How Robert Redford Remade The Movie Industry

The former Hollywood poster boy spent decades contending with the 'problem' of his good looks. Now, he is producing performances that might define his career

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Robert Redford does the oddest thing in All is Lost.

It’s near the midway mark in this minimalist survival film, a landmark movie for the 77-year-old screen icon (Oscars, allegedly, are in the post), and a gut-wrenching account of a lone yachtsman drifting across the Indian Ocean on a punctured, smashed and increasingly waterlogged boat.

At this point Redford, known only in the credits as “Our Man” (it has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Very Biblical, as if he’s acting on screen for us, and through us, and for the sake of our souls), has just spotted a whopping black super-storm approaching from the horizon. He scrambles about on deck, battens down the hatches, ties up some loose canvas, and then, what does he do next? Does he pray? Does he cry? Does he strap himself to the masthead?

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No. At this point, when facing the deadliest threat to his own existence, he stands in front of the mirror and, well, he shaves.

It’s beautiful. And it’s very Redford because as he shaves he stares. And as he stares, although the script by writer-director JC Chandor (Margin Call) does not facilitate the moment with actual dialogue (the most significant and complete line of script that Redford utters on camera throughout the entire film is, "This is the Virginia Jean with an SOS call, over!"), Our Man is undoubtedly thinking, reflecting, and remembering. And though, again, the script doesn't nudge us there directly, it seems that Our Man is thinking, and it's possible that Chandor was thinking – because I'm definitely thinking – about that other great shaving moment in Redford's screen canon.

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It's Jeremiah Johnson from 1972. A movie engineered by Redford, developed by Redford, and featuring his then white hot starry-ness in the title role (screenwriter William Goldman would note, of early era Redford, that "no star, at least in my time in the movies, has ever had such heat focused on them"), it features a man, again, a biblical everyman of few words, up against the elements, fighting for his life.

This time, he’s against the bleak and biting Rocky Mountain winters, and the occasional Native Americans who fire poison-tipped arrows and hurl scalp-hunting hatchets in his direction. Redford himself has found the connection between All is Lost and Jeremiah Johnson, saying recently, "I've always been interested, like in Jeremiah Johnson, in people who go through a terrible ordeal, and all there is to do is to keep going. That's what All is Lost is about."

But, back to the shaving. Redford, tellingly and authentically, spends the first two acts of Jeremiah Johnson hidden beneath a thick red grizzly beard, mountain man style. At the end of act two, however, Johnson is "accidentally betrothed" (it's a comedic western trope, going back to The Searchers, so we'll let it go) to an attractive Native American nymphette called Swan (Delle Bolton).

Unfortunately, after their very first night of mid-winter raunch, Swan's face erupts with angry red beard rash. Johnson examines her face, and nods. Time for a shave. Minutes later Redford emerges as Redford is, mountain man no more: golden-haired, smooth skinned, impossibly beautiful, with beauty, in fact, to quote Yeats on Helen of Troy, "like a tightened bow" (in other words, if he was any more beautiful the bow would snap!).

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The funny thing is, after that one shave, Jeremiah Johnson loses something. It doesn't quite fail as a movie, but Redford's masculine beauty is so overpowering that it tends to work against the subsequent drama (Swan is killed, Johnson seeks revenge, Johnson gets revenge, and all from within the imperturbable dazzle of that near perfect beach boy beauty). At this stage in his career – this early apex – he is perhaps, more than any other male actor of his day, the embodiment of the impassioned phrase that is yelled out at the enigmatic guitarist played by Billy Crudup at the climax of Almost Famous: "Your looks are becoming a problem!"

And Redford knew this. And those around him seemed to know it too. In his very first break-out role, in Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park in 1967, he is berated by free-spirited wife Jane Fonda with the line, "You're always dressed right, you always look right, you always say the right thing. You have absolutely no sense of the ridiculous."

Back then Redford was the son of a milkman who grew up in relative penury in Los Angeles, in a tough Spanish neighborhood in Santa Monica (imagine it: the only blonde on the block).

He crashed through a teenage adolescence of drunkenness and rebellion (along the way he spent, it has been claimed, several nights in jail), eventually dropping out of a University of Colorado baseball scholarship to flee to Paris to become an artist. He returned, to New York in 1956, to become an actor (the impetus for this round trip, he has said, was the death of his mother at home in LA from a rare blood disorder: "After that I left Los Angeles and I never really went back. I have no horror of LA, but there's a sadness when I'm there. It was home").

