Film: Whispers of immortality

Robert Redford calls the shots in The Horse Whisperer, but he tells James Mottram, it's lonely being a legend. He still gets the girl and, says Catherine von Ruhland (below), they're getting younger every year
Matinee idol turned independent-film saviour Robert Redford, while never quite befitting the title "maverick", has always been the Hollywood loner. Not unlike the enigmatic Tom Booker, Redford's role in his fifth directorial effort The Horse Whisperer, he is careful to shield himself from the world and from the industry that has made his name for over 35 years. Fame may have come via two highly commercial teamings with Paul Newman, but he rarely sold out. A fervent Democrat, he always found a voice to make the establishment shift uncomfortably in its shoes, in key polemical works of the 1970s such as The Candidate and All the President's Men.

"I don't fall easily in line with what's going on. I like the work, I like the art of it, but I don't live in Hollywood and I don't get caught up in the social aspects of it. I prefer to do other things when I'm not working, and then bring them to my work. It keeps it vital," says Redford.

His penchant for the American West and his love of fly-fishing (which informed his 1993 movie A River Runs Through It) aside, he has single- handedly founded the Sundance Institute for Independent Film-makers. At 61, his looks can still induce a swoon, but Redford has come full circle: The Horse Whisperer is a timely reminder of the gap between what he once was, and now is, to cinema. While beautifully crafted, it lacks the conviction of his formative years' work. Based on the novel by Nicholas Evans, which has sold over 10 million copies worldwide, the film has been long anticipated to see if the unprecedented gamble taken by Disney in pipping its rivals to the screen rights for a then-incomplete novel would pay off. Such was the hype woven around this pre-pre-production furore (some four years ago), even New Labour spin doctors would have failed to keep up public interest. Result: Redford's film creeps quietly on to the screen, gently takes us on a stunning geographical field trip from New York to Montana, then limps off, bruised by unfair expectations.

"The situation got into a frenzied bidding war, which I don't necessarily think was a healthy thing, though it worked out in my favour," admits Redford. "The business is becoming so full of predators, so mercenary. The collusion between publishers and Hollywood is getting tighter and tighter. This was probably the greatest illustration of it, that a book that wasn't even finished would be pursued by the film business for the rights. But it wasn't any of my business."

His uncomfortable feeling has spread to the film, and directing himself has resulted in one too many narcissistic sunlit close-ups. "I just didn't enjoy the relationship involved. As a director, I've always enjoyed the peace of mind behind the camera, looking at a set in a different way to an actor. As an actor, I've always thought it my responsibility to inhabit the space I'm supposed to be in. I don't like to be on set as an actor. It drains your energy. And I'm not much attracted to the business of the business. I take a hike instead."

Brought up in a working-class Los Angeles family (his father was a milkman), Redford originally wanted to become a painter, enrolling at art school in Florence. Studying acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he broke unmemorably into film, via minor stints on TV and Broadway, in the 1962 film War Hunt. Five years later, notices rolled in as he reprised his Broadway success with Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park, with Jane Fonda. Two years on he was one half of the outlaw pairing in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Iconic status beckoned. While the Seventies (with The Sting and Three Days of the Condor amongst others) was a period in which he could do no wrong, the following decade was a different story.

"There have been two periods in the last 20 years marking what I'd call a downturn in product in Hollywood," he recalls. "One was after the Reagan era. It left us with films like cartoons. I had the most enjoyable, productive period in the Seventies. You could make films about issues. The Eighties were a lean time for me."

Despite the Oscar-triumph for his directorial debut Ordinary People at the start of the decade, it would take Redford another eight years before he directed again, with the charming but slow comic fable The Milagro Beanfield War. Acting roles were also in short supply; Brubaker, the disappointing Legal Eagles and Out of Africa apart, Redford's only appearance on screen was in Barry Levinson's The Natural, with Redford the wounded baseball player out to regain his place on the field. Films like his last directorial effort, Quiz Show, may have continued this obsession with examining the fragility of America, but Redford would never again act it so proficiently on screen.

"I gave a lot of time to Sundance in the Eighties. It turned out to be more commitment than I thought," he says. The Sundance Institute, a 5,000-acre outpost some 6,000 feet up in the snow-capped peaks of the Wasatch Mountains in Utah, was Redford's reaction to the artistic stagnation that stalled his acting career. Set up to nurture young film-making talent, it hosts an annual producers' conference, and workshops for screenwriters, composers and choreographers. Its January festival has unearthed such indie classics as Reservoir Dogs. Despite financial problems (solved to an extent by merchandising and tourism), the vision is intact: "To create this alternative cinema for independent film. There was a hope it would fuel the industry with a diverse range of product."

With the latest developments (the Sundance Cable channel; a chain of Sundance cinemas) Redford's dream has been realised at the expense of his own career. The Horse Whisperer serves as a reminder of this, a tribute to his perennial golden-boy image rather than the darkness that brewed beneath in films like Jeremiah Johnson and Downhill Racer. For the man who once played the Great Jay Gatsby, the perfect metaphor for America, it's an admission that the youthful fire within has gone.

`The Horse Whisperer' is released on 28 August