Robert Redford: The Sundance kid no more

He was Hollywood's golden boy, an Oscar-winning director, champion of independent film-making. But Redford isn't ageing gracefully, says David Thomson
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The Independent Culture

Some movie stars last a moment; some stretch that moment out for 10 or 15 years; some turn the trick into a lifetime. Robert Redford was golden, in look and bankable substance, from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) until at least Out of Africa (1985). While his roles (and his acting) in both of those films hardly withstood scrutiny, his authority was immaculate. You did not even need to refer to his self-confidence as a way of carrying off the masquerade. Confidence is an assertion, an effort. The thing about Robert Redford was that he took it for granted that all he needed to do was offer himself to the camera, say the lines and let the magic happen. The Sundance Kid was as much a creature of fancy, fantasy and advertised merchandise as the great white hunter, Denys George Finch Hatton. This wasn't acting; it was nothing less than grace, or the god-given.

Some movie stars last a moment; some stretch that moment out for 10 or 15 years; some turn the trick into a lifetime. Robert Redford was golden, in look and bankable substance, from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) until at least Out of Africa (1985). While his roles (and his acting) in both of those films hardly withstood scrutiny, his authority was immaculate. You did not even need to refer to his self-confidence as a way of carrying off the masquerade. Confidence is an assertion, an effort. The thing about Robert Redford was that he took it for granted that all he needed to do was offer himself to the camera, say the lines and let the magic happen. The Sundance Kid was as much a creature of fancy, fantasy and advertised merchandise as the great white hunter, Denys George Finch Hatton. This wasn't acting; it was nothing less than grace, or the god-given.

Call it an aura - and don't minimise the effect it could have on hard-boiled professionals, let alone women. John Gregory Dunne was an experienced screenwriter, a man who had knocked around a good deal, a pretty stern test for glamour or "phoneys". But years after Redford's golden moment, on a picture that became Up Close & Personal - a stinker - Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion, the co-writers, were pulled up short when Redford came on board their troubled project. It wasn't just that Redford's presence guaranteed that the creaky and deeply compromised picture would get made. It was that they would feel better about it. As Dunne said in his book, Monster: Living Off the Big Screen: "I have a confession to make: I have a hard time calling Robert Redford 'Bob'... It was as if he was surrounded by a space one did not enter unless asked."

That sounds suspiciously like majesty, and there were those who reckoned that Redford was untouchable. He was as beautiful as any man had ever been in the movies. There was uncertainty over his acting, to be sure, but at the very least he was competent, or cool, and sometimes - as in All The President's Men - he was damn good. He was reliable box-office. He was also the producer of honourable, liberal projects: he had got President's Men made as a first-rate suspense picture. Then he became a director, and his debut, Ordinary People, while it was over-praised, won the Oscar for best director (beating Scorsese for Raging Bull) and for best picture. More than that, Robert Redford, his hair as blond as the beaches at Santa Monica where he was born, his eyes as blue as the Utah sky where he often lived, was a steadfast defender of the environment.

Not enough? Well, in 1981, he founded the Sundance Institute; a school, a gathering place and a nurturing ground for small, difficult, brave independent pictures, the kind that Hollywood had long since given up on.

Untouched by scandal, universally admired, apparently eloquent and affable, Redford had so much that seemed not just graceful but presidential that he made real people running for office - Carter, Reagan, Clinton - look shifty or implausible. Hadn't he even played a political figure in that astringent film, The Candidate, itself a satire on the hype of campaigning and the hollowness at the centre? What might have been? But Redford always ducked that final immersion in politics, just as he never yielded to passion or wildness in his acting. Think of Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro, and you can see how Redford preferred to stay cool, guarded, watchful, inward.

Not that he is uninterested in contemporary politics. Just recently, he boosted the fundraising by being present at a northern California party for Senator Tom Daschle. But he has never carried the logic of his own image and reputation all the way.

And now, Robert Redford is 67 (the birthday came on 18 August), and he looks it - or worse. There is gossip on the internet that he has had tucks done on sagging eyelids. Whatever the truth, he looks old and sad and beaten up, as if his calm inner space has been trampled on by indifferent mobs. And his new film, The Clearing, is not just awful and boring; depending on how you count, it's something like the 10th dud he has made in a row. He looks like a wreck, as if Jay Gatsby had survived but fallen on long, slow, hard times, so that he ended up not in the mansion on Long Island but in a shabby apartment in Poughkeepsie, struggling to cope on a pension.

