Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: In honor of “The Old Man & the Gun” and its leading man’s supposed retirement from acting, what is Robert Redford’s greatest screen performance?
Matthew Zoller Seitz (@MattZollerSeitz), RogerEbert.com
“All is Lost” is in some ways the perfect Redford performance, because he’s the only character, and that means he never has to share the screen with anyone for any reason. I know that sounds ungenerous, but as much as I’ve enjoyed a lot of the movies Redford has done over the years, it’s always bugged me that he often seemed more concerned with looking great and being in control and always getting the upper hand than in plumbing the depths of his psyche, and stretching his talent, as so many comparably famous ’70s leading men did. And I’ll never forgive him for “The Natural,” which took one of the great tragic stories in mid-20th century American literature and slapped a happy ending on it.
Redford’s three best films as director, “Ordinary People,” “The Milagro Beanfield War,” and “Quiz Show,” actually critique the entrenched culture that produced Redford, whereas his performances as an actor tend to ultimately glorify, even if the characters have rough edges. He’s a little too close to super-preppy in some of his roles, and that’s always rubbed me the wrong way. I always gravitated more towards Pacino and DeNiro and other actors who had implied sweat stains no matter what the role.
All that having been said, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Sting” and “Sneakers” are my favorite films where Redford gets to be a handsome badass who wins in the end. “The Great Waldo Pepper,” which seems to have been largely forgotten, is the only film in this phase of his career that interrogates the myths of American heroism (the main character, a barnstorming stunt pilot, inadvertently lets a woman die during stunt, and the moment deals the movie a gut punch from which it never recovers). “Downhill Racer” is in that weight class, although I don’t know if it entirely counts, because it happened somewhat early in Redford’s career, before he was able to control how he was presented. “Three Days of the Condor” is a great largely reactive leading man performance, maybe the best screen showcase for the canniness and observational skill that Redford brought to so many of his roles. And “All is Lost” is one of the great physical performances in movies, all the more impressive because Redford is in such fantastic shape. I’ve never climbed a rope in my life, and I’m damn sure not going to do it at age 77, as Redford did in that movie.
Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film), The Wrap, Remezcla, MovieMaker Magazine
Arguably, Robert Redford’s best role is as the visionary leader of the Sundance Institute, but if we are strictly focusing on his acting prowess then his consummate effort appears in J. C. Chandor’s “All is Lost.” Nearly silent and unflinchingly physical, his effort as an older man lost at sea and left to his own devices is a master class in raw humanity. The heroic exploits of his youth as a leading man preserve their illustrious place in the history of cinema, but with this survival drama Redford patently ratified he is not only past glories. Age is unimportant when you are a force of nature.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedilm), Hammer to Nail, Film Festival Today
Choosing a top Robert Redford movie is no easier than it would be for any other actor who has been around for as long as he. With well over 70 credits to his name, he has spread his considerable talent far and wide. I grew up an admirer of his roles in movies like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting,” in which he demonstrated his command of understatement opposite Paul Newman’s more manic personae. Indeed, blessed with rugged handsomeness and oodles of physical charisma, he has frequently downplayed those charms and taken a backseat to his more extroverted on-screen partners. It is one of his strongest suits as a performer; stillness is his greatest asset.
In that vein, I elect J.C. Chandor’s 2013 “All Is Lost” as one of the finest showcases of Redford’s finest qualities as an actor. A model of naturalistic behavioral performance, the film follows Redford’s character – the only one in the story – as he struggles to keep his sailing vessel afloat after it is struck by an errant shipping container in the Indian Ocean. A sigh here, a shrug there, beads of sweat engulfing him as the situation grows ever more dire, Redford delivers a master class in restraint, even as hysteria begins to wash over him. This is how it’s done. Not even nominated for an Oscar, he should have won all major acting awards that year.
