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The Essentials: Robert Redford

The Essentials: Robert Redford

This Friday, one of the most powerful films of Robert Redford‘s career comes to the big screen in “All Is Lost” (our review). Stripped of most of the things that made him a star, both externally (he’s now 77 and his costume seems to have been purchased during a 40% off sale at J. Crew) and internally (gone is his affable charm), here he gives the kind of raw, fearless performance that actors of his status and importance all too often shy away from. In short: “All Is Lost” isn’t safe. But then again, Redford has never really played it safe. From his choices both as an actor and a director (most recently with this year’s uneven political thriller “The Company You Keep“) to his continued political activism, to his cockamamie goal of creating an essential film festival experience in the snowy slopes of Park City, Utah, Redford has long been resistant to anything even remotely reasonable.

Redford had an unexceptional upbringing; at a recent press conference held after a New York Film Festival screening of “All Is Lost,” he remarked that his childhood in California was the closest he ever got to the ocean (something that he became intimately familiar with during filming). He briefly attended the University of Colorado before being asked to leave, and took classes in Brooklyn (at the Pratt Institute) and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. Watching his early television work on things like “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Twilight Zone,” it isn’t apparent that he is going to be one of the most iconic American actors ever. There is, however, an unmistakable something there.

But despite his undeniable charisma, not everyone has always been on his side (just watch New York film critic David Edelstein re-appraise his career in a recent TV appearance). Redford has been nominated for acting in “The Sting,” and took home a 2002 honorary award, but aside from that his only competitive Oscar to date has been for directing 1980’s “Ordinary People.” It’s been almost 40 years since he has been nominated for acting. He’s due. The profound accomplishment of “All Is Lost,” one of the most grueling physical performances we’ve seen in a long time, was enough to get us thinking about his filmography, and its many highs.In fact, it was hard whittling down the “Essential” list to just ten movies; in order to do it, we needed a steely amount of Redford-esque resolve. 

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)
Before “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Redford was a television actor who most would describe as “competent.” But in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” partnered alongside an equally irresistible Paul Newman, Redford was allowed to become the kind of star, in hindsight, he was always destined to be. As infamous Old West outlaw Harry Alonzo Longabaugh aka The Sundance Kid, Redford was able to fully inhabit a role that played to his strengths. In Sundance he was able to play up the conflicted morality, the threads of intensity underneath his cool demeanor, and the fact that without saying much, you could understand exactly what Redford was thinking. Partnered with the older Newman, too, Redford was able to play up his boyish charm, especially in the scenes where screenwriter William Goldman (who won an Oscar for the film) and director George Roy Hill played up the goofier aspects of the pair’s crimes (like when they use too much dynamite to blow open a train’s safe, sending bills fluttering into the air). The romantic burden of the film also falls to Redford, which he does very, very well (pushing Katharine Ross around in a bicycle basket? Classic Redford!), particularly when accompanied by the Burt Bacharach and Hal David songs, most notably “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” a boldly anachronistic use of music in a western decades before Quentin Tarantino put rap songs into “Django Unchained.” This film represents the birth of Redford, his hair perpetually windswept, his eyes a piercing shade of blue, as a  modern American movie star, and a damn fine actor to boot.   

The Candidate” (1972)
Today, Redford’s politics sometimes have a way of outshining his work, but at the time of “The Candidate,” journeyman director Michael Ritchie‘s surprisingly resonant political satire, Redford was very much an unshaped young man. The scenario at the heart of “The Candidate” is delicious: the Democratic party, faced with an unwinnable senate race in California, whimsically decides on Bill McKay (Redford), the son of a former governor (Melvyn Douglas). Since at this point the election is something of a lark, Bill is able to say what he wants, although when he sees just how horribly he’s losing, he begins to smooth out his message, making it more palpable and steering it away from the hot button topics he was opening pushing. Jeremy Lamer, a former speechwriter for Senator Eugene J. McCarthy, wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay, and even though “The Candidate” can be somewhat wacky, it still bristles with authenticity. It’s hard to think of another idealistic young Democrat who was forced to compromise when he made the big time while watching “The Candidate” today … It’s just as funny and smart as ever, with Peter Boyle, as the political machinist responsible for Bill McKay, putting in an absolutely outstanding performance (“Cut the hair and 86 the sideburns” is one of the first directives for Redford). But, of course, it’s Redford who shines as the doe-eyed idealist who shows surprising political cunning and then has an abrupt change of heart; you can look at him and feel both the naïveté and ambition bubbling underneath. While the set-up might seem predetermined, there are enough surprises both within the film and Redford’s performance to always keep you on your toes.  