To which Redford might answer - unfair, inaccurate, and mind your own business. For a start, he is not in danger as a survivor: he has his magnificent property in Utah; he is building a new house in the Napa Valley; he has a New York apartment. And there are probably more places he can go to, for privacy is crucial to Robert Redford. No matter that he has elected to be that model of naked fame, a movie star: he insists on a degree of privacy that many would regard as irrational, or even stupid. You can't have one without the other, they'd say. To which Redford - calm, but stubborn as rock - would surely say, why not?

What may be most important about Redford is being a star while maintaining the status of a man very few know. A close friend and happy co-star, Paul Newman ( Butch Cassidy and The Sting, towering hits) admits that he feels he still doesn't know Redford. Redford has said, flat out, that the thing he most likes about the American open spaces, about the wilderness and Utah, is that you are alone there. It reminds one of that strange film he made, Jeremiah Johnson, based on the life and myth of a famous mountain man, yet a very personal statement, too, in which Johnson would as soon vanish as be known.

These are not the best of days for Redford. Apart from confronting the ordinary truths of ageing in the mirror (he was once mocked, or teased, for sublime beauty and the way he liked to be photographed back-lit, so that a nimbus of gold surrounded him), he must recognise the facts about his recent movies. It's not just my opinion that they're duds. Look at the list and read the figures. You can go way back to Legal Eagles (1986) and struggle to find a worthy choice or a respectable hit: Havana; Sneakers; Indecent Proposal; Up Close & Personal; The Horse Whisperer; The Last Castle; Spy Game; The Clearing. Only one of those movies, Indecent Proposal, made real money. In it, Redford plays a suave millionaire who buys a night with Demi Moore for $1m. And he looked rather uncomfortable doing it: Redford is actually one of those heart-throbs who is rather sexually reticent on screen. You can imagine what Warren Beatty or Jack Nicholson could have done with that part. With Redford, however, the film never quite got over the anxiety that the set-up was in poor taste. It needed more humour, more sex, more panache - and Redford doesn't really do those things.

Even when he was in his prime, there was an intriguing edge of fatalism or melancholy. You could see it in The Candidate, where his guy does everything to win and then asks: "So, what do we do now?" - a line that was full of satire, yet coloured by Redford's odd sense of futility. Even the Sundance Kid - immaculate, fastest gunman in the West, fashion plate and so on - knows that he's doomed and that his girl will leave him early. And in The Way We Were, his golden boy, Hubbell Gardner, knows that there are cavities in his soul.

That dismay has grown in Redford. You don't have to like The Clearing, but it's the story of a man's regret over mistakes he made. The Last Castle is about a military officer who has ended up in prison. And Indecent Proposal is about a man who has only money, when he knows money is not enough. In * * his next film, An Unfinished Life (for Lasse Hallstrom), Redford will play a man with an estranged daughter-in-law (Jennifer Lopez), trying to mend the relationship.

In interviews, Redford talks about sadness and things lost. His mother died when he was only 18; a child from his own marriage died as an infant; and that marriage - his only one - to Lola Van Wagenen is another loss. He married when he was only 21. He was considerably influenced by Lola's Mormon background - that is one of the reasons he went to find a home in Utah. And the marriage ended after 27 years.

He has surviving children, and grandchildren, and there is not a hint to say that he is less than attentive to them all. But as he tells his own life story, the losses are the landmarks. And they are emblematic of the perils - to human hope and the environment - that seem to hurt the man deeply. Mormonism is a shy faith: in part because, historically, the Mormons feared mockery or investigation; and in part because they have a notion of a separate place of their own. I suspect that Redford understands those feelings, and takes them as a reason for staying tight-lipped.

There are other interpretations of the man, and they surely add to his pained look these days. The recent publication of Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film gives a rather hostile view of Redford as the administrator of Sundance. The view of Biskind, and of many visitors to Sundance, is that over the years the festival has slipped back towards being an adjunct of Hollywood, horribly impressed by box-office success and taken over by the very industrial forces to which it was meant to be an alternative.