Ken Bakely (@kbake_99) Freelance for Film Pulse
In the survival drama “All Is Lost,” Redford is the only human presence for the entire runtime, and speaks only a handful of words. He plays a sailor left stranded in the vast reaches of the ocean when his boat is struck by a lost shipping container and the onboard communication equipment is destroyed. Director J.C. Chandor keeps his camera closely fixed on Redford’s face as he holds on through rough storms and creates makeshift survival tools, all while attempts at escape are repeatedly eluded. There’s something deeply existential about the entire concept, as the eternal struggle of humans against monolithic, unquantifiable, and uncontrollable forces plays out with parable-like adaptation.
The experiment is largely dependent on Redford’s exceptional performance, as his body language conveys not only the desperation of his situation, but the long and storied life of his anonymous character. Though we never learn the protagonist’s name or his background, Redford’s thoughtful choices—from the broadest actions to the smallest tics—place us fully in his world. It’s the kind of challenge that only a veteran actor could pull off, having accrued the life experience and craft wisdom to command nearly two hours of constant screen time. It’s not only that he communicates emotions without speaking—what’s more incredible is that he performs at this level without ever calling direct attention to the philosophical implications of his performance. He lets us pick everything up through inference, and has the confidence built by a lengthy filmography to make it a highlight of not only the latter part of his career, but a crystal-clear snapshot of what’s made him such an indelible cultural presence for decades.
Danielle Solzman (@DanielleSATM), Solzy at the Movies
“All Is Lost.” The film is basically just him lost at sea on a boat. There’s no supporting cast and a lot of silence aside from what few calls for help seen in the film. His performance alone is what carries the film. How Redford wasn’t nominated for an Oscar in this role is beyond me.
Oralia Torres (@oraleia), Cinescopia
Robert Redford is one of the last icons of classic American cinema, who gave brilliant performances in almost every movie he was in. It’s hard to choose just one movie of his, yet “All the President’s Men” is probably his greatest. His passion and drive for the truth -which made him buy the rights for Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s book in 1974- translated brilliantly to the screen once he played Woodward in the film’s adaptation.
Kristen Lopez (@journeys_film), freelance for Culturess, The Young Folks, CC2K Online
I know people will choose “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” or “The Sting,” which are valid, but the movie I chart as Redford’s greatest performance is one of his earliest, 1967’s “Barefoot in the Park.” The simple romantic comedy of a young married couple moving into the New York apartment from hell wouldn’t immediately lend itself to a great performance, but in comparison to Redford’s more dramatic features, it’s unique. His performance as Paul is meant to be the straitlaced, good guy who his wife Corie (Jane Fonda) jokes about being uptight, but what Redford does is slowly break down the preconceptions of the character. He’s charming and sweet, but also witty, smarmy, and knows his way around a line. Dialogue like “you don’t just dive into a black salad. You have to play with it first” only work because of how Redford delivers it. It’s a performance that showed the nuances of his range, a man who could be serious, sure, but who also found the rationality of humor yet could play with the irrationality regardless.
Sarah Marrs (@Cinesnark), LaineyGossip.com, Freelance
Choosing Robert Redford’s greatest performance is like choosing which is the best meal you’ve ever eaten–some are better than others but they all keep you alive. I’m going to cheat and name two: “All Is Lost” is Redford’s best contemporary performance, and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is his best all-time performance (said under duress because I have to pick one and “1972-1976, inclusive” is not allowable).
As the Sundance Kid, Redford set the standard for cool, laconic action heroes, and that direct influence can be seen in performances from Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner, Val Kilmer, Chris Pratt–basically any actor who has tried to nail the combination of overt masculinity, intelligence, and latent humor (Harrison Ford gets closest). And the way he uses his sex appeal is kind of brilliant. The line Redford walks in the “Keep going, teacher lady” scene is an almost impossible combination of menace and sexiness, the humor lurking in his eyes the only clue the audience has that this scene isn’t about to turn really, really ugly. Conveying menace without threat isn’t easy but Redford just sits in his chair and barely smirks and does it. This is the Redford performance I go back to again and again as one of his best and most enjoyable and full of delightful subtleties.
