Tuesday 6 December 2016

The Sundance Kid who grew up to be a giant

Published 09/04/2011 | 05:00

Robert Redford may not be much in the public eye any more -- he hasn't acted on screen in four years -- but at 74 he's a very busy man. Apart from his various environmental interests and the running of the annual Sundance Film Festival, he still directs when the mood strikes him, and this summer a new film of his based on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln will be released.

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The Conspirator tells the true story of Mary Surratt, the owner of the Washington boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators met to plan the assassination of the president. She was arrested afterwards as an accomplice, and defended by a young lawyer who became convinced of her innocence.

Redford has always been picky about the subject matter he chooses, and The Conspirator is only his eighth film as director. He works slowly but he tends to get it right, and most of his films have been very strong as a consequence.

Privately, Redford has always been something of an enigma, but next month a new biography, which the actor co-operated with, should throw light on his extraordinary life.

Written by Irish author Michael Feeney Callan, Robert Redford: The Biography will chart the actor's rise to box office superstardom in the 1970s. After making a memorable breakthrough opposite Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969, Redford became Hollywood's biggest box office star in just a couple of years, on the back of hit films like The Sting and The Way We Were.

But he was always deeply ambivalent about being a movie star, and while others would have been happy to coast along being paid a fortune for appearing in formulaic movies, Redford sought ways of escaping the studio trap and grasping control of his own career.

He did just that with All the President's Men (1976), and in a fascinating chapter of Michael Feeney Callen's biography, published in Vanity Fair this month, we find out exactly how.

Despite being persuaded to appear in slushy melodramas like The Way We Were by his good friend and regular collaborator Sydney Pollack, Redford had little interest in mainstream genre films and had always been deeply political.

Like many another American, he was fascinated by the Watergate scandal that engulfed Richard Nixon in the early 1970s, and by the time the president had been forced from office in 1974, Redford was planning a film about the men who had exposed him.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were the two eager young Washington Post journalists who'd broken the story, and after meeting them several times in 1973 and 1974, Redford bought the film rights to their book on the subject before they'd even finished it. He paid them $450.000.

At that point he had no idea who he'd get to direct it, and had no intention of appearing in the film himself. After Woodward and Bernstein's publishers accidently sent a proof of their book, All the President's Men, to legendary screenwriter William Goldman, Redford ended up hiring him to write a screenplay.

But that process was deeply troubled. Redford was determined that the film would not be a conventional thriller, and that it would concentrate not on Nixon and his aides but on Woodward and Bernstein's dogged pursuit of the story.

After several rewrites he remained unhappy with Goldman's script, and in the end he and director Alan J Pakula booked rooms in a hotel opposite the Washington Post building and spent a month completely rewriting the screenplay.

When he went to Warner Brothers for backing, it was gently pointed out to him that a film about two journalists who make some phone calls would be a lot easier to sell if Redford was starring in it. He agreed, taking on the role of Bob Woodward. This meant he had to cast someone of similar star power as Bernstein, and he initially thought of Al Pacino, who he admired.

But at the last minute he decided that Dustin Hoffman would be the right person to play the nervy and charismatic Bernstein. As with practically all of his decisions on this film, Redford got it exactly right.

As preparations for All the President's Men dragged on, Redford received tempting multi-million offers to star in big-budget films, including Superman and Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. But he turned them all down, instead plunging into the murky world of Washington, where insiders such as legendary Irish-American politician Tip O'Neill helped him prepare for his role. He also studied Woodward himself, taking cues from the journalist's demeanour and mannerisms.

Redford was driven by the need to stretch himself and a genuine desire to make a serious and important film. To do this, everything would have to be as true to life as possible, and when production finally got underway on May 12, 1975, Pakula and his crew shot in the Washington Post offices.

The idea was to shoot the whole film there but this quickly proved impractical: the newspaper's staff became entirely caught up in the shoot, and the young women on the staff tended to hover unhelpfully in the orbits of Redford and Hoffman.

In the end they painstakingly constructed an exact replica of the paper's news floor in a Burbank Studio, even importing original boxes of Washington Post office rubbish.

Cast members would later recall that the film's creation was a close collaboration between Pakula and Redford, with the star often wandering behind the camera to make sure his vision was being followed. He, Pakula and the legendary but difficult cinematographer Gordon Willis concentrated on creating a unifying, ominous mood, augmented by David Shire's suitably unsettling score.

By rights the film should be a bore from start to finish, because all that happens is Woodward and Bernstein relentlessly hounding obscure functionaries in order to assemble the complex jigsaw that will eventually toppled the 37th president of the United States.

But the sombre mood, brilliantly gloomy camerawork and some superb performances turned All the President's Men into the king of the 1970s conspiracy thrillers, and an enduring cinema classic.

Redford and Hoffman proved perfect foils for each other as the young journalists who initially struggle to get their editors to take them seriously. Jason Robards was splendid as the swaggering and cultivated Post editor Ben Bradlee, and Hal Holbrook memorably portrayed Woodward's Washington insider, Deep Throat.

Everyone admired it, but who would go to see it? Warner Brothers seemed reconciled to the fact that it was going to lose them a bundle, but remarkably it didn't, turning out to be one of the most popular films of 1976.

It was a huge achievement for Redford in particular, who later described it as "a very honest and unpolluted film". And it showed him that he need not be a slave to his success.

After All the President's Men Redford began to consider directing films himself: his first, the family drama Ordinary People, won Best Picture Oscar at the 1981 And thereafter, Robert Redford would consider himself a film-maker first, and a movie star second.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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