Redford, Robert (1937—)

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Redford, Robert (1937—)

Robert Redford may very well be the last of the classic movie stars. Possessing rugged good looks in the tradition of Clark Gable and Cary Grant, he has been a major leading man since he rocketed to fame in the role of the Sundance Kid in 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, playing opposite another screen legend, Paul Newman. Throughout his 30-year career, which began on Broadway in 1959 in Tall Story and continued with his 1962 film debut in War Hunt, he has demonstrated an ability to portray American icons so memorably as to recreate them in his own image. Yet, in most ways, Redford is rather an atypical movie star. Though not necessarily anti-Hollywood, he goes his own way both on the screen and off and is extremely selective about his film roles. Although his blonde, blue-eyed charisma made him the most popular actor in America in 1974, his choice of screen roles were anything but glamorous.

In such films as Downhill Racer (1969), The Candidate (1972), Jeremiah Johnson (1972), and The Way We Were (1973), Redford portrayed men who questioned the prevailing political and social systems. In The Candidate, for example, he portrayed a man running for the senate on the basis of ethics and idealism, who quickly learns that people care more about appearances than about a candidate's positions on real issues. Winning is what the game was about, he discovers. By the end of the film, the candidate learns how to get himself elected but has no idea of what he will do in office.

This theme is repeated in 1973's The Way We Were, in which he plays a popular "most likely to succeed" college athlete paired with Barbra Streisand's idealistic socialist in a marriage of opposites. As in The Candidate, Redford's character succeeds in life largely through appearances, connections, and an ability to say the right thing even if it is meaningless. Thus, while he is depicting the American dream, he is troubled by it.

Redford's characters during the early years of his career appeared to be dichotomies: happy on the surface, yet emanating a haunting emptiness. In Jeremiah Johnson, he steps out of the system all together by portraying a "frontier trapper" who could not stand the restraints of society and was more at home in the wilderness. This film established the essential Redford character that would dominate the films of his middle and later career. In a string of successful films beginning with The Great Gatsby in 1974 and continuing with Three Days of the Condor (1975), All the President's Men (1976), Sneakers (1992), and Quiz Show (1994), he took a decidedly mistrusting stance against the government, big business, cultural institutions (such as marriage), and the integrity of the media.

This attitude also typified his behind-the-camera efforts as well. By 1975, he had turned his own production company, Wildwood Productions, into a major player in acquiring film properties, only picking projects that dealt with issues important to Redford. For example, the company acquired film rights to the best-selling book All the President's Men, which is about the Watergate investigation and the attempt to impeach President Nixon. The film won an Academy Award. In 1980, Redford won an Academy Award for directing Ordinary People, a brilliant dissection of the dark secrets haunting a typical American family. He cast television's most wholesome icon, Mary Tyler Moore, as the overbearingly neurotic mother haunted by the death of her son and blaming it on the youngest sibling. In 1988, he continued his political themes by directing an award-winning documentary Incident at Ogala, which investigated the persecution of a Native American by the FBI.

Redford is a passionate environmentalist and political activist for social justice with genuine concerns for the quality of both life and art. He lobbied for the Clean Air Act of 1974, the Energy and the Conservation Act of 1976, and several strip-mining bills. In 1976, he also took three years off from filmmaking to write a book, The Outlaw Trail, about the American West.

In 1980, he founded the Sundance Institute in Utah to promote the pure, idealistic side of filmmaking. Eschewing Hollywood, the institute aims to nurture young, independent filmmakers by creating an environment in which seasoned professionals can help beginners to find their voice without the pressures of commercialism.

One outgrowth of his creation of the Sundance Institute is an annual film festival dedicated to independent cinema. However, the festival was discovered by Hollywood executives desperate for new ideas in 1990, and a number of films screened there have been subsequently purchased and plunged into the mainstream cinema. While this has been financially beneficial for the artists involved, they rarely go on to experience the creative freedom in Hollywood that they enjoyed at Sundance. By the mid-1990s, the festival became a winter retreat for Hollywood executives. The products screened evolved from truly independent films devoid of big-name stars to Hollywood films utilizing Hollywood talent.

Although he has had some setbacks, Redford has become one of only a few actors who can make his own choices in both his personal life and in his films. He has used his star power to produce and star in films that publicize his beliefs and his causes. Both his lifestyle and his motion pictures have become fully intertwined with their common theme of iconoclastic loners who take on the establishment and live life on their own terms. At the same time, most of his screen roles reflect his political and environmental views to such an extent that one may wonder if he could portray an unsympathetic character. He came close in 1990's Havana, in which he portrayed a Bogart-like professional gambler who only looked out for himself. The film's failure at the box-office may have been because audiences were not used to seeing Redford in such a downbeat role. In 1998, he retreated to his traditional pro-environment, loner character in the successful The Horse Whisperer, but broke with his own off-Hollywood stance in his personal life by actually appearing on talk shows around the world to promote the film.

—Sandra Garcia-Myers

Further Reading:

De Vries, Hillary. "Robert Redford: Why Does He Still Do It?" Los Angeles Times Calendar. December 9, 1990, 8.

Downing, David. Robert Redford. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1982.

Hanna, David. Robert Redford: The Superstar Nobody Knows. New York, A Leisure Book, 1975.

Redford, Robert. The Outlaw Trail. New York, Grossett & Dunlap, 1978.

Weiss, Michael J. "Redford Comes down from His Mountain." London Times. September 14, 1984, 9.