Jeremiah Johnson” (1972)
The first of seven (!) films that Robert Redford would make with director Sydney Pollack, “Jeremiah Johnson” was, at least on paper, an attempt to replicate the western formula that made “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” such a hit. It was, like ‘Butch Cassidy,’ at least partially based on the true story of “Liver-Eating” Johnson, a Mexican War veteran and mountain man of the American Old West who got his nickname by pledging to heat the liver of every Crow Indian he came across (his young wife was killed by a Crow warrior). The film was written by John Milius, who himself was kind of a soulful mountain man, and the film is filled with witty dialogue without an ounce of fat (when Jeremiah comes across a man, played by Stefan Gierasch, who is buried to his neck in the sand, Redford asks if he’s alright and Gierasch shoots back: “Sure, sure, I’ve got a fine horse under me”) and a nicely rambling plot that has Johnson (among other things) taking in a young boy as a surrogate son, getting married, and vowing revenge (in slightly less bloody form). While pieces of Redford’s performance seem out of place, particularly the “look” of the character, which screams ’70s surfer and not Mexican War veteran, the spirit of the character seems very much in character with a through-line of Redford’s up until “All Is Lost“—sometimes he very much just wants to be alone. The addition of a child or wife only makes this more clear, especially since they are quickly taken away from him. Redford brings the story of a man who sets out to be alone and winds up being forced into solitude to vivid life. Even with those ridiculous sideburns.

The Sting” (1973)
We back y’all! “The Sting” reunited the dream team from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid“—Redford, Paul Newman and director George Roy Hill. Even the advertising for the movie winked at the fact that the two were back again, playing lawless criminals in a different period film. “This time, they might get away with it,” a trailer for the movie’s post-Oscar-spree re-release touted, referring to the free-frame final moment of ‘Butch Cassidy.’ Taking place in 1936 Chicago, Redford plays a young con man who seeks out the guidance and leadership of Newman after double-crossing a powerful gangster (played by Robert Shaw) has left his partner murdered and him on the run for his life. The movie’s poster is styled after the cover of the Saturday Evening Post magazine as are the old-fashioned title cards, which pop up throughout the movie (they say stuff like “The Set-Up,” “The Hook” and, of course, “The Sting”). Redford plays a con artist who’s also addicted to gambling (“He’s a sucker for lady luck and a sap for lady love,” according to the advertising for the movie), and he brings that charmingly wise-ass prickliness to the role, his eyes alight with electric curiosity. Everyone loved this movie (it won a whopping seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for George Roy Hill), and they loved Redford in it (he received a nomination for his acting but lost to Jack Lemmon in “Save the Tiger,” a movie nobody talks about anymore). It was so successful, largely thanks to Redford’s charisma, that Universal planned both a sequel and a prequel to the movie. Neither star returned for 1983’s “The Sting II.” The film flopped. The prequel was scrapped.

