The Greats: Robert Redford

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Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a new biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.

Robert Redford has had three careers, each of them impressive and each of them not without their failings. But his professional and creative shortcomings tend to be glossed over because, when it comes down to it, we like Robert Redford. At the very least, we like the idea of Robert Redford. Handsome, well-meaning and earnest, he plays into our collective image of the good-looking golden child who inspires the rest of us to reach for our highest ideals. If he’d had the interest, he might have made a good politician: Everything he says feels sincere, and you’d probably enjoy having a beer with the guy.

Instead, he’s devoted his life to movies. But not at first. Born in Santa Monica in 1936, Redford grew up in Southern California, performing poorly at school but excelling in sports. He went to the University of Colorado on a baseball scholarship. “If you’d asked me on that day of [high school] graduation, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ my answer would have been, ‘Get as far away from Van Nuys High as I can, period,’” he later recalled. So, attending the University of Colorado was, in his words, “a no-brainer. Colorado was baseball. And, more important, the mountains. Escape.”

Eventually, he turned to acting, moving to New York for theater and television work. He got his share of parts, but a telling comment recounted in author Michael Feeney Callan’s biography Robert Redford underlined the challenge Redford would combat throughout his career. Harryetta Peterka, an instructor at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where Redford studied, spoke with Herman Shumlin, who directed Redford on the stage for Tall Story in the late ’50s. Shumlin was initially unsure about Redford’s chops: “He’d seen Bob in an episode of The Deputy and was unimpressed,” Peterka recalled. “He said, ‘[Actress] Frances Fuller keeps saying he’s shaping up like Spencer Tracy. I can’t see it. He’s too glib.’”

Nevertheless, he started popping up in movies in the ’60s, starring alongside Oscar winners such as Alec Guinness (Situation Hopeless… But Not Serious) and Marlon Brando (The Chase). More importantly, he also began a long-running partnership with director Sydney Pollack on This Property Is Condemned. They had first met in the early ’60s on a film called War Hunt in which they both acted. “He and I became friends on that film, and we became I would say kindred spirits,” Redford would later tell Time. “Like any novice artists starting out, we decided that we knew everything that was wrong about the production. We commiserated on it, and we kind of bonded on that. We had very similar sensibilities and I think very similar ambitions to do special work, or at least what we thought was special.” They would go on to make seven movies together, including Three Days of the Condor and the Best Picture-winning Out of Africa.

Redford was part of Hollywood’s renaissance of the ’70s, although it could be argued that he was less of a maverick than peers like Warren Beatty. He was, instead, the very definition of the likable, bankable star, appearing in two movies with his pal Paul Newman that were directed by George Roy Hill, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, which together won 11 Oscars. His chief strengths were his charm and his attractiveness—you just liked being around the characters he played. That’s not to say that he was a lightweight: His performance in The Candidate suggests a man who understands a thing or two about the dangers of being seduced by a pretty face. But with the exception of All the President’s Men, the fiendishly compelling exposé of the Washington Post’s breaking of the Watergate scandal, Redford’s ’70s work was mostly in frothier, crowd-pleasing entertainments like The Way We Were and The Electric Horseman. He was a pinup—and a very appealing one.

Perhaps that’s why his move to directing was so surprising—and his initial success so unexpected. Redford, an outspoken liberal and champion of environmental causes, had produced All the President’s Men, but rarely had he made films that were as resolutely somber as Ordinary People. Based on Judith Guest’s novel, Ordinary People was an intimate, subdued look at a family falling apart after the death of a son. Redford told Callan that his attitude toward the poisonously closed-off Jarrett family was drawn from his time hanging out with his upper-crust fraternity brothers in college. “You shouldn’t generalize, I know, but my observation was of advantaged Americans besotted, as my father was, with the vision of the organization man,” he said. “These were Eisenhower’s people. Everything came secondary to the ultimate career, and education was limited to the streamlined agenda that served that career. It was a narrow, elitist view … it had no introspective, self-analytical tendency nor much interest in human communication.”

It’s hard to say what Ordinary People is better known for now: that it won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, or that it beat Raging Bull, dooming it for all eternity to be one of those Best Picture winners that’s used as an example of how wrongheaded the Academy is in its picks. That’s unfair—it’s not like Ordinary People is Crash—but let it be said that Redford has subsequently made even better films, A River Runs Through It and especially Quiz Show, one of the best American movies of the ’90s, a biting, moving satire about our obsession with fame and television that doesn’t seem like it’ll become dated anytime soon.

He’s made movies since then, and their quality has been questionable. Sometimes, it can seem as if he’s making statements, not films: The dramas Lions for Lambs and The Conspirator were angry, explicit responses to George W. Bush’s policies in the wake of 9/11. When asked about The Conspirator’s echoes of Guantanamo Bay, Redford insisted, “Obviously, I could see the parallels to the present, and I knew that this could be dangerous for me, because people see me as a liberal and might pigeonhole me and the film as having some partisan point of view. But I don’t feel that the political films I’ve made have been partisan criticisms of the Left or Right, but criticisms of the political process itself. … [H]ow could I not see patterns in our history? And one of the biggest patterns I’ve noticed is that whenever there’s chaos, there’s ambiguity, and where there’s ambiguity, there’s fear. And fear gets manipulated.”

For a younger generation of filmgoers, though, Redford’s acting and directing aren’t what make him relevant. It’s the Sundance Film Festival, which began as an institution he founded in the early ’80s and then morphed into a festival in the mid-’80s. (It’s quite possible, in fact, that because Sundance has emerged as one of the leading lights of independent cinema in America, the name is no longer synonymous for younger viewers with his character from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.) Like many cultural institutions, Sundance is a mixture of good and bad, of great potential and nagging limitations. But there is no question that it has laid the groundwork for many great careers, including those of Steven Soderbergh, Todd Haynes, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, David O. Russell, Paul Thomas Anderson, Shane Carruth and Rian Johnson. And just as he longed for Colorado as a teen because of its promise of escape into the mountains, his festival is located in a tiny enclave in Utah with ample skiing all around it.

Rarely acting in the last few decades, Redford has of late chosen to focus on Sundance rather than worry about maintaining his box office clout. (However, note that in movies like The Natural and Indecent Proposal he has aged into a pleasingly regretful, yet still striking older man, the lines on his face a poignant commentary on the impermanence of blissful youth.) But 2013 may prove to be something of a comeback year for Redford. It’s appropriate that it comes by starring in a movie directed by a filmmaker launched through the Sundance Film Festival. As the nameless man in a boat in the middle of the ocean trying to staying alive in All Is Lost, the new movie from Margin Call writer-director J.C. Chandor, Redford speaks almost no dialogue—he’s alone on screen the entire time—and it’s a performance of incredibly intuitive intelligence. Even at 77, the charm and good looks are still there, even if he says practically nothing in the role. We know nothing about the character, but that doesn’t matter: We just like him, and we root for him. He’s Robert Redford.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.