Monday 10 December 2018

Last waltz of the Sundance Kid

As Robert Redford retires from acting, Paul Whitington looks back on the extraordinary career of an elusive star

A star is born: Redford’s role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made him a
household name. Picture: Shutterstock
A star is born: Redford’s role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made him a household name. Picture: Shutterstock
Redford and Jane Fonda in Barefoot In The Park
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

The Sundance Kid, it seems, is about to ride off into the sunset. Earlier this week, Robert Redford announced that, although one should "never say never", his upcoming role in David Lowery's crime caper The Old Man and the Gun will almost certainly be his last screen appearance. If so, it brings to an end a 58-year acting career full of unforgettable highlights.

After teaming up with his great friend Paul Newman on the 1969 revisionist western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he starred in hits like The Sting, The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor, All the President's Men, The Natural and Out of Africa. But Redford wasn't merely an actor: he used his star power to branch out first into film production, then direction, and became a vocal supporter of unfashionable causes like the environment and native American rights - he remains a passionate environmental and human rights activist to this day.

He also named a new film festival after his most famous character, and Sundance has become a vital showcase for independent American cinema, kick-starting the film careers of Steven Soderbergh and many more.

Calm, collected, impossibly handsome, he was one of the most famous faces of the 1970s: he seemed to glow gold, and was far more beautiful than any of his unfortunate female co-stars. But his distaste for fame was evident from the start, and throughout his career he has maintained an almost Garbo-esque air of mystery: getting close to Robert Redford is not easy, and his private life has always been jealously guarded.

Though he and his first wife divorced in the mid-80s, the press only found out a decade later. He has succeeded in doing what few have managed: working successfully in Hollywood while avoiding all the attendant nonsense.

He was born, though, just down the road from Tinseltown in Santa Monica on August 18, 1937. Charles Robert Redford Jr 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 would later recall 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 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 - his first love - and drifted between Paris, Rome and the south of France. It was acting that finally gave him a sense of purpose, and while studying drama in New York he was spotted by an agent and was soon getting regular stage and TV work. Like his near contemporaries Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood, Redford was one of a new generation of film actors who learnt the roles on television.

His first real breakthrough, though, came courtesy of the stage and a Neil Simon play called 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 hugely popular comic western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969 turned him into a superstar. "It was Paul who made the decision," Redford said later. "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 carefully. He was never afraid to turn down roles, and throughout his career said no to huge projects - from Superman and The Godfather to Barry Lyndon to Apocalypse Now - for which he instinctively felt he'd be wrong.

Redford could have traded on his looks and ridden high on the hog for at least the next decade as Hollywood's uncontested leading man. But he had other ideas.

Determined not to be typecast as a matinee dummy, he began alternating his big budget roles with films closer to his environmental and political passions, like 1972's Jeremiah Johnson, and also from that year, the election satire The Candidate. And as the 70s wore on, he began to tire of the formulaic vehicles that Hollywood was offering him, and increasingly turned his back on acting to concentrate on other projects.

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.

He'd married Lola Van Wagenen in 1958, and they had four children together: one, a son Scott, died in infancy. After he and Van Wagenen divorced in 1985, he was briefly linked with the Brazilian actress Sonia Braga, but in 1996 began dating Sibylle Szaggars (above), an artist 19 years his junior. They married in 2009.

He may not be a great, showy method actor like De Niro or Pacino, but Robert Redford is a wonderfully natural one, and his talent is often underrated. He was at his very best in Alan J Pakula's All the President's Men, playing Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, whose dogged reporting helped end the Nixon presidency. He turned to direction in the late 70s, and found instant success with Ordinary People (1980) which won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars.

Through the 80s he continued acting, but intermittently and with dwindling conviction, in such bland fare as schmaltzy court comedy Legal Eagles (1986), and opposite Meryl Streep in Sydney Pollack's handsome but vacuous adaptation of Karen Blixen's novel Out of Africa (1985).

Though his performances were never less than competent, one suspected he was doing it for the money - but only in the best sense, as he seemed to plough most of it back into his directorial work.

As a director, Redford only committed to stories he really believed in. His thoughtful and well made study of land corruption in New Mexico, The Milagro Beanfield War (1988) received muted but respectful notices, as did the meditative A River Runs Through It (1992), which starred the director's youthful doppleganger Brad Pitt.

But Redford really excelled himself with 1994's Quiz Show, a superb evocation of American television in the 50s, which should have won best film at the Oscars that year but lost out to the overrated Forrest Gump.

He's never won an acting Oscar either, but after staying mostly behind the camera in the 90s and early 2000s, has given some of his most impressive turns in recent years, particularly in JC Chandor's brutal seafaring epic, All Is Lost. So his last performance in The Old Man and the Gun, will be something for film lovers everywhere to savour.

Irish Independent

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