. One of his most substantial early roles was in Sidney Lumet’s 1960 live television version of The Iceman Cometh. It’s a conspicuous part any young actor would die for—but Redford was miscast. The character, a slick piece of goods by the name of Don Parritt, has ratted out his mother, now in jail. He slinks into Harry’s dark, filthy bar to find the man who used to live with them, whom he regarded as a kind of surrogate father. Guilt is eating him alive; he needs to confess and be forgiven.
Redford entering looks positively angelic, more beautiful choirboy than street skunk. His appearance is profoundly disorienting. Little by little, however, as he valiantly lays out his case, we’re drawn into his tale of woe. Unlike the other actors, Redford doesn’t wrestle with O’Neill’s awkward dialogue; he simply speaks it clearly and executes his actions without embellishment. He’s sincere even if his character isn’t. This type of performance is very far from Stanislavsky and the so-called Method, but valid in its own right. When Don ends his life by jumping from a window, we feel something, but not too much; he’s a minor brush stroke in O’Neill’s big picture, something of a device, and important only because he will complete the canvas. A tough role for any 24-year-old to handle—but Redford did.
Three Days of the Condor
All the President’s Men
Out of Africa
Honesty is one of Redford’s bedrock qualities as an actor. When he isn’t fully committed to a silly movie (Legal Eagles, The Hot Rock) or has been cast mainly because of his beauty (The Great Gatsby), his self-consciousness shows. Still, like any conscientious professional, he does the job. Audiences respect that.
By contrast, Redford winningly pulls off another improbable role, in Little Fauss and Big Halsy (70), written by Charles Eastman and directed with brio by Sidney Furie. As a sleazy, womanizing, quasi-sociopath with a genius for taking advantage of everyone he comes into contact with, he is inventive and gleeful, using his good looks against the character. Labeled a “romantic drama” when it was released, seen today, it’s a farce. Set in the world of motorcycle racing, Little Fauss and Big Halsy was one of the films he made between Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, and could be called a poor man’s version of either. It doesn’t possess their mythic quality but it’s certainly of a piece, particularly with respect to Redford. Big Halsy is a cousin to McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Redford could’ve played that part.
Redford’s minimalist, non-histrionic style is more difficult to describe than the baroque performances of, say, Pacino or Nicholson. Like all fine actors, each of them is as much an auteur as the director; their performances are sufficiently complex to constitute a separate artistic component, even as they serve the story. It takes a weird double consciousness to achieve this.
Redford’s best performances operate on a separate track from the narrative. The technique is almost like a wink, to let us in on what’s he’s thinking or feeling, and in that sense he’s more cerebral. It’s all about attitude: Redford stands like a doppelgänger to one side of his character—and even the film itself. This doubleness is employed very successfully in his two films with Michael Ritchie, Downhill Racer (69) and The Candidate (72), a scathing satire of American political campaigning. In fact, it’s an ideal role because it dovetails with his own mordant views.
Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here contains one of Redford’s most nuanced performances. As Coop, a sheriff obliged to track down a fleeing Paiute Indian, he subtly conveys the anguish of his job, mostly via body language. He sits on his horse, stooped over the saddle as if stuck there. He often places his hand across his mouth to camouflage his feelings; his hat is somewhat askew; he stares at the ground rather than into the faces of those urging him on.
In the context of community hysteria, those simple gestures eloquently convey the character’s detachment and profound disagreement. He never really sticks up for Willie, though he knows the law is often unfair to Indians. By contrast, he’s ruthless in his sexual pursuit of a teacher (Susan Clark), knocking on her bedroom door repeatedly until she opens it. Once inside, he displays a threatening chilliness, his way of making manifest his expectation of her compliance. The British Film Academy (now known as BAFTA) named Redford best actor of the year for this performance, and two others, Downhill Racer and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Up Close & Personal
The Horse Whisperer
Redford has seldom spoken about his approach to acting but Ralph Nader pried something out of him in a mid-Seventies confab. The actor said he learned about people by observing them in public places like bus terminals, “when they don’t know they’re being watched and are being themselves.” He noticed that certain attitudes become patterns which could be incorporated into a characterization.
By the time of Willie Boy, Redford had thoroughly familiarized himself with the history of America’s indigenous people, embracing many of their spiritual values. Respect for the Indian way of life is powerfully evoked in Jeremiah Johnson, directed by Pollack. Filmed in the Utah mountains—partly on Redford’s own property—it was the first Western ever accepted by the Cannes Film Festival.
