It’s no secret that Robert Redford has left a major impact on film culture, from his early, iconic screen performances to the influence of his Sundance Institute and the film festival that came out of it. Nevertheless, the tribute to Redford at last night’s Film Society of Lincoln Center Chaplin Gala — where the actor was 42nd person to receive the Chaplin award — brought particular clarity to Redford’s impact across several generations. Here are some of the highlights from the evening’s speakers, which included Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda, Elisabeth Moss and even George Lucas.
Redford wasn’t a natural celebrity.
“I noticed early on Bob’s discomfort with stardom and the trappings that went with it,” said Jane Fonda, who co-starred with Redford in three films early in their careers. “I remember walking through the administration building at Paramount studios and the secretaries would come bounding out of their offices when they realized he was walking through. When we made ‘The Electric Horseman’ in Las Vegas, we spent months in Cesar’s Palace. One night, I saw a woman in the casino actually throw herself at him and faint at his feet. I’ll never forget the look on his face. It was a look of utter horror.”
Barbra Streisand had a really hard time convincing Redford to act alongside her in “The Way We Were.”
The recipient of the 2013 Chaplin award took the stage to share her early memories of Redford’s first starring roles — and the impact they had on her desire to work with him. “I first saw Robert Redford in ‘Inside Daisy Clover’ and thought, ‘Who is this man?” she recalled. “Then I saw him in ‘This Property is Condemned,’ directed by Sidney Pollack, and realized there’s a lot going on behind those crystal-blue eyes.”
But he wasn’t the easiest person to hire. “I desperately wanted him for ‘The Way We Were,’ but he turned it down because he thought the part was too one-dimensional. But we really needed a strong leading man,” she said. The actress remained determined. “I was even more sure when I saw Bob in ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ that he was the one I wanted,” she said. “He was someone who excited me, who I knew I could interact with.”
After a while she started to lose hope. “I was heartbroken,” she said. “Then one day I was on location in Africa and I got a telegram from my agent simply saying, ‘Barbra Redford?’ I knew he had finally signed on. I was so happy Bob had been able to convince them to make his character richer and more interesting.”
A lot of filmmakers are grateful to Redford for the Sundance Institute.
Fresh from her Oscar win for “Citizenfour,” documentarian Laura Poitras recalled editing her Oscar-nominated “My Country, My County” at the Sundance Institute. “In 2005, I’d just returned from eight months in Bagdad documenting the Iraq war. I was pretty much an emotional trainwreck,” she said. “I was invited to attend the Sundance lab and edit 200 hours of footage from the Iraq war. The experience transformed my life. The lab provided a safe space to articulate my film and develop some of the most meaningful artistic collaborations of my life.”
Appearing in a pre-recorded video message, Quentin Tarantino expressed similar enthusiasm for his experience at the Sundance directing lab when he went there with “Reservoir Dogs” in 1991 at the age of 28. “I went to Utah, which was the first time I’d ever been in the snow,” he said. “It was all these wonderful people there who gave me all this encouragement. I was able to choose the scenes from my script and pretty much go right into production afterwards. I can honestly say at that time it was hands down the most encouragement I’d ever received from anybody in the industry or on the planet Earth.”
Even George Lucas, who also appeared in a video message, expressed his admiration for Redford’s support of the film community. “You are a beacon of hope for all independent filmmakers,” Lucas said. “You successfully navigated the treacherous path of corporate filmmaking and always managed to keep your personal vision intact.”
Redford was a surprisingly easygoing collaborator for “All is Lost.”
In J.C. Chandor’s “All is Lost,” Redford plays the silent character marooned at sea who appears in every scene. Though Chandor wanted Redford for the role, he was surprised at the actor’s willingness to meet with him about it. “Obviously, I was pretty nervous sitting there staring at the Sundance Kid,” Chandor recalled of their first meeting. “I just went into how I was going to make this movie and went through as many details as I could. Four or five minutes in, the Sundance Kid held up his hands to stop me. He said, ‘Jesus, for a guy who wrote a 31-page script with no words in it, you sure can talk.'”
