Back in 2012, the folks at Houston Cinema Arts Festival honored Robert Redford for his many and various achievements as actor, director, producer, and film festival overlord. But let’s face it: For most folks, he remains — then and now, first and last — an old school, much-beloved movie star.
Sure, even the stargazers will agree, the guy has done a lot off-screen as a passionate spokesperson for assorted environmental and sociopolitical causes. And, yeah, he fully deserved his Oscar for directing Ordinary People. In fact, he probably should have gotten another one for the even-better Quiz Show.
But did you ever see him in…?
What follows is an unapologetically subjective list of movies (and one TV drama) I compiled in 2012 — and I’m repeating here today on the occasion of his 83rd birthday — that I think demonstrate the diversity and quality of Redford’s work as an actor.
NOTHING IN THE DARK (1962): In this classic half-hour episode of The Twilight Zone, Redford relies more on boyish good looks and charm than heavy-duty thesping while playing a police officer who seeks help from an eccentric old lady (Gladys Cooper) as he lies seriously wounded near her front door. Trouble is, the lady is reluctant to allow anyone inside her tenement apartment – even a wounded cop – because she’s convinced that, if she lets down her guard, “Mr. Death” will appear in one of his many guises to kill her with his touch. I don’t have to tell you what happens next, do I? Suffice it to say that Redford is well cast and, thanks in large part to the aforementioned looks and charm, extremely convincing.
BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (1967): This bright and breezy adaptation of Neil Simon’s once-ubiquitous stage comedy about New York newlyweds may be a particularly pleasant surprise for any first-time viewer too young to remember the days when co-stars Redford and Jane Fonda were sleek and sexy rising stars best known as actors, not activists. Don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly not criticizing either icon for his or her politics. But a large part of the movie’s enduring charm is its quaintness as an amusing artifact from a more innocent age.
DOWNHILL RACER (1969): “How fast must a man go to get from where he’s at?” That question, provocatively raised as the movie’s original advertising tagline, seems to serve as an unspoken mantra for Redford’s obsessively self-directed Dave Chappelet, a small-town skier dedicated to earning Olympic gold. Chappelet’s humorless, tightly focused intensity doesn’t win him many friends among his teammates – even his coach (Gene Hackman) doesn’t really like the guy – and he seems incapable expressing any emotion but the joy of victory. Which, of course, is what makes Redford’s implosive performance all the more fascinating. (Director Michael Ritchie later teamed with his star for another sharply observed movie about competition – The Candidate.)
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969): It’s easy to forget that, back in the day, many critics were downright frosty toward director George Roy Hill’s semi-revisionist, seriocomic Western. (Academy voters, however, gave it four Oscars, including awards for William Goldman’s screenplay and Best Song – “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”) But even the naysayers couldn’t deny the immensely appealing chemistry generated by relative newcomer Redford and established superstar Paul Newman as two rollicking, wisecracking outlaws who can’t ride far or fast enough to escape their own obsolescence. Their casting was, quite simply, a match made in movie heaven.
LITTLE FAUSS AND BIG HALSEY (1970): Redford fearlessly portrays an irredeemable son of a bitch (arguably for the last time in his movie career, unless you count Captain America: Winer Soldier) in director Sidney J. Furie’s criminally under-rated road movie about two motorcycle racers – a naïve novice (Michael J. Pollard) and a studly braggart (Redford) -- who go nowhere fast while trying to transcend their status as small-timers. Redford’s Halsey is such a smugly and shamelessly manipulative jerk that, eventually, even Pollard’s timid Fauss rejects him. In typically self-centered fashion, Halsey responds as though unjustly affronted: “If this is friendship, I am aghast.” To which Fauss replies: “I never said I was your friend, Halsey. I don’t even fuckin’ like you.” When I saw this flick for the first time in a theater, the audience roared its approval of Fauss’ put-down.
THE CANDIDATE (1972): Every political junkie’s very favorite movie seems more prescient with each passing year as it vividly details the image-buffing, compromise-demanding process through which a handsome young Senate hopeful (Redford, at the absolute top of his game) is transformed, with his reluctant acquiescence, from idealistic long-shot to pragmatic campaigner. Redford’s anxious query after his character manages an upset victory – “What do we do now?” – is one of the greatest curtain lines in all of movie history. But it’s only a small sample of the pitch-perfect dialogue in the Oscar-winning screenplay by Jeremy Larner, a novelist (Drive, He Said) who gained unique insights into the U.S. political process while working as a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign.
THE STING (1973): Four years after they went out in a blaze of glory as Butch and Sundance, Redford and Paul Newman reteamed with director George Roy Hill for this Oscar-winning seriocomic caper about two Depression Era con artists – a sly old pro (Newman) and an eager young grifter (Redford)– who plot an elaborate revenge against the menacing mob boss (Robert Shaw) who murdered the younger man’s mentor. Redford hits the perfect balance of righteous anger and self-awareness when he explains why he’ll settle for conning, rather than killing, the object of his ire: “’Cause I don’t know enough about killing to kill him.” But, truth to tell, he’s never more believable than in the scene where Shaw’s intimidating badass unexpectedly punches him. There’s a moment – just a moment – when Redford’s expression reads: “Geez, he does remember this is just a movie, doesn’t he?”
THE WAY WE WERE (1973): Beginning with 1966’s This Property is Condemned – and continuing, rather more auspiciously, with Jeremiah Johnson (1972), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and the Oscar-winning Out of Africa (1985) – Redford and director Sydney Pollack developed a fruitful working relationship and a mutual admiration society. Many critics (including yours truly) might insist that The Way We Were wasn’t the finest of their collaborations. But it’s impossible to deny the irresistible and enduring appeal of this bittersweet romantic drama about a WASPy golden boy (Redford) and a fiery left-wing activist (Barbra Streisand) who are united by their love, but divided by their politics. Redford manages the difficult feat of remaining likable, if not admirable, even as his character, a novelist turned TV scriptwriter, gradually is revealed as a man who so easily and often compromises his ideals that you wind up wondering if there’s anything other than ambition driving him. (Shades of Downhill Racer!)
ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976): Redford served as producer as well as co-star of director Alan J. Pakula’s potently low-key and meticulously detailed adaptation of the nonfiction best-seller written by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodard and Carl Bernstein about their doggedly determined investigation into various aspects of the Watergate scandal. (Screenwriter William Goldman won a well-deserved second Oscar for his part in cinematically translating what many thought was an unfilmable book.) The movie abounds in memorable moments. But Redford’s very best scene by far is the one in which his character makes a cold call to a GOP official, and is so amazed when the official himself actually answers the phone that he’s momentarily lost for words. He vamps, none too effectively, by twice introducing himself as “Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.” If you’ve ever worked as a journalist, and you’re at all honest, you can’t help thinking while watching this scene: “Been there. Done that.”
HAVANA (1990): OK, it’s my list, so they’re my choices. And even though I realize this is a minority report, Havana – Redford’s last collaboration with the late, great Sydney Pollack – has always impressed me as a forgivably flawed, ultimately affecting attempt to do a Casablanca-style romantic drama set in 1958 Cuba. And I have taken an unreasonable amount of delight in savoring Redford’s dawn-of-middle-age charisma as Jack Weil, a cynical gambler who’s entirely aware that he’s been at the tables too long. (“A funny thing happened to me last week,” he says, only half-jokingly. “I realized I wasn't going to die young.”) Will he be capable of doing the right thing when he falls for an idealistic beauty (Lena Olin) whose revolutionary husband (Raul Julia) needs her sweet inspiration? What do you think? Here’s looking at you, Bob.