Fame struck fully in 1969, with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Originally titled The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy the film was rejigged entirely after Steve McQueen dropped out of the Sundance role, and Warren Beatty also declined, leaving writer Goldman and star Newman with the task of petitioning the studio, Fox, for the right to cast the unknown blonde from Barefoot in the Park.

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Naturally, the movie was a smash, and a masterclass in the screen chemistry between then megastar Newman and his newbie acolyte Redford (epitomized in the classic moment when Redford's Sundance refuses to cliff dive because, he reveals, he can't actually swim. "Don't be ridiculous!" comes the reply from Newman's Butch, "The fall will probably kill you!").

The two became lifelong friends, re-teaming in 1973 for the period blockbuster The Sting. But it was Redford who burst onto the global stage as the poster boy for a new generation.

At the time, he has since revealed, he was aware of his own beauty and feared more than anything his own objectification. He says that he wrote a three-part list of the pitfalls that would await the modern bombshell he was about to become. "Number one, in the beginning, you will be treated like an object. But they don't know who you are. All they know is the image up there on the screen. Number two, if you are not careful you will begin to act like an object. And number three, the final death stage, you become that object."

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His reaction to the fear of fame, and to this personal predicament (how to make movies without becoming an 'object'?) was, he has said, to go "underground". He became intensely private. Bouncing from The Great Gatsby to All The President's Men to The Natural and Out of Africa he gave few interviews, and fewer secrets away.

His lifelong buddy Newman would eventually comment, "I've known the man for over 40 years and I don't know him, not really." Even Goldman, who worked with Redford three times, would claim that during the shooting of All the President's Men, "He refused to give me his phone number. I had to get him through his secretary. He's that secretive."

When not acting, Redford spent more and more time on his 500 acre ranch in Provo, Utah (he married twice), eventually establishing the film-friendly Sundance Institute there in 1981 (to nurture scripts and directorial talent), and taking over the nearby US Film Festival in 1985, re-christening it the Sundance Film Festival.

The Institute, claims Redford, was established as a reaction to the corporateisation of Hollywood, and to the personal hardships that he'd endured while trying to distribute his passion project Downhill Racer (it was, effectively, 'dumped' by Paramount). The motto for Sundance would be, "Keep it Simple. Keep the money out."

The Institute flourished, as did the festival, with the latter becoming a pivotal moment in the annual film calendar, thanks to the runaway successes of Sundance-engineered projects such as Sex, Lies and Videotape and Reservoir Dogs. An entire Indie-filmmaking community was born in Sundance – an entire way of shooting, of acting and of being (think rapid-fire delivery, lots of chat, the opposite of mainstream bombast, lots of internal reflection, somewhere between Linklater, Spike Lee and Kevin Smith).

And yet, even if fitfully, Redford continued to act, in vehicles that, ultimately, rarely stretched him, often mined his poster-boy past, and tended to cast him as an elder visionary, a wiseman, even a statesman (see The Horse Whisperer, Spy Game and Lions for Lambs).

Redford, in these roles, always turned up. He was always there. But the roles, and the movies, never seemed to test him. They were too reverential, too lost in the myth of Redford to tackle the man.

Which brings us back to that shave, and All is Lost. The beauty of that shave, and the beauty of that scene, is that the beauty in Redford is all but gone. What the shave reveals is a face battered by time, ravaged even. The wrinkles are profound; the eyes no longer dazzling, but tremulous with fear.

The face in its entirety is that of a poster boy for nothing but human transience. The greatest thing about that face, and about the film around it, is that it says in the most profound way possible, and in a way that would only have been possible through Redford the star, and through the baggage that he carries with him – it says, like the view of Christ, hanging on the cross at Golgotha, ‘Ecce Homo!’ (Behold the man). And for that alone, he's surely due an Oscar. 

 

This article first appeared in Esquire Weekly, our new iPad-only edition. Containing 100 per cent new and original content, it’s published every Thursday on the Apple Newsstand. Get your copy today by downloading the Esquire UK app to your iPad and either buying an individual copy for 99p or taking out a three-month, six-month or year’s subscription (all of which include digital copies of the monthly magazine)

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