But there was more to it than that. “He looked right at me and he said, ‘You don’t have to sell me on this one,'” Chandor recalled. “‘I’m in.’ There seemed to be this almost uncomfortable, complete trust.”
One year later, on the eve of Redford’s 76th birthday, he showed up at the set for the film. “He arrived with no entourage, no fanfare, and he was ready to spend the next couple of months getting the physical and emotional crap beaten out of him,” Chandor said. “He had shot his first movie before everyone on our crew was even born. He was there to give himself to us completely. He taught me many things: How to make a career in this business while being a responsible husband and father; how to balance and protect what’s meaningful in your work; and most importantly, how to handle several shots of tequila while taking antibiotics for an ear infection.”
The Cannes premiere for “All is Lost” was a magical experience.
Chandor was initially puzzled by Redford’s easygoing nature on the “All is Lost” set. “Why would someone who has accomplished as much as he has continue to take such creative and physical risks?” he said he was wondering at the time. “Why would he trust us the way he did?” The answer arrived a year later at the movie’s Cannes premiere.
“I realized he was probably more nervous than I was,” said director J.C. Chandor, recalling his experience sitting next to Redford at the first screening. “About halfway through the film, a scene came up that involved him doing a dangerous stunt that he’d demanded he had to do himself. In the take we used in the movie, he indeed did that stunt. As I saw him do that up on the screen, I reached down and gave his knee a little squeeze. I looked up at him and could he tell he knew that jump he’d done was worth it.” At that point they came to a larger realization. “We both looked around the room,” Chandor said. “There were 2,000 people there that night. Every one of them was leaning forward in their seats. He looked back at me and gave me this supportive, amazing, beautiful smile. The film was not even close to over. We didn’t know if the audience would love it or hate it. But at that moment, we had them totally engaged. I realized that smile on his face was the goal — to take the risk and never forget the original spirit of the endeavor. Those are the things that make a meaningful life.”
Elisabeth Moss was really intimidated to work with Redford on his new movie “Trust.”
Several of Redford’s longtime collaborators, including Fonda and Barbara Streisand, showed up at the event. But one of the newer ones also got the chance to speak. Taking a break from her current role on Broadway in “The Heidi Chronicles,” Elisabeth Moss showed up to recall her recent experience acting opposite Redford in the upcoming film “Trust,” where he plays Dan Rather. “Last August, the email came,” Moss said. “Would I want to be in the film ‘Truth,’ with Robert Redford, filming in Australia? The second thing I did was email back, ‘Yes.’ The first thing I did was text my mom, who texted me back, very enthusiastically, with many exclamation points and more than one expletive.”
On the set, Moss found herself initially intimated by Redford’s stardom. “At first it was difficult conducting conversation with him,” she said. “I seemed to have lost my ability to speak in normal sentences. He would walk into the hair and makeup trailer and say something completely normal and expected, like ‘Good morning,’ and I would forget how to respond to such a complicated question.”
Eventually that changed. “I got over it,” she said. “That’s because he’s one of the kindest, most generous and talented people in the world. His encouragement and total professionalism brought out the best in me.”
Nobody does a better job at explaining Redford’s commitment than Robert Redford.
At the end of the night, Redford was one of the few speakers to decline using a teleprompter. Instead, in his brief remarks, he explained how the Sundance Institute epitomized his drive. “Money isn’t everything, you know,” he said. “It helps, but it isn’t everything. In my case, it was about creating a non-profit mechanism for developing new filmmakers and playwrights — to develop their skills in ways they might not otherwise have a chance to do so, and do it in a place that’s free from urban environments like New York and L.A. Put it in a place that’s in nature and see what happens when that program coincides with nature. Maybe something surprising might happen.”
In a larger sense, Redford said, “it’s really about helping others, not so much standing at the top, because at that point there’s nowhere to go. It’s the journey and the work. That’s what means the most to me.”