As He Turns 75, Thoughts on the Legacy of Robert Redford

I've just sat down dutifully and read the reviews for the new 3-D rehashes of Conan the Barbarian and Fright Night, as well as the treacly-sounding One Day, and realized once again there is no reason to make my way to the multiplex this weekend. Just where are all the great movies these days?

I think I'll stay home and watch the blu-ray of All the President's Men again. It is one of my favorite movies, bar none. There's so very little wrong with it... it recreates a momentous event in history, it's smart, suspenseful, well-acted and yes -- still incredibly entertaining -- a film that never gets old.

Speaking of never getting old, did you all note that the star of that film, Robert Redford, turned 75 yesterday?

I saw no mention of this amongst all the pop dreck and trivial news items that seem to capture people's attention these days... (Brad and Angie rent Scottish castle... Pippa's love life... and please, please -- someone tell me why people keep talking about Kim Kardashian?)

So -- I am going to mention it, and even attempt a tribute of sorts, as I can think of few people in the entertainment field more deserving. Redford is in fact an object lesson in how to handle fame... one that many younger stars could learn from, if they cared.

I used to see him on the streets of New York City at the height of his stardom in the mid-seventies, moving quickly but unfettered by security. I called to him once from across the street (what did I have to lose?). He looked over, waved at me and said: "Hello!" My week was made. (Note: when my kids spotted Owen Wilson under similar circumstances a quarter century later, he roundly ignored them. Ah, well.)

As fate would have it, I'd get to meet Robert Redford on his home turf out in Utah in the mid-eighties. In our first interaction, he looked at me and said simply, "Call me Bob." Those three words spoke volumes about him.

Side-bar: I actually introduced my then-fiancee to the actor at this time. She professed not to be nervous, but on meeting him, he flashed that mega-watt smile, and my soon-to-be wife gushed, "Oh, hi, so nice to meet you. I've heard so much about you!" At this even Redford, who likely had heard it all, was momentarily speechless.

By this point, he was not only one of our top movie stars but an Oscar-winning director as well. But here too was a man uninterested in the trappings of celebrity; he saw his fame as a way to make enough money to seriously advance the causes he most cared about: among them, the plight of Native Americans, the environment and independent film.

And it was not just about giving money; he got involved. More than just a donor to the Democratic Party, he worked for the candidates who shared his ideals and outlook, and briefly considered becoming one himself.

Among other environmental groups, Redford served on the board of The National Resources Defense Council (along with my father-in-law) for years. Meanwhile he was using his star salaries to buy up more and more pristine land in Utah, the place he'd come to call home (his first wife Lola's family had originally settled near there).

These purchases would ultimately provide a home for what became the Sundance Institute in 1981 -- an initiative built around the simple but (more than ever) compelling idea that the work of independent filmmakers should be fostered and supported, well away from the commercial cesspool of Hollywood.

The growth of Sundance in the succeeding decades has been extraordinary, and it's scary to think how many gifted young directors, writers and actors would not have developed their craft had Bob decided to use his funds simply for his own pleasure.

As both a star and a director, he has always attempted to make intelligent movies. As with his most recent entry The Conspirator (2010), he would prefer I think to create a thought-provoking, literate box-office dud than a stupid, mindless hit. (Anybody notice how much of the latter we see nowadays?)

And what of Redford the star? I don't know this for sure, but my hunch is the man prefers working behind the camera.

Reportedly, Redford never liked watching his own movies; he was never totally satisfied with his performances (one exception being his Oscar-nominated work in The Sting). Perhaps he was perceptive enough to realize his acting range was somewhat limited. He was not a character actor at heart, like contemporaries Dustin Hoffman or Gene Hackman, and in the wrong part he could come off as slightly wooden. (Witness 1974's The Great Gatsby or even 1985's Out Of Africa, where he's forced to play a Brit -- sans accent -- opposite the chameleon-like Meryl Streep, whose delivery perfectly captures her character's Danish roots.)