Jeremiah Johnson is structured like a ballad, with songs providing insight into Redford’s mysterious mountain man. It unfavorably contrasts Christian values with those of the Crow Indians. And it is the only film in which Redford attempts to transform his appearance, with a scraggy beard, tangled hair, and multiple scars. And though we can’t quite forget who’s playing him, it doesn’t hamper our involvement in the film—one of Redford’s strongest. We never really know why Jeremiah makes his life in the unforgiving mountains, choosing deprivation in some sort of (unspoken) spiritual quest. One is reminded of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and mystic at the Abbey of Gethsemani, who needed to suffer.
Robert Redford’s looks unquestionably influenced his career choices, but even he may not know to exactly what degree. I’m guessing he recalibrated his sights, taking both opportunity and limitation into account. He was picky from the start, getting sued for breaking contracts on projects that finally didn’t feel right. As soon as he had sufficient clout, he began to initiate his own films. The most important of them was All the President’s Men (76), which was a personal triumph in every respect. Fascinated by the events surrounding Nixon’s resignation, he met with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein even before they wrote their book and, per Woodward, influenced its direction by suggesting it be shaped around their own investigation rather than dirty politics. Redford brought in William Goldman as scenarist and Alan J. Pakula as director. He spent a lot of time in the Washington Post’s newsroom to learn the ropes, and he is entirely credible as Woodward.
Redford’s films as a director are deeply personal, reflecting his ethos about family life, the environment, the United States. Although some of them are critical of America, Redford is a patriotic man. When he emphasizes the word “my” in “my country,” he means to show ownership—and therefore responsibility.
Family dysfunctionality lies at the heart of his directorial debut, Ordinary People, as well as A River Runs Through It (92). Both revolve around tragic events that are rooted in parental disengagement with family members. Redford has forthrightly acknowledged their autobiographical underpinnings, admitting that he had great difficulty communicating with his own father growing up. Ordinary People struck a tremendous chord with the public and went on to win three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. A River Runs Through It, which contrasts the glorious Montana landscape with the arid life of an emotionally stunted Presbyterian minister’s family, received three Oscar nominations and won for Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography.
The Company You Keep All Is Lost
Captain America: Winter Soldier
Quiz Show (94) chronicles the scandals that rocked television in the Fifties, when hugely popular game shows were rigged. It touches on an issue about which Redford feels most passionately: the American obsession with winning, and capitalism’s inevitable exploitation of the winner. Quiz Show’s acclaimed winning contestant (played by Ralph Fiennes) hasn’t won at all; his opponent (John Turturro) has been bought off, underlining the inevitable secondary layer of corruption that underpins the ethos of winning at all costs.
Redford first became aware of this insidious dynamic via sports (first explored in Downhill Racer, in the production of which he was heavily involved). In a 1985 interview he said he’d “inherited a false legacy . . . [that] it wasn’t whether you won or lost but how you played the game. But that just wasn’t true. It was whether you won. People just don’t remember who finished second.” He was in Grenoble when ski champion Jean-Claude Killy won a third gold medal. “What an incredible moment it was . . . But in the shadow of the spotlight, I could see the vultures . . . ready to jump on him.”
Over the past decade, Redford’s films have become darker and more overtly political: Lions for Lambs (07), The Conspirator (10), and The Company You Keep (12). He continues to sift through American history, pondering watershed moments, perhaps to understand how we got to where we are. Perhaps to offset this, as an actor he has lightened up a bit recently, playing a cartoon villain in last year’s Captain America: Winter Soldier, elegant as ever in a three-piece suit. He will soon take over Mickey Rooney’s old role in a remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon. “It’s for my grandchildren,” he said.
Contrary to his skewed, mostly erroneous media image, Robert Redford has always been a family man. He married young and had children who, in time, presented him with grandkids. The connecting thread or throughline of his life is almost certainly a deep need for familial connection—not just biologically but also within his profession and the community to which he belongs. His relationship with Sydney Pollack was brotherly. His visionary concept of an artist’s retreat within view of his Utah home flowed at least in part from his desire for engagement with a new generation. The rather stiff-sounding name, The Sundance Institute, nicely camouflaged where his heart lay.
