Sunday 18 February 2018

All the Redford movies – and how he stayed on top

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All The Presidents Men
Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All The Presidents Men

Paul Whitington

Robert Redford, that old warhorse of the American left, turns 77 this August, but a flurry of recent activity shows there's life in the old dog yet.

Later in the year he'll co-star with Nick Nolte in A Walk in the Woods, Richard Linklater's comic drama based on a charmingly eccentric travel book by Bill Bryson. Redford recently produced and narrated a documentary called All the President's Men Revisited, which examines the Watergate scandal of 1972 and its enduring impact on American politics.

And next month his latest project as director will be released in these parts. The Company You Keep touches on a theme with which its director is very familiar – the far left movement that erupted in America in the early 1970s as a result of the Vietnam War.

Redford plays a veteran campaigner and left-wing agitator who disappeared off the radar in the 1970s after being accused of the murder of a bank security guard. He's been hiding out in upstate New York until a nosy journalist played by Shia LaBoeuf figures out who he is, and he once again becomes the target of an FBI manhunt.

The Company You Keep has been well received in America, where critics have called it his best work in years. And perhaps that's because it explores a time and a subject very close to Redford's heart. In a way Redford has never quite given up on the radical far left activism of that distant decade that promised a "second revolution" and an end to American imperialism.

Although he became famous partly because of his extraordinary good looks, Redford always refused to be defined by them. After breaking through in Hollywood in the late- 1960s, he set about subverting his pretty boy image and finding films that challenged him.

Redford has used his celebrity cleverly, to advance environmental and political causes, oppose unpopular wars and promote independent cinema. He's been an icon and an idol for almost 50 years, and yet remains stubbornly private, and strangely unknowable.

Born in Santa Monica, California on August 18, 1937, Redford was the only child of a doting, sickly mother and an emotionally absent father. Redford has Irish heritage on both sides, and it's to this he attributes a stubbornly rebellious streak.

He remembers enduring visits to 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". 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 find the magical source of light. He showed less initiative at school, however: according to himself he was a poor student whose "eyes were always out the window".

After joining an LA street gang and toying briefly with a life of crime, the young Redford went travelling in Europe and ended up studying painting in Paris.

He continued his art studies when he returned to America, but it was acting that ultimately captured his imagination. After taking classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, he was spotted by an agent and began picking up stage and TV work.

Like his near contemporaries James Garner and Clint Eastwood, Redford learnt his trade playing character parts on TV shows, like Perry Mason, The Twilight Zone and Dr Kildare. But it was theatre that gave him a way into Hollywood.

He earned good notices playing a stuffy newlywed in a 1963 Broadway production of Neil Simon's comedy Barefoot in the Park, and four years later, when Paramount decided to turn the play into a movie, Redford was cast opposite Jane Fonda. It was a solid hit, and then came the Sundance Kid.

His casting opposite Paul Newman in George Roy Hill's 1969 western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid turned him overnight into a superstar, but it was a role he very nearly didn't get. Paramount executives thought him too bland, and wanted someone better known to play Sundance – Warren Beatty, Jack Lemmon and Marlon Brando were all approached.

It was Paul Newman who insisted on Redford's casting and Redford has said, "I will always be indebted to him for that – taking a chance on a comparative unknown." The two actors proved an electrifying onscreen combination and became close friends, but despite many plans and promises, only appeared together in one other film, the 1973 gangster movie, The Sting.

Presented with stardom, Redford proved a most astute manager of his career. He set up his own production company straight after Butch Cassidy, 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 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.

Throughout his career Redford has cleverly managed to keep one foot inside Hollywood and one foot out. In the 1970s he began a fruitful partnership with the late Sydney Pollack which led to a series of memorable collaborations. And when he turned to directing in 1981 with Ordinary People, his good relations with Paramount Studios came in very handy.

But Redford is one of those people who detests red carpet dos and the tinny glamour of Oscar night. He was instinctively drawn to the counterculture movement that sprang up in California in the late- 1960s, and became a vocal opponent of America's adventures in Vietnam. "I thought the Vietnam War, just like the Iraq War, was built and sold on a faulty premise," he recently remarked.

And from the mid-1980s onwards, he retreated from major acting roles in favour of directing and producing films like Quiz Show, The Horse Whisperer and A River Runs Through It.

Like his friend Paul Newman, who died in 2008, Redford is a grade-A movie star of a kind Hollywood doesn't seem to throw up too often any more.

As an actor, Robert Redford is a little underrated. His style is so unfussy and naturalistic that it's easy to take his performances for granted. But at his best, in films like All the President's Men, The Candidate or The Natural, he carries a story all on his own, and makes whomever he plays seem real, and believable.

Irish Independent

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