The argument goes that this reflects Redford's ambivalent feelings and his private managerial style. He was and is a great movie star; those standards impress him. As a director, he has betrayed his early promise of toughness, and become more and more of a bourgeois crowd-pleaser. Again, his directed films have not gone well: Ordinary People was novel; The Milagro Beanfield War was unexpected; but after that, the films became more clichéd and old-fashioned. Quiz Show may be the sharpest film. But The Horse Whisperer and The Legend of Bagger Vance were widely attacked. And why - the independent movement has asked - has Redford never acted in a really independent film, to help it into being?

This is where the ambivalence becomes fascinating. On the one hand, Redford does like to run Sundance. On the other, he likes to be seen as detached, neutral, objective. That opposition doesn't work. Indeed, it has led to countless managerial difficulties where his long absences, his reluctance to confront people, and his lack of direct involvement run aground on his simultaneous inability to delegate or to reach decisions in open discussion. Remember Jeremiah Johnson, the libertarian who needed to live alone. It is not too far from the passive-aggressive control freak some people see in Redford - as well as the steady failure to return calls, unless he gets into an ugly argument.

I don't think anyone understands this complex pattern thoroughly - least of all Redford. But there are wounds left from it. Steven Soderbergh was once the apple of Redford's eye, and the proof of the Sundance approach. Soderbergh's first film, sex, lies, and videotape, premiered there and seemed to define the Sundance picture. The two men were close. They wanted to work together. But gradually they fell out, and then Soderbergh discovered that a project he had unearthed and developed - Quiz Show - was something that Redford had manoeuvred away for himself. And yet Redford claimed to be bewildered that Soderbergh was upset.

Power, ego and money can do strange things in Hollywood - and Redford had a reputation already. The Way We Were came from a novel by Arthur Laurents, and Laurents himself was hired as screenwriter on the picture - by the director Sydney Pollack (who has made a handful of Redford's pictures) and producer Ray Stark. But things didn't go well. Sides were drawn up: Laurents and Barbra Streisand against everyone else. Pollock told Laurents that Redford had problems with the script. Let's meet, then, said Laurents. But Redford was too wary to sit down with him. So Laurents was fired - and later re-hired as the project got into trouble. He had a tough view of the actor: "What it boiled down to was Redford finally saying, 'Well, her part is bigger!'... he's such a weasel. He's impossible, egocentric."

Don't rule out the chance that all these things are true: that Robert Redford is a shy gentleman, and chronically manipulative; that Sundance is one of the great, pioneering ideas in movie production, and an institution that has betrayed itself; that Redford is a phenomenal movie star but a rather repressed actor.

These days, you have to remind yourself of the vigour, the charm, the casual glory that held in, say, Barefoot in the Park, The Chase, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; The Way We Were; The Sting; The Great Waldo Pepper; Three Days of the Condor; All The President's Men. And don't forget how flat-out awful he was in The Great Gatsby and The Natural, roles for which his mythic grace seemed so suited, but which turned out hollow.

I think it's cruel to blame him for Sundance. So many novice film-makers owe so much to the place, and if the film-makers ended up greedy, devious and vainglorious once they got a shot of success, well, that is human nature, not the fault of Redford. Perhaps he should have moved on, leaving the management to others. Whatever, in history, it will look like a wise and far-sighted gesture, just as his steady devotion to narrating wildlife documentaries attests to his allegiance to that cause. Even now, he is planning to direct a film, Aloft, about men obsessed with peregrine falcons.

As a director, he has run out of energy. As an actor, he does seem confounded and hurt by old age. But that may just be a way of saying that he always lacked the humour, the irony and the inventiveness of a Nicholson or a Pacino. And he may be too old now, or too suspicious, to trust a younger person who offered him an unequivocally great part as an old man. I don't envisage Redford as Lear, but I think he is in touch enough with the sadness of old age to do something that would surprise us all.

If we judge him a failure, he may shrug and say it's none of our business, just the way a stupid world works. Suppose he was always a throwback - as beautiful and yet as simple-minded as Gary Cooper. Did Cooper invent Sundance? Did Cooper produce All The President's Men? Did Cooper care about creatures that would never earn a story in the media? Robert Redford has altered our idea of what a movie star might be. And if he is difficult inside, then I suspect that no one has suffered from that more than him.

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