Saturday, August 18, 2012

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ROBERT REDFORD!


Robert Redford is 76 today. (Happy birthday, Bob.) He was born on August 18, 1936. And since the mid 1960’s, he’s been a preeminent figure in cinema throughout the world. For almost 50 years, he’s been a leading man. Redford’s also an Oscar-winning director, a producer, and of course, he’s the father of the modern independent film movement in this country by virtue of The Sundance Film Festival. (He still opens his fest every year with a press conference http://exm.nr/M0ZbC6) Redford is a talent who should be celebrated today and remembered for his invaluable contributions to the art of film.
Original caricature of Robert Redford by Jeff York
Starting with his breakthrough to superstardom in 1969 with his role in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, Redford starred in a body of work that was not only full of critical and commercial hits, but has stood the test of time. Among his classics are DOWNHILL RACER (1969), JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972), THE CANDIDATE (1972), THE STING (1973), THE WAY WE WERE (1973), THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976), THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN (1979), THE NATURAL (1984), OUT OF AFRICA (1985) and INDECENT PROPOSAL (1993).
Robert Redford with Paul Newman in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969)
Redford has always had matinee idol looks, despite a rather large Eagle nose and three moles on his lower right cheek. His athletic build, blond hair and megawatt smile made him seem like the quintessential all-American boy, perfect for the Hollywood dream machine. And he likely could have had the same kind of career that Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue had, two contemporaries of his, just playing all-American hunks that always get the girl. But Redford balked at that image and those roles. And he strived for work with more meaning. That’s why he played so many anti-heroes, starting with the Sundance Kid. Redford was complicated, moody, and ever restless. And he sought out roles that had more edge.
Robert Redford in THE CANDIDATE (1972)
 A perfect example was his role in THE CANDIDATE. There he played an earnest lawyer running for the California senate who thinks he can stay above the fray and not be corrupted by the American political system. Boy, is he wrong! By the end, he's won, but he sold out all his principles to do so and turns haplessly towards his campaign manager at the end asking, "Now what do we do?" 

Redford with Barbra Streisand in THE WAY WE WERE (1973)
It’s also why he was so perfect for the 1970’s. America was still playing the part of the great hero then, but Viet Nam and Watergate tarnished that image, and exposed a nation that was darker and not so innocent. Redford’s corrupted pretty boy parts captured that side of our country. Remember that line that Redford’s Hubbell Gardner character wrote in THE WAY WE WERE? “In a way, he was like the country he lived in. Everything came too easily to him. But at least he knew it.” Redford knew that this was an allegory for America. And by taking such roles, he hoped that we'd recognize ourselves and change for the better. 
Mary Tyler Moore and Timothy Hutton in Redford's Oscar winning Best Picture ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)
Redford has always had such a clever sense of self-awareness. When he started directing movies he made films whose subject material was about those very truths. He dramatized the breakdown of the American family in affluent suburbia in ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980) and won an Oscar for his directorial debut. He held a mirror up to the public's fascination with turning regular folks into celebrities in QUIZ SHOW (1994). And last year he directed the under-appreciated THE CONSPIRATOR about Mary Surratt’s role in the Lincoln assassination. If you think it’s a jingoistic portrayal of American justice, you haven’t seen it. And you don’t know Redford.
Redford today at his Sundance Film Festival.
Redford has always angled to make movies that are more than just entertaining. He wants them to have value for the head as well as the heart. And it’s one of the reasons he started his Sundance Film Festival. He felt that Hollywood had become too obsessed with the bottom line and making tent-pole pictures and blockbusters, so he created a place for independent and smaller filmmakers to get noticed. Now, his film festival opens 100-200 films each year. The work comes from over 30 countries. And his fest is attended by over 50,000 film fans each February.

With all those accomplishments, you'd think Redford would slow down, but he's still making movies, with two new ones in the can already, and one of them is slated to be released this fall. It’s a thriller called THE COMPANY YOU KEEP and he has the starring role. Redford doesn’t get as many accolades for his starring and directing as fellow actor & auteur Clint Eastwood does these days, but he should. Redford should also be honored with The American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award. He’s won just about every other kind of accolade imaginable, and he deserves that prestigious one too. But then the AFI just got around to honoring Shirley MacLaine this year, and she was 78, so Redford’s time will come.

And his time is today. He’s 76. Still working. Still making films that matter, that try harder. And he still looks pretty damn good. If you haven’t seen some of his work in a while, you should take a look. He had a lot to say about his times. And like all films that have stood the test of time, they have a lot to say about today as well.

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