Sunday 26 February 2017

Review: Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan

Simon & Schuster, £14.99

Robert Redford
Robert Redford

Any number of books have been written about the career and life of Robert Redford, but Michael Feeney Callan's new biography is a little different.

It was done with Redford's permission and involvement and Feeney Callan's exhaustive work is peppered with quotes and insights from Redford himself and the people -- his children, associates, and lifelong friends like Paul Newman and Sydney Pollock -- who really knew him best.

The biggest star of the 1970s, Redford has always been a famously elusive and somehow unknowable man. Throughout a long and distinguished career as actor, director, producer, patron of the arts and environmental and political activist, he has managed to keep the lid on his private life and been sparing in his public appearances and pronouncements. As a result, people have developed an almost Garbo-esque fascination with who Redford really is.

With his unprecedented access to Redford and intimate circle, Dublin writer Feeney Callan is uniquely placed to solve that mystery. So does he do so? Yes and no.

Since rising to stardom in the mid-1960s, Robert Redford has been obsessed with proving he's more than just a pretty face. In fairness, he had a lot of prettiness to overcome. In his prime he was like an embodiment of American perfection: he seemed to glow gold and was far more beautiful than any of his unfortunate female co-stars.

His distain for all of this was evident from the start but also rather studied. His first love was painting and Redford's desire to be taken seriously as an artist dominates his wordy contributions to Feeney Callan's book. Time and again he will justify his involvement with flimsy projects by finding a worthy subtext that just isn't there.

It's all a bit po-faced at times, but in fairness to Mr Feeney Callan, his book is a lot better written than these celebrity biographies generally tend to be and there are some fine and revealing moments along the way.

The best chapters are those describing Redford's Californian childhood. Born in Santa Monica on August 18, 1937, he was the only child of a doting but sickly mother and a hard-working, emotionally absent father. Redford has Irish heritage on both sides and it's to this he attributes a wild and rebellious streak.

He remembered visiting his Massachusetts grandmother Lena as a small boy and listening to her "rambling on in a strange Irish accent, telling ominous tales of the old country -- I couldn't wait to get out of there."

He was more at home with his maternal grandfather, a frontiersman who engendered in Redford an abiding love of the great outdoors.

He fell in love with movies very young, saw Bambi 23 times and once crept off his mother's knee in a Santa Monica cinema in order to reach the magical source of light -- a glib and handy metaphor for his adult life, if ever there was one. Initially, though, he struggled to find a place in the world and briefly toyed with a career in crime.

After running for a time with some LA street gangs and stealing a few cars, the late-teenage Redford fled to Europe to study painting and drifted for a time between Paris, Rome and the south of France. It was acting that finally gave him a sense of purpose and after studying drama in New York, he was spotted by an agent and was soon getting regular stage and TV work.

His first breakthrough came courtesy of the Neil Simon play Barefoot In The Park. He starred in the hit Broadway production and subsequently with Jane Fonda in a Hollywood adaptation. His casting opposite Paul Newman in George Roy Hill's revisionist western Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid in 1969 turned him into a superstar. "It was Paul who made the decision," Redford says in the book. "I will always be indebted to him for that -- taking a chance on a comparative unknown."

Presented with stardom, Redford proved a most astute manager of his own career. He set up his own production company as early as 1969 and thereafter chose his movies very carefully. He was never afraid to turn down roles and throughout his career said no to huge projects -- from Superman and Barry Lyndon to Apocalypse Now -- for which he instinctively felt he'd be wrong.

As soon as he could afford it, Redford purchased a piece of land in the wilds of Utah in the shadow of the formidable Wasatch mountain range. He built an impressive modernist house there and took pleasure in the fact that it was cut off by snow for months on end.

Provo Canyon would become his and his family's rural retreat and his bastion from the madness of Hollywood. It would also be the base for the Sundance project and the prestigious film festival that's been championing American independent cinema since 1978.

Michael Feeney Callan apparently spent the bones of a decade compiling this biography and his attention to detail is evident and impressive. At its best, as in the brilliant chapter on the making of All The President's Men, the book provides real insight into the working life of a movie icon.

Of Redford the private man, however, we get only brief glimpses. His three children provide the odd glowing quote and he himself expresses vague regret over the collapse of his first marriage, to Lola van Wagenen, in the mid-1980s.

But Redford the man remains stubbornly out of reach, perhaps because no mere mortal, however likeable or accomplished, could possibly match the myth that has grown up around the movie star.

Paul Whitington

Indo Review

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