His striking "all-American" good looks always served as both a blessing and a curse, and he knew it. What happened with The Graduate says it all: though Redford wanted to play the part of Benjamin Braddock, Mike Nichols -- after considering him -- declined, reasoning that noone would believe he'd have to chase after the girl.

But let's talk about the meaning of that oft-used term "star". Think Greta Garbo or Cary Grant. Neither won an acting Oscar (neither did Redford), but each had a quality that a movie camera captured and magnified, and when they were cast in the right roles, magic happened... that was Redford at his best on-screen.

And then, a little over thirty years ago, he decided to finally try directing, and on his first outing, produced one the most searing dramas ever put on film: Ordinary People. And lo and behold, he won his Oscar.

I really shouldn't complain or marvel at the lack of tributes to this amazing man on his 75 birthday; doubtless this is just the way he wants it. He already has more than his share of awards, honorary degrees and the like. And for him, that's not the real measuring stick on success anyhow.

I think -- and I hope -- that he feels proud of having made some truly beloved and enduring films, not to mention his active engagement in the political world, his contributions to environmental protection, and of course, his founding of Sundance -- which continues to be an essential lifeline for emerging filmmakers wanting to do unique and meaningful work.

And I know he must be proud of his family -- some of whom I'm acquainted with. He and Lola worked hard to raise them so as not to be indirect victims of his fame. And as a result, they are all extremely goodhearted and grounded people -- like their father.

In honor of this milestone birthday, I'm passing on my own short-list of top Redford films for your viewing pleasure. And I'll simply close with "Happy Birthday, Bob".
(Hey, I'm still allowed to call him that; he asked me to, all those years ago!)

Downhill Racer (1969)- A youthful Redford plays downhill skier Dave Chappellet, who gets called up to the U.S. team when another member is injured. While there's no denying Chappellet's talent and fearlessness on the slopes, off his skis he exhibits an unfortunate combination of cockiness and aloofness that many, including Coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman), mistake for arrogance. Or are they mistaken? Michael Ritchie's underrated debut film finally gets a first-rate DVD release from the Criterion Collection, and not a moment too soon. Racer holds up beautifully, thanks to a script that dispenses with all the sports movie clichés about hero athletes, a pair of dynamic, layered performances from stars-to-be Redford and Hackman, and Ritchie's breathtaking verite camerawork that makes us feel we're right alongside Redford on his heart-pounding descents. This is one feature that, forty years after its initial release, definitely merits another look.

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid
(1969)- Based on true events, this cheeky, freewheeling take on the Western tracks likeable outlaw pals Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Redford) in their final months together. After twice robbing the same train, the pair heads for the hills with Sundance's girl, Etta (Katherine Ross), eventually crossing borders to Bolivia to escape the indefatigable posse tailing them. Who are those guys? At the close of the sixties, Paul Newman and up-and-comer Redford would make this evergreen classic, the first of two hugely popular collaborations with director George Roy Hill. No standard western, Butch romanticizes the true story of the infamous "Hole in the Wall" gang, creating the ultimate buddy picture, and (thanks to William Goldman's brilliant Oscar-winning screenplay), a movie that's by turns lyrical, hilarious, and tragic. An eternal crowd-pleaser.

The Candidate
(1972)- With the help of campaign manager Melvin Lucas (Peter Boyle), progressive California lawyer Bill McKay (Redford) agrees to run for a seat in the Senate against Republican incumbent Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter), though he has little chance of winning. Constituents respond to his candidacy, though, and as his popularity grows, McKay finds himself increasingly losing control over his message and surrendering his long-held ideals in the race to win. Michael Ritchie's verité-style, bitingly cynical send-up of electoral politics resonated with viewers in the year of Nixon's reelection campaign, and yet it still feels utterly contemporary, partly due to the participation of actual journalists and media personalities. Redford brilliantly plays the greenhorn who's forced to compromise and then modify his media image, Boyle and Allen Garfield are equally fun as his cagey chief strategists, and Melvyn Douglas' brief turn as McKay's aged father, a former governor, is a nice touch. What do we do now? See The Candidate!