Rob Thomas (@robt77), Madison Capital Times
In picking Robert Redford’s greatest performance, I have to go for one that I just can’t imagine any other actor getting right the way he does, and one that embodies both Redford the actor and the political activist. That’s Michael Ritchie’s 1972 political satire “The Candidate.” In playing a charismatic leftie California lawyer who, in running for U.S. Senator, is slowly seduced by the political machine in becoming a middle-of-the-road wishy-washy politician.
It’s a role that gives Redford the chance to put his golden-boy charisma on full display while deftly showing the fragility of idealism in the face of real-world politics. This isn’t an overtly corrupt political process, but one where most people enter with the best of intentions and slowly whittle those intentions away for the sake of retaining power and influence. At the end, the candidate wins, but finds himself utterly lost in a campaign that no longer has anything to do with him or why he ran in the first place. His question to his cynical campaign manager (the great Peter Boyle), “What do we do now?,” Is one the Democratic Party has spent the next 45 years trying to answer.
If you haven’t seen “The Candidate,” with the midterms looming and the Democratic Party going through some long-overdue soul-searching, this couldn’t be a better time.
Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat / Screen Rant
Not enough people talk about Redford’s great performance in Michael Ritchie’s 1969 drama “Downhill Racer.” He plays David Chappellet, a skier on the U.S. team. He’s not much of a team player though, as he clashes with both his teammates and his coach (Gene Hackman). All he cares about is winning. Healthy personal interactions are not a concern.
They say there’s a certain amount of egotism involved in becoming a champion in any sport. Redford nails that idea here. He captures the way ego drives Chappellet, making him okay with burning bridges and irritating other people, so long as it puts him a step closer to his dream of being a winner. It’s a magnificent performance — subtle but layered, and with a sly sense of humor running underneath it.
Dewey Singleton (@mrsingleton) Insessionfilm.com, cc2konline.com
With such a resume the one film Redford has done which stands out as his greatest moment is “The Natural”. Redford has tremendous chemistry on screen with the entire cast and his understated approach at portraying Hobbs was spot on. I can watch that film 100 times in a row and still get chills during the final sequence.
Christopher Campbell (@theflimcynic), Nonfics, Film School Rejects
I’ve never thought of Robert Redford much for his acting talent. He’s just one of those actors who just makes an appearance but never makes an impression on me one way or another. I guess I prefer him in movies where he got to have a little more fun, though, such as “Sneakers” and “Pete’s Dragon.” If he’s going to be serious, I think he’s best as just a voice. Can I say his performance as narrator of the documentary “Incident at Ogala?” He makes that one more accessible and his voice is just so comforting even when stern and on an important matter. Or maybe any of the number of nature films he’s done since? He seems so much more suited to talking about Native American and environmental/conservation issues. If I have to choose a fiction film, I suppose it’d have to be the one of his that he narrates: “A River Runs Through It.”
Andrew Todd (@mistertodd), Birth.Movies.Death, Slashfilm, Polygon, IGN
Robert Redford’s performance as Martin Bishop in Phil Alden Robinson’s crime caper / hangout movie “Sneakers” isn’t particularly transformative, or show-stopping, or any of the words we use to describe so-called “great” performances. Even amongst his own filmography, it’s a minor entry. Bishop is a straightforward movie-star role – leading an ensemble of movie stars, no less – which really just calls for functional commitment from its actor. Redford holds the movie together as an intensely likeable audience surrogate, deftly balancing the serious side of its state-secret plotline with a twinkle of humour. We often don’t appreciate the basic skills of leading actors enough, and it’s a testament to the then 56-year-old Redford’s charisma that “Sneakers” is as good as it is. Sometimes, a leading actor just has to lead – and that’s just what Redford does.
Luke Hicks (@lou_kicks), Film School Rejects, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Birth.Movies.Death.