The Great Gatsby” (1974)
Some actors inhabit certain roles but Robert Redford, with his irresistible handsomeness, mannered stoicism and occasionally rakish personality, seemed to have been born to play Jay Gatsby in the 1974 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s beloved 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby.” The movie is a bit dusty and dated by today’s standards, with Jack Clayton‘s direction occasionally approaching “moss-covered,” but Francis Ford Coppola‘s script is tightly constructed and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan and Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway remain delightfully whacked-out casting choices, even if their success in their respective roles varies. Still, this is totally Redford’s movie. For one thing, he’s never looked prettier. Outfitted in period clothes that appear more like a second skin than a costume choice, the movie is like one of Gatsby’s many houseguests: you feel entangled by his gaze, almost hypnotized. There’s a great moment when Farrow and Redford reach out to touch hands, and it’s such a heightened, highly romanticized moment that it feels like the screen could melt away and all that would be left are the two of them. But mostly him. Filmed in soft-focus pastels, looking back on this version of ‘Gatsby,’ it makes Baz Luhrmann‘s recent, overcooked version seem even more like a delirious headache than it already did. Unlike Leonardo DiCaprio‘s somewhat creepy interpretation, with Redford’s Gatsby, you could understand why people were drawn to him and how he could orchestrate an elaborate lie to get a girl. It’s hard not to swoon.  

Three Days of the Condor” (1975)
The joke surrounding “Three Days of the Condor” was always: what happened to the other three days? James Grady wrote the novel on which the movie is based, only it’s called “Six Days of the Condor.” So what happened to the other three days? Who cares. Once again Redford plays a man alone. This time he’s a CIA agent (nicknamed Condor) who has to untangle a conspiracy after his entire team in the New York office has been killed. What makes the movie so engaging is that Redford’s character is something of a nerd (“I’m not a field agent, I just read books!” he bellows to the agency lackey after the hit has gone down), and unequipped with this level of danger. Redford has a gun and his wits about him, and when he hijacks Faye Dunaway he is, at least for a little while, no longer alone. The chemistry between Dunaway and Redford is palpable, and the supporting cast is just as great—Cliff Robertson as a shadowy spook who knows more than he lets on and Max Von Sydow as a killer, are absolutely dynamite. But, once again, it’s totally Redford’s show, and what’s wonderful about the movie (like “All Is Lost“) is that he uses both his searing intelligence and his raw physicality to great effect. Just the way that Redford wears his glasses tells you so much. What’s really amazing about the movie, too, is how influential it is, clearly having a huge impression on things like the first “Mission: Impossible,” “The Hunt for Red October” (in its depiction of a nerdy action star) and even this summer’s superhero romp “The Wolverine.” It’s plot, too, is oddly prescient, concerning oil reserves in the middle east and murderous plots in New York. Redford, once again working with his frequent collaborator Sydney Pollack, finds a niche that he can make himself at home in: the paranoid ’70s thriller. Which brings us to …

All the President’s Men” (1976)
Up until “All Is Lost,” the most dynamic performance of Redford’s career was probably as Bob Woodward in Alan J. Pakula‘s “All the President’s Men,” alongside Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein. Supposedly Redford and his costar Hoffman did a whole bunch of research in advance of their performances, visiting the Washington Post offices for months and conducting endless interviews with actual reporters. (When the filmmakers wanted to film there, they were denied, and so the office was recreated at what was then a stagger $200,000.) The movie is meticulously detailed, from William Goldman‘s crackling script to Pakula’s direction, particularly those long shots like the one in the Library of Congress where you just don’t think it’s ever going to end. Oftentimes Redford seems to be a part of a project not particularly because it’s the showiest role for him but because he knows how good the final product is going to be, and he just wants to be a part of that. It was Redford who first optioned the book by Woodward and Bernstein and saw it through what can charitably be described as a “hellish” development process. Redford has always been amazing at conveying his thoughts, and audiences have delighted in watching him put together puzzles for his entire career, so getting to see him uncover the Watergate scandal is positively thrilling. There’s a reason that “All the President’s Men” has been a model for similar procedurals in the years since (most notably “Zodiac” and “Zero Dark Thirty“). Redford’s performance should also be a model for anyone in one of these movies. It’s that damn good.

