A young man sits in a classroom, chewing a pencil and looking out a window, as his teacher begins to read what he considers best among the stories submitted by the class. As soon as the instructor says, “in a way he was like the country he lived in, everything came too easy to him,” the humble writer realizes he is the author of the day. And we’re reminded, in this opening to The Way We Were, how Robert Redford makes us believe every moment he creates on and behind the screen.
Last week, as the actor and director accepted the Chaplin Award from the Film Society of Lincoln Center, he expressed thanks for the opportunity to work in movies for more than 50 years. In addition to his films as an actor and an Oscar-winning director, his creation of The Sundance Film Institute reinvented the industry. And, with that smile he so naturally flashes on screen, Redford accepted praise for a remarkable career.
Jane Fonda started the evening by saluting the actor’s early work on stage and screen. She recalled meeting Redford in the early 1960s as they tried to succeed in the New York theater before playing Paul and Corie Bratter in the 1967 film version of Barefoot in the Park. Fonda described how Redford never reveals the technique he applies to the characters he plays. And she warmly recalled first hearing of his dreams to create “a camp for independent filmmakers” at the land he acquired in Utah in the 1960s.
Redford’s memorable work behind the screen — including the Oscar-winning Ordinary People — was remembered by John Turturro who played game show contestant Herbie Stempel in Quiz Show, the director’s recreation of the television scandals of the 1950s. The actor recalled how carefully Redford cast the picture — especially the father-son relationship between Ralph Fiennes and Paul Scofield — as well as the freedom he gave to his actors. And, with a smile, Turtorro asked Redford for another chance to appear in a film he directs.
Redford’s work at Sundance — starting as a film institute in 1981 before introducing the film festival in 1985 — was highlighted by Laura Poitras who created the documentary Citizen Four. She recalled arriving at Sundance as a fledgling filmmaker seeking creative support, returning a few years later with hours of material for a film she was making about Iraq, and coming back again during the creation of her Oscar-winning film. As she described the Sundance experience she thanked the man whose devotion to the medium creates an environment where creators can work in a community of trust.
And, in what may have been the evening’s most touching segment, director J. C. Chandor described Redford’s commitment to continue growing as an actor. The director recalled when they first met to discuss the film All Is Lost for which Redford was later named Best Actor by the New York Film Critics. While Redford’s character — a man lost at sea — says few words in the film, the director admitted being so nervous during the meeting that he couldn’t stop talking, which prompted Redford to observe, “for a man who wrote a short script, you sure do talk a lot.” Chandor praised the actor’s devotion to his craft and fearless commitment to a role that required a great deal of physical activity. And, no surprise, he noted how the actor made it all look easy.
As the evening concluded — after Barbra Streisand presented the award to her costar from The Way We Were — Redford said that he never tries to be recognized, only to do good work. And he promised that, as long as the work remains interesting, we will see him on the screen. That’s good news.
Congratulations to Robert Redford and to the Film Society of Lincoln Center for continuing to be such a focal point for film.
Behind the Screen
He is, simply, incapable of a false moment on screen. No matter what role he plays as an actor, or which story he tells as a director, Robert Redford gives us authentic views of the best of people can accomplish despite the darkest of circumstances. And, for some 50 years, he has made the movies a better place. Here’s a closer look at his work.
Barefoot in the Park (1967). As many times as he played the lead on Broadway, Redford’s film portrayal of a young lawyer starting a career and a marriage remains remarkably fresh. He and Jane Fonda are pitch perfect as a couple trying to adjust to the realities of married life in a very small Manhattan apartment.
Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969). Opposite Paul Newman, Redford creates a haunting comic presence in this classic tale of outlaws filled with more ambition than common sense. With minimal dialogue and maximum charisma, the actor becomes a superstar with a performance of depth and resonance in a film that refuses to age.
The Candidate (1972). As a reluctant candidate for the United States Senate, Redford delivers a fascinating portrait of a man trying to live up to his ideals while securing public support for his campaign. Jeremy Larner’s Oscar-winning screenplay paints a political world dominated by advertising pitches in a film that still has a lot to say.
The Way We Were (1973). As they noticed billboards reading, “Streisand, Redford, Together,” movie audiences went wild for this romantic drama set in a magical yesteryear. Redford expands what could have been a one-dimensional role – of a young man with the savvy to ease through life – into a memorable look at how the ideals of youth can collide with the realities of an unforgiving world.
The Sting (1973). Reuniting with Paul Newman, Redford wins his only Oscar nomination as an actor for this delightful portrayal of a young con man trying to find his way in a corrupt landscape. He and Newman create magical chemistry under George Roy Hill’s Oscar-winning direction. The timing between the two actors is impeccable as Redford secures his position as the actor of the moment.
Three Days of the Condor (1975). In Sydney Pollack’s haunting thriller about the CIA, Redford is at his minimal best as a man trying to figure out how a life so simple could quickly become so complex. Pollack simply knows how to inspire Redford to reach beyond the surface. As with his best performances, the actor does more with his eyes than most actors do with pages of dialogue.
All the President’s Men (1976). Redford triumphs as producer and actor with this classic account of the Washington Post reporters who uncover of the truth behind the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. While the actor captures the tension of a career in journalism – without letting these details smother his humanity – he celebrates the curiosity that drives reporters to search for truth.
Ordinary People (1980). The quiet command that Redford brings to the screen as an actor translates to his work as a director with this Oscar-winning adaptation of the Judith Guest novel. Working with a remarkable cast, he creates a frightening look at how denial can destroy the connections that most families take for granted.
The Natural (1984). In this romantic look at baseball from director Barry Levinson, Redford creates reel magic as a young man denied the opportunity to pursue his dreams. As with many baseball movies, there’s a lot of drama to follow before the final inning. Redford is totally winning in a performance filled with wonder and mystery.
Out of Africa (1985). While he may be physically wrong for the part of a free-thinking game hunter who woos Meryl Streep, Redford is so emotionally correct in the role that we forgive the details. Again, Pollack brings out the best in the actor at his most engaging as a man who refuses to tame a spirit he encourages to be free.
A River Runs Through It (1992). Again working behind the screen, Redford adapts Norman Maclean’s story into a touching look at how a family in the wilderness copes with the needs of son who insists living as wild as the wind. The director he makes a star of a young Brad Pitt who is reminiscent in the look, manner and charisma of a young Robert Redford.
Quiz Show (1994). Redford is again an Oscar nominee for Best Director for this piercing study of the television game show scandals of the 1950s. While dissecting the egos behind the crimes, he secures strong performances from Ralph Fiennes, Paul Scofield and John Turturro in a film that beautifully recreates an era defined by discord.
The Horse Whisperer (1998). As director and star of the film adaptation of Nicholas Evans’ novel, Redford creates a wondrous world of beautiful scenery, complex characters and meaningful lessons about life, recovery and lasting commitment. He makes us believe in the powers of a man who looks for the good in everything and everyone.
All is Lost (2013). The film begins with a man’s voice, that distinctive, natural, unassuming sound that has filled movie theaters for 50 years. While he barely speaks in this film, Redford delivers the performance of a lifetime as a man lost at sea. The actor tells everything we need to know with his eyes.
What a career. And, thank goodness, we have more Redford to anticipate this year when he portrays television news anchor Dan Rather in Truth. We can’t wait.