By Alan Hurst
Robert Redford has been a reluctant celebrity since his Broadway debut in the Neil Simon smash Barefoot in the Park (1963). He was a solid actor and, with his leading man looks, it was inevitable that within a few short years he would achieve success in movies – and not just a bit of success. Redford’s film career took off with the film version of Barefoot in the Park (1967) with Jane Fonda and quickly hit the stratosphere with a little something called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) with Paul Newman. And now, after almost 60 years as an actor, he’s announced that his upcoming film, The Old Man and the Gun (2018), will be his last.
Redford is a bit of enigma – a consistent presence in front of the camera, but very private. We know much less about him and his personal life than we do some of his contemporaries (Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, and Burt Reynolds). He’s well respected for his environmental activism and his support of independent film (he was instrumental in getting the Sundance Film Festival off the ground), but he was never completely comfortable being front and centre.
Redford also never seemed to push himself the way that Nicholson or Hoffman did. Still, there’s a solid resume of strong work in some of the most iconic films of the era. He was also a very good director who really hit home runs with his first four films, although he seemed to have had trouble connecting with audiences and reviewers on his last few efforts. He was also one of the most attractive actors in films in the sixties through the nineties and had an innate ability to connect with his leading ladies – particularly Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, Meryl Streep and Barbra Streisand.
The Essential Robert Redford:
BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (1967)
Redford had made a strong impression in the Natalie Wood vehicles Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966) and got some attention for The Chase (1966), his first of four films with Jane Fonda. But it was the adaption of his Broadway success that put him on the Hollywood map. It’s a very faithful and funny adaptation of Neil Simon’s lightweight look the trials and tribulations of newlyweds. He’s the button-down lawyer and Fonda is his more carefree wife and together they share a broken-down flat at the top of many flights of stairs in a Greenwich Village apartment building. Redford and Fonda are the perfect couple – they look great together and you believe both their charged physical attraction and their confusion as they learn more about each other after a few weeks of being married.
THE CANDIDATE (1972)
It’s not in the same league as The Manchurian Candidate (1962) as far as films about American politics go, but this is a very strong film that really shows how the political process works. Redford stars as the idealistic son of a former Governor who’s recruited to seek the Democratic nomination for the California Senate. He’s not expected to win so he’s able to express the values he believes in, but those values become more generic as he’s pushed to appeal to a wider audience. When he wins the election it’s a “Now what?” moment that still resonates in today’s political climate where neophytes are quickly rising to the top. The lightly satirical tone of the script helped ensure its Oscar win for best original screenplay that year and director Michael Ritchie guides Redford to one of his best performances. There’s also a nice cameo by Natalie Wood.
THE WAY WE WERE (1973)
Redford wasn’t keen on doing The Way We Were because it really is all about the evolution of Barbra Streisand’s character (Katie). But both Streisand and director Sydney Pollack prevailed, and he took the part of Hubbell, the all-American “golden boy” who seemed to have it all. Katie and Hubbell meet in college – she’s a politically active Jewish girl and he’s a stereotypical WASP with a talent for writing. They meet again years later and, in a classic case of opposites attract, they marry and move to Hollywood and get caught up in the blacklist of the late forties. There are scenes from this film that people still recall with great affection and all involve Redford just being the ultimate dream guy – tying Katie’s shoe when they meet in a café, him asleep at a nightclub bar dressed perfectly in his naval uniform as Katie touches his hair, and that same gesture at the bittersweet end of the film. Although not a great film, it’s certainly romantic and it was a major hit with moviegoers who loved the Streisand and Redford pairing. This film cemented his status as the top romantic lead of the decade.
THE STING (1973)
One of two films Redford made with Paul Newman. Although I’m a bigger fan of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), I think this film is more “essential” in the Redford filmography because he has the central role and Newman’s part is comparatively small. The reverse is true in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – that’s Newman’s film all the way, with Redford his quiet, very handsome sidekick. The Sting is a well-made, lively film with an intricate screenplay about a group of con men pulling the ultimate scam. Redford is very winning as the small-time con man moving up to the big time (this is his only acting Oscar nomination to date). Director George Roy Hill does a nice job with the evocation of the 1930s depression era and there’s a great soundtrack of Scott Joplin ragtime (wrong era, but it works). It wasn’t a surprise that this was a big hit, but it was a surprise that it took home seven Oscars – including Best Picture – against much stronger films like The Exorcist and American Graffiti.
THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975)
This is one of seven films that Redford made with director Sydney Pollack and I think it’s their best. It feels like a well-made detective film of the forties but updated for 1970s Manhattan. It’s a tense, topical, home front spy tale that came along in the aftermath of Watergate and during the wind-down of the Vietnam War, the energy crisis, and spiraling crime in major cities. North America was on edge and this film perfectly captures that. Redford plays a CIA codebreaker and the film opens with him coming back from lunch to find his coworkers have been murdered. He flees but soon figures out that that it was an inside job. There’s a suitably cold, icy feeling to the film that works very well, and Redford is excellent as the hero on the run. Faye Dunaway co-stars as a stranger who is forced by Redford to help him hide. Dunaway does well in what is essentially a thankless role. There’s also good work from veterans Cliff Robertson and John Houseman.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
One of the great political dramas of all time – and Redford was key to getting it made through his production company. What I have always found fascinating about All the President’s Men, based on the book by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, is that its release came very quickly after the actual events it’s depicting – but director Alan J. Pakula manages to build incredible suspense and tension. We know the ending, but we’re still on the edge of our seats. It details the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s as reported in the Washington Post – from the initial Democratic headquarters break-in through to the resignation of President Nixon. Pakula ensures everything about this film works – a superbly recreated Washington Post on the Warner Brothers lot, a strong script, and the moody cinematography of Gordon Willis. Redford and Dustin Hoffman are terrific as Woodward and Bernstein respectively and Jason Robards is an impactful Ben Bradlee, winning an Oscar for his performance.
ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)
Redford’s first film as a director and one of the best films of the decade. It’s a somber, thoughtful look at an upper-middle-class family trying to come to terms with the accidental death of one son and a subsequent suicide attempt by another. Working from a strong screenplay by Alvin Sargent, the pace of the film is slow but never dull, and ultimately quite moving in dissecting the façade of “appearance is everything” for the grieving family. Redford shows his true skills as a director with the actors. He could have easily played the father himself but instead chose Donald Sutherland who delivers one of his best performances, far removed from the quirky roles he was known for playing in the seventies. Timothy Hutton does excellent work as the youngest son, capturing all the character’s angst, guilt, and hope. But it’s Redford’s work with Mary Tyler Moore that drives the film. Although viewed as the villain of the piece, Moore and Redford made sure that the controlling character of the mother was sympathetic and that her inability to show affection towards her son was believable. The film won Redford an Oscar for Best Director and it was also named Best Picture over Raging Bull, a choice that still rankles some.
OUT OF AFRICA (1985)
A lush, old-fashioned love story that was a major box-office hit and swept the Oscars in 1985. Meryl Streep stars as Karen Blixen, a Danish woman embarking on a marriage of convenience with Klaus Maria Brandauer in Africa where they have plans to run a dairy farm, but he uses her money instead to start a coffee plantation. Karen receives little attention from her husband and develops an attraction for a big game hunter (Redford). Eventually, of course, she must make a choice. This is on my list of “essential” Redford films because it shows – even when he’s miscast – he is still a compelling screen presence able to generate great tangible chemistry with his leading lady. This is based on a true story and Redford’s character is English, but he doesn’t even attempt the accent. Redford and Streep do have some beautiful scenes together but ultimately I find this one to be a bit of a bore. What isn’t a bore is the film score – one of the all-time greats.
QUIZ SHOW (1994)
Redford’s other top achievement as a director was one of the best pictures of 1994 but it got a little lost in the double juggernaut of Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. Quiz Show examines the game show scandals of the late fifties wherein it was revealed that contestants were given the answers – particularly contestants who would have wide appeal for viewers. Quiz Show focuses specifically on the game show Twenty-One, contestant Charles Van Doren, and the congressional investigation that re-shaped television game programming. Redford’s work behind the camera here is excellent. He creates a subtle, layered look at the underside of the American dream and, as with Ordinary People, he shows tremendous skill with the actors. Ralph Fiennes as Van Doren, along with John Turturro, Rob Morrow and Paul Scofield, are all excellent. The film received four Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Director for Redford.
ALL IS LOST (2013)
At 77, Redford surprised a lot of people with his work in All is Lost. I think it’s his best performance and definitely one of his most physical. It showed audiences that he was still able to deliver the goods – without a co-star in sight. He plays a veteran seaman who’s on a solo voyage in the Indian Ocean. His boat hits a stray shipping container, starts to take on water and his navigation equipment and phone are not working. On paper, this felt like something we had seen many times before, but director J.C. Chandor and Redford make this work. It’s a tense and moving drama about one man doing everything he can to survive and concurrently coming to grips with his own mortality. Critics applauded Redford’s work like they never had before, and it was deserved. He won the New York Film Critic’s Best Actor Award and he should been that year’s Oscar winner for Best Actor (Matthew McConaughey won that year for a showy performance in Dallas Buyer’s Club).
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.