Redford Biographer Michael Feeney Callan on the actor, his films, and the impact of Sundance/San Francisco—Palio D’Asti/June 20, 2011

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To say Robert Redford is merely a pretty face is a shopworn cliché—but to say his profile launched a thousand indie movies is a spot-on fact.

Icon as Iconoclast. No person has done more to engender the spirit of independent filmmaking over the past generation than Redford and Michael Feeney Callan has written a wonderful Hollywood tale that has encapsulated his long-awaiting biography.

Excerpted in Vanity Fair, Callan tees up Redford’s life in the book jacket, “Among the most widely admired Hollywood stars of his generation, Redford has appeared onstage and on-screen, in front of and behind the camera, earning Academy, Golden Globe, and a multitude of other awards and nominations for acting, directing, and producing, and for his contributions to the arts. His Sundance Film Festival transformed the world of filmmaking; his films defined a generation. America has come to know him as the Sundance Kid, Bob Woodward, Johnny Hooker, Jay Gatsby, and Roy Hobbs. But only now, with this revelatory biography, do we see the surprising and complex man beneath the Hollywood façade.”

“From Redford’s personal papers—journals, script notes, correspondence—and hundreds of hours of taped interviews, Michael Feeney Callan brings the legendary star into focus. Here is his scattered family background and restless childhood, his rocky start in acting, the death of his son, his star-making relationship with director Sydney Pollack, the creation of Sundance, his political activism, his artistic successes and failures, his friendships and romances. This is a candid, surprising portrait of a man whose iconic roles on-screen (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Natural) and directorial brilliance (Ordinary People, Quiz Show) have both defined and obscured one of the most celebrated, and, until now, least understood, public figures of our time.”


His own Guy. Like Cary Grant before him, Redford kept his own counsel. When leads for episodic television came calling, he passed even though they would have quickly taken care of his looming debts.  Had he taken the easy money of network television, it might have cost him future roles that made him an international star and precluded his role of championing indie films.

However, Redford was drawn to roles that he cared about, roles that allowed him to drill down into the subtext of the character he portrayed. Beyond the basic plotline, he would flesh out the undercurrent between idealism and cynical reality as well as the choices made and the roads taken.  In The Candidate, Redford’s Bill McKay allowed himself to be seduced into the politics he hated from his father’s generation. When he announced his candidacy, he stood little chance of beating the incumbent Republican senator but as the campaign processed, he chose to trim his sails as he narrowed the gap. The most damning line came from Melvin Douglass, who played Redford’s father and former Governor, who roared to his son’s shock, “Son, you’re a politician.”  In Redford’s eye, Bill McKay won an empty prize and the film still serves as a cautionary tale for anybody who seeks elective office.  

Ordinary vs. Raging. In Ordinary People, Redford still bristles at the comparison between his work and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull when suggestions emerge that the latter  withstood the test of time. In fairness both films are great but track in different directions, not just in the ethnicity of the portrayals or the resolution of the stories.  Raging Bull gained appreciation only over time but let’s remember what Ordinary People brought to the table: 4 Academy Awards, 5 Golden Globes and a host of other honors. No fluke here.

Both films got equal treatment because just prior to the Callan gathering, we had a luncheon with Richard Schickel who talked about the former’s career trajectory in “Conversation with Scorsese.”  We all forget, plotline aside, that Raging Bull fared poorly at the box office and Scorsese fretted about funding future projects.

The Redford/Pollack relationshipSydney Pollack’s competitive relationship with Redford brought out the best in both artistically, even though it came at a personal cost as a result of strong personalities both shared.  More important that George Roy Hill , Pollack directed five of their six movies that cemented Redford’s screen persona, including Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, 3 Days of the Condor, Electric Horseman, and Out of Africa. As their relationship evolved over several decades, Redford delivered edgier stories which delved into basic character studies but Pollack brought an alchemist’s touch to building on-screen chemistry, which resonated with audiences. Pollack also complained that Redford would become side-tracked by the number of causes he embraced and warned that it “would drain his energies,” He was also steamed that Mike Ovitz cut a better deal for Redford in “Out of Africa” than what he earned as Director.

Founding of Sundance. Redford’s stubbornness to the artistic vision has become his legacy. The Sundance Institute—and its companion festival—debuted in 1981 and soon became preeminent festival for smaller films that were looking for a breakthrough into a wider audience.  Films like Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape built the festival’s reputation but the real work takes place within the labs which run continuously. However, as the Institute grew so did the budgetary appetites and while Redford has maintained the artistic integrity of Sundance, the financials have always been shaky.  Building sustainability into Sundance for the long term—when Redford recedes from the scene—will be the greatest challenge. If he fails, then much will be lost.

 

However, Redford’s stubbornness often cut both ways. While at the top of the Hollywood pack, he could leverage his wattage so the result mirrored his own artistic vision. When it came to “All The President’s Men,” the screenplay went through numerous rewrite until Redford felt the main two characters deserved something better than Ben Hecht clichés.   Ordinary People was seen as a Robert Redford film even though the actor was nowhere on camera. However, when actor-directors like Redford headline the films of others, problems surface. When Sidney Lumet thought about Redford in “The Verdict,” he threw up his hands in frustration when Redford wanted to gut the flaws of the main character and emerge with something more likable.  Lumet then turned to Paul Newman, who ended up with another Academy Award nomination. 

As Larry Turman says, “There’s a reason why its called Show Business.” The Industry is scored along two barometers, artistic quality and box office quantity, and your ability to deliver on the latter will determine your next project.  Films are an expensive canvas and artistic vision only represents part of the equation; those who invest want something tangible in return. Perhaps Clint Eastwood, who also transitioned from actor to auteur, has been able to figure out a successful approach, where very small budgets and good stories connect into something special.  

 

However, in the final analysis, story and character matter most for Redford. If more small films that have the Sprit of Sundance can find an audience on Netflix, it will have a leveling effect on the entire industry and Redford will have won.

The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and now Boston.  We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result.  There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.

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