I don’t tend to lean towards the classics for classic’s sake. They must stand the test of time in one way or another. “The Sting” does so handily. It is not only one of Redford’s best performances, but it is one of the most iconic. It’s a swindling blast from start to finish and the kicker stands among the best twists in film history, Redford’s performance as “Johnny Hooker” being focal in its triumph. Among other things, it just puts a smile on your face to watch Redford jawing with off-screen bestie Paul Newman in their second and final on-screen pairing.
Aaron Neuwirth (@AaronsPS4), We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu?
I have to go with “Three Days of the Condor.” Perhaps it has to do with Redford’s cool confidence that keeps him in similar territory for a majority of his roles (not that he isn’t very good in almost everything), but I prefer the esteemed actor as characters who are slightly rattled. ‘All the President’s Men’ gets him there, ‘All is Lost’ is a close second, but ‘Three Days of the Condor’ is a great performance that capitalizes on what happens when you flip a man’s world entirely upside down. As Joseph Turner, Redford goes from coffee-getting CIA analyst to a man on the run, without the benefits of super-assassin powers that helped Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne. He spends the film panicked and paranoid, grounding the film in a way that’s needed, given director Sydney Pollack’s choice to extend the film longer than it needs to be, and dealing with a massive government-wide conspiracy. Although given Redford’s choice to headline other government-themed films focused on both real and now realistically plausible concepts, it’s nice that he was ahead of the game.
Ethan Warren (@ethanrawarren), Bright Wall/Dark Room
When I hear the name Robert Redford, my mind invariably jumps to “Nothing in the Dark,” the 1962 episode of “The Twilight Zone” in which a 26-year-old (and impossibly handsome) Redford plays a wounded police officer who’s taken in by a paranoid old woman—though, this being “The Twilight Zone,” his role is naturally more ominous than it seems. Redford is always most compelling in roles that make use of the tension between his matinee idol looks and the capacity for darkness running just underneath, and “Nothing in the Dark” weaponizes that innate dissonance to supremely atmospheric effect. It’s a uniquely fascinating performance that serves as perfect foreshadowing for what would become one of the strongest filmographies of the 21st century.
Stephen Whitty (@StephenWhitty), Freelance
Redford is an underrated actor, I think, because his great talent isn’t showing the big moment, but the struggle to reach that big moment — in his best films, you watch his face, and you can see the process as a thought, a feeling, slowly forms. I could pick any number of his films — “Downhill Racer,” “The Candidate,” “All Is Lost” — but I’m particularly fond of his work in “The Way We Were” not just as an actor, but as a star. He’s generous enough to play the love object in what is essentially Barbra Streisand’s film — signing on for a more passive role than few big male performers ever take on. And this gorgeous, golden boy of California is also self-aware enough to play someone who is not unlike himself. As his character Hubbell, writes ‘In a way he was like the country he lived in. Everything came too easily to him… but at least he knew it.”
Don Shanahan (@casablancadon), Every Movie Has a Lesson
I know Redford’s sole Oscar nomination for acting came from 1973’s “The Sting,” but I think his career best performance came in a film that debuted two months earlier in the same year, namely “The Way We Were.” By that time, the California native was undoubtedly at the peak of his charismatic power and sex appeal.”The Sting” was mere child’s play whereas Sidney Pollack’s film presented a genuine challenge. “The Way We Were” further cemented that his talent and commitment to performance went deeper than his looks.
For a movie star at that level, I think it takes another level of soul-bearing courage to play a romantic lead in a drama. Roles like that require more than smiles and winking swoon. Just ask Tom Cruise and George Clooney, two matinee idol contemporaries after Robert Redford that I don’t think have a truly successful romantic drama on their resumes because they cannot shed enough of their star persona to be seen as raw enough for whimsical turmoil. To dig into the hefty feelings and capture hearts in that position, an actor has to convincingly emote the anguish as well as the attraction. Redford went to that place for this film and made absolute magic. “The Way We Were” was a greater glamour project for Barbra Streisand than Redford, but he took a thankless role and gave it depth and conviction that made every inch of the fluffy Arther Laurents melodrama sturdier and far more engaging that it should have been.