While Redford does not like doing the usual dog-and-pony shows demanded of Oscar contenders, last fall he did attend two festivals. The Telluride Film Festival gave him a tribute, and he participated in a Q & A at the New York Film Festival (where he arrived at the press conference characteristically late). Why the relatively high profile? This year, after years of directing such films as “The Company We Keep,” the star is in the running for acting awards.
“Margin Call” writer-director J.C. Chandor managed to convince Redford to perform in “All is Lost,” in the virtually silent solo role of an expert sailor in big trouble alone on the Indian Ocean. It’s the first time a Sundance director has asked the head of the Utah Institute and Festival to star in a film, Redford said at his Telluride Tribute. Redford said, “Sure, let’s do it.” He got a kick out of returning to his acting roots, he said.
The star carries the screen–you believe that he is a capable, canny, confident sailor who resourcefully pits himself against everything that the sea and nature throw at him. In one shot as he prepares to confront a major storm there’s a glimpse of that old Sundance Kid smile as he faces a worthy adversary.
Redford liked “All is Lost” because “it is existential,” he said. “I’ve always been interested, like ‘Jeremiah Johnson,’ in people who go through a terrible ordeal…all there is to do is to keep going…that’s what this is about.”
He didn’t mind having no dialogue. “You give yourself over to the character,” he said.”You have to live through these tests. In a real way I wanted to know at this point in my life what I was able to physically do. I hadn’t lost myself in a character in a while…it was tough.”
Chandor later said that 90% of the film was done by Redford himself–and that “no humans were harmed while making the film.” Stunt men filled in on some key shots, but not many.
A Redford tribute is an embarrassment of riches, because his 51-year acting career spans so many superb films. The man who grew up in a working class Hispanic neighborhood of Los Angeles briefly attended the University of Colorado on a baseball scholarship (he later played an aging baseball star in “The Natural” in 1984) before studying art and theater at New York’s Pratt and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, respectively, where he learned to listen and observe as an artist. He learned early on what it was like be short on cash and booed for doing nothing on a 1959 quiz show (fodder for his later directing triumph in “Quiz Show”). His star Ralph Fiennes, who is in Telluride with his movie “The Invisible Woman,” when presenting Redford with his medallion, said working on that film was “a master class for me.”
Redford starred in many TV shows, from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Twilight Zone” to “Route 66” and “Perry Mason.” The tribute clips alone were a treat, starting with TV movie “The Iceman Cometh” in 1960, and the sexy and funny “Barefoot in the Park” with Jane Fonda (1967), the film version of Mike Nichols’ hit play. (Redford turned down Nichols’ “The Graduate,” which went to his later “All the President’s Men” co-star Dustin Hoffman, because it didn’t feel right to him. He also passed on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” because it felt “fake.”)
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) made him a movie star. Director George Roy Hill and Paul Newman had to fight for him and agree to switch the two lead roles so that the originally titled “Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy” got changed to favor the bigger movie star. It was his favorite experience acting, Redford told interviewer Todd McCarthy, and so he and Newman reteamed on the Best Picture Oscar-winning “The Sting” (1973) which earned him his only Best Actor Oscar nomination. He may well add another for “All is Lost.” (He won the Oscar for directing “Ordinary People” as well as an honorary statuette in 2002.)
Redford’s 60s politics came to the fore in a series of films from “Downhill Racer” in 1969, about “the pyrrhic victory of winning,” and the meltdown on the campaign trail in “The Candidate” (1972) and “All the President’s Men” (1976) to “The Way We Were” (1973) in which he romanced Barbra Streisand and another film with long time directing muse Sydney Pollack, “Three Days of the Condor” (1975) which they developed closely together. His most demanding role, he said, was opposite Meryl Streep in Pollack’s “Out of Africa” (1985). “I began to feel he used me as symbol,” he said. “I was encased.”
The director helped his old friend Pollack’s directing career get started by recommending him to Natalie Wood for “This Property is Condemned.” When asked if Redford has approved of any of the presidents he has lived through, he thought for a moment and said, “no.”
“Do you still have the acting drive?” asked McCarthy. “Yup, I can’t help it,” Redford answered.