The Sting (1973)- When a mutual friend gets victimized by ruthless racketeer Doyle Lonnergan (Robert Shaw), con-men Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) and Johnny Hooker (Redford) join with some other pros to hit Lonnergan where he lives: in his wallet. The "big con" they perpetrate is highly intricate, but the need to avenge their fallen friend keeps them all at the top of their games. George Roy Hill's reprise with Newman and Redford (after Butch Cassidy) once again comes up a winner. Vivid 1930s period detail and a sublime Scott Joplin ragtime score add flavor to a wildly entertaining, twisty yarn that plays out like a perfect sleight-of-hand trick. And even we in the audience aren't in on the whole picture. Newman and Redford recapture the chemistry of their earlier outing, and Shaw makes an ideal villain/victim. Charles Durning also stands out as a sleazy, crooked cop. Grade A entertainment, suitable for older kids.

Three Days Of The Condor (1975)- After his colleagues are assassinated in their anonymous Manhattan headquarters while he's at lunch, CIA analyst Joe Turner (Redford) goes on the lam to ensure he's not next. Forced to provide Joe with cover, innocent photographer Kathy (Faye Dunaway) is at first a frightened hostage, but eventually comes to trust Turner as he tries to discover why he and his team were targeted. Sydney Pollack's tense spy thriller ranks as one of the best conspiratorial dramas of the '70s, a time when government mistrust was at an all-time high. Redford is in his prime as baffled, low-level spook Turner, and the sparks fly with co-star Dunaway, whose initial terror and eventual thawing happen with finesse and subtlety. With excellent supporting turns by Max Von Sydow and Cliff Robertson, Condor delivers gripping suspense all the way.

All The President's Men (1976)- A true-life detective tale about a pair of intrepid reporters, this film follows Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward (Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) as they uncover a possible connection between the 1972 Watergate burglary and a White House staffer. With the blessing of executive editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) and inside dope from Woodward's ultra-secret source, "Deep Throat" (Hal Holbrook), they "follow the money" all the way to the top. Although you never glimpse anyone playing Nixon, this Oscar-nominated film documents how the power of the press and determination of two young journalists brought down this president, who two years prior had won re-election by the widest margin in history. Faithfully adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book authored by these reporters, the movie is more exciting than fiction, and the starring triumvirate of Redford, Hoffman, and Robards merge seamlessly with their real-life counterparts. Here's a superlative thriller always worth revisiting.

Ordinary People (1980)- Adolescent Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) must rebuild his life after he and his older brother experience a horrific boating accident, and only he survives. Ironically, his biggest obstacle lies with his own mother (Mary Tyler Moore), who irrationally seems to blame Conrad for the death of her favorite son. Meanwhile, Conrad's Dad (Sutherland) is lost in denial. This harrowing, penetrating film deservedly won Oscars for first-time director Redford and newcomer Hutton. Casting TV comedienne Moore against type pays off as well: she essays the part of a WASP ice princess with unnerving precision, while Sutherland tackles the thankless role of a father still unable to come to grips with what's happening around him. Judd Hirsch also registers as the shrink we'd all like to have. An unqualified triumph.

Quiz Show
(1994)- In the mid 1950s, working-class Jew Herb Stempel (John Turturro) is the reigning champion of a popular TV quiz show called "Twenty One," and it appears no one can beat him. Thinking the public's grown bored with Stempel, the show's producers try to persuade him to leave, then hatch a scheme to stack the odds towards Stempel's latest challenger, the cultured, telegenic Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes). Tackling the quiz-show scandals that rocked the days of early television, Redford's intelligent, absorbing drama digs into the murky ethics of mass-media entertainment. Turturro and Fiennes are both excellent, playing antagonists whose ethnicity is as much a concern to image-conscious programmers as their smarts. Paul Scofield won an Oscar for his turn as Van Doren's patrician father, while Rob Morrow is memorable as a Boston attorney who helps Turturro blow the whistle. Quiz Show remains one of cinema's best meditations on our tricky dealings with the almighty tube.

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