The Sundance Institute started as a two-week summer happening on Redford’s Utah property. A handful of young cineastes showed up to dream, to share, and to receive the sage advice of film professionals who had managed—somehow—to penetrate the walls of Fortress Hollywood. It was 1981. Redford was in his glory, delighted by the reaction to Ordinary People and still warmed by the success of All the President’s Men. But he foresaw a chilly time ahead for films with a human touch. “I wanted to help new people develop their skills so that films of a personal nature would get into the marketplace.” A modest goal, modestly stated.
It’s doubtful even Redford imagined how high his dream would soar. The Sundance Institute now defines itself as “a multidisciplinary arts organization.” Its reach is international, its annual budget more than $25 million—not including the film festival, which has its own resources. Partners include George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch (to keep participants technologically up to date) and Quiver Digital (to get participants’ films onto Amazon, Netflix, and other online retailers so that they will find an audience).
Like the tribal ceremony that is its namesake, the Sundance Institute was meant to regenerate and reinvigorate American cinema art—conjured by Redford as an alternative to the sprawling, impersonal, committee-run industry centered in Los Angeles. It was intended to be a coming-together place to exchange ideas and help without too much hierarchical distraction. The screenwriting and directing labs have always been the heart and soul of the Institute—and astoundingly effective in actualizing the aspirations of writers, directors, and other specialists within the field. But is the Institute in danger of becoming too big to fail? What about that human touch?
Together, the Institute and the annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City have, without doubt, put independent filmmaking on the map. While they haven’t yet demolished the calcified traditions clung to by studios, banks, and theater chains, they’ve found some gaps and cracks. They have nurtured idiosyncratic writers and directors, and fomented at least half-a-revolution. But the Sundance Institute shouldn’t rest on its laurels; much more is needed before the existing mainstream industry is truly turned inside out.
On a personal level, the creation of the Sundance Institute allowed Redford to spend more time in the majestic Utah mountains—and less in Los Angeles. The two acres of land he acquired in 1969 had grown to 6,000. Determined to preserve it from development, he created the Redford Family Trust which, over time, has placed most than 5,000 acres under protection of the Wilderness Act.
It’s interesting to note that Redford still has a home in Manhattan, a city he loves for its energy and vibrance. The genesis of Redford’s aversion to the city of his birth dates to its transformation from a semi-rustic town to a burgeoning metropolis during the Forties and Fifties, as he grew up. Citrus groves were pre-empted for track houses; neighborhoods decimated by freeways. He was an only child and highly sensitive to his environment; the changes rattled him.
It wasn’t all bad, though. The ocean was a mere bike ride away; forests for hiking were near; snowcapped mountains to dream about or climb were within reach. Vacations in his mother’s Texas homeland further deepened his appreciation of the variegated natural world. That is what stuck.
There’s no longer a need for Redford to differentiate himself from the L.A. and Hollywood of popular imagining. Everyone who knows anything is aware of his lifelong devotion to this country’s betterment—its environment, culture and civility. All are cognizant of the Sundance Institute’s game-changing influence over movies. The outlaw is now an icon of rectitude, his Oz in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. Maybe “Bob,” as he is universally known, needs a new mantra.
The term “activism” is almost quaint. Real resistance is not for sissies. Anyone battling powerful vested interests must be tough, informed, and strategic. Redford learned this the hard way when he opposed the construction of a massive coal-fired power plant in southern Utah in the mid-Seventies. He’d been open about it, attending countless public meetings. Having no success in dissuading the billion-dollar utilities consortium from their plans, or rousing the citizenry, he contacted Don Hewitt, producer of CBS’s 60 Minutes, who sent Dan Rather to the site. Rather’s ensuing story stopped the potential desecration in its tracks, but local people felt they’d lost employment opportunities and were furious. In April of 1976, in Kanab, Utah, Redford was hanged and burnt in effigy. A sign around the dummy’s neck said: “I’m a star. I made my money.”
This traumatic event did not affect Redford’s love for Utah—or his determination to protect its wilderness, even though its own citizens would not. Working with other like-minded activists, he persuaded President Clinton to designate almost two million acres of that swatch of wilderness as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
A four-decade jump to 2015 finds Redford portraying Rather in Truth, a biographical drama about the anchorman’s own skirmishes with CBS. A fine example of poetic justice.