The Natural” (1984)
One of the most iconic moments in Redford’s career (one that is, it goes without saying, littered with iconic moments), is when, at the end of “The Natural,” his washed up (and injured) baseball player hits a pennant-winning home run, sending the ball soaring into the overhead lights, a shower of sparks raining down upon him as he circles the bases. Now that is a moment. The rest of Barry Levinson‘s sprawling baseball drama (based on a 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud) is pretty wonderful too, from its epic scope that sees Redford playing a younger version of his character— who is taken advantage of and left for dead—to his resigned performance as an older, beat up player that nobody wants anymore. The script by Robert Towne offered Redford the chance to play a whole host of emotions and do interesting things with his physicality in a story that stretches decades. In Roy Hobbs, Redford created an indelible character, to the point that they still sell New York Knights caps (after the fictional baseball team in the movie) at J. Crew stores nationwide. While the movie is widely cited as one of the greatest sports movies ever made, too little attention is paid to the nuance and subtlety of Redford’s performance. Without it, the movie would fall apart, and probably become awash in stereotypical sports movies clichés. With his performance, it’s anchored, grounded, and even with its numerous flights of fancy, feels infinitely more real.

Sneakers” (1992)
Robert Redford’s self-awareness, delivered with a wink and an upturned grin, has always been one of his most powerful tools. In Phil Alden Robinson‘s deeply entertaining “Sneakers,” Redford was, for the first time, able to mine that self-awareness to allow audiences in on the joke that the once-youthful (to the point of almost agelessness) actor was indeed getting old and cranky (he was 56 when the movie was released). The movie also wittily played with the actor’s history of political activism, as Redford plays Martin Bishop, who we would now describe as a computer hacker, who used to use his genius for political disruptiveness but now acts as a low-rent thief, hired by banks and corporations to test the stability of their security systems. Idealism has been replaced by capitalism, a struggle that seems to wage inside Redford on an endless loop. Redford heads one of the most impressive casts of his career (including Ben Kingsley, River Phoenix, Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones and Timothy Busfield) in a twisty, enormously gripping tale of suspense and the fragility of male egos, directed with aplomb by Robinson and featuring a jazzily atmospheric score by James Horner. The fact that the movie didn’t make any money and remains something of a cultish oddity in the star’s career only deepens its inherent wonderfulness. As Martin Bishop, Redford is a man who is confronted with the ghosts of his past and must reconcile who he was and who he has become; he’s just as charming as ever, but with his advanced age he was able to have that charm punctuated with bittersweet regret. The results are staggering. 

Spy Game” (2001)

A late-career triumph for the dearly departed Tony Scott, “Spy Game” is an ingeniously structured thriller that has Redford playing an about-to-retire (literally, it’s his last day) CIA agent who has to work in secret to free an agent who has been captured (played by Brad Pitt). In the “modern day” timeline (set in 1991), we watch as Redford sneaks around and tries to accomplish things without his superiors noticing, while there’s a second plot strand that shows the relationship between Pitt and Redford through the years, from the time when Redford recruited Pitt through their training together and how Pitt wound up being captured. The dynamic of a partnership is something that Redford had built his career upon, and what’s fun about “Spy Game” is watching him serve in the same capacity that Newman did so many years ago in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Redford is Pitt’s elder and the two play off of each other wonderfully. It would have been very easy to have the roles flipped and let Pitt have more screen time, but this is Redford’s show through and through, with him having fun with the idea that he is an outmoded model for the CIA and still getting one past everyone who thinks he’s past his prime (easily read as a metaphor for Redford’s career). While Redford had spent many years later in his life shepherding his independent film festival to fruition, it’s nice to see that he was still capable of big, smart studio fare like “Spy Game.” 

Of course we have left out a number of wonderful Redford performances throughout the years, of varying quality, in order to whittle down our list, among them: ski movie “Downhill Racer” (directed by Michael Ritchie), “The Way We Were” with Barbara Streisand, war movie “A Bridge Too Far,” and Sydney Pollack‘s Oscar-winning romantic drama dynamo “Out of Africa” (less successful was their team-up for “Havana“). We also, it goes without saying, cannot wait to see Redford as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. in next spring’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Even at nearly 80, Redford’s choices still have us jazzed. How many actors can you say that about?

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