ABOUT A MONTH AGO, for the first time since I saw it (twice) when it came out in 1970, I watched Michael Ritchie’s skiing movie “Downhill Racer,” starring Robert Redford. I loved the picture at the time, for a number of reasons–James Salter’s lean, spare script, Ritchie’s cinema verite handling of the material as well as his understated critique of the subject and lead character. There’s also Redford’s shrewdly observed portrait of a green but arrogant American on his first visit to Europe, the terse way in which everything one needs to know about the Redford-Camilla Sparv romance is conveyed, a wonderful early Gene Hackman-as-coach turn, and the exciting downhill footage.
Seeing it now, all those values hold. But for anyone in the film industry, it’s astonishing to realize that such a film could have been produced and distributed by a major studio. Although it toplined a major star (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” had been released the year before), it seems like a guerrilla production, and there’s a subversive, irreverent attitude lurking between the lines. Despite the international locations, it was obviously very cheap, and it possesses all the ambition and cheekiness of an independentfilm made under trying conditions by young people having the time of their lives.
Last Saturday, I got to experience a little downhill with Redford in person. Knowing I like to ski, Redford proposed that we begin our annual interview about the Sundance Film Festival on the slopes of his Sundance ski area before moving indoors for the bulk of the conversation. A dream assignment, I have to admit, although one that balances out such long ago journalistic chores as having to cover a lacrosse game without knowing the rules.
Bob skiis fast. Forget keeping up with him. It was the most I could do to make sure I was still on the same run as he was halfway down so we’d be sure to meet at the bottom. And he was at less than full efficiency, he said, because of a bad back.
But maybe movie stars are forced to ski fast because it just wouldn’t be seemly for them to cautiously make their way down when all eyes are on them. The only other superstar I ever skied with, under similar journalistic circumstances a few years ago, was Clint Eastwood, and he skied fast, too.
CLINT RECALLED that he had only learned to ski when he was about 40 after an amusing, if embarrassingly public, initiation. As I remember, he had agreed to participate in some sort of televised celebrity ski tournament. He correctly guessed that he’d be able to stay on his feet if he just pointed his skiis straight down, so he made astounding time getting down the mountain. But not having learned how to stop, he plowed smack into the bales of hay stacked up at the bottom.
On Saturday, Redford patiently waited for me and my friends at the bottom near the lifts and, with justifiable pride, filled in some of the history of Sundance and pointed out its attributes. Redford was far from wealthy when he bought the stunning area in the late 1960s, and only beat out the competition from two extremely rich companies when he was willing, as they were not, to allow the aging previous owner to retain the use of 50 acres for as long as he wanted to.
When I mentioned “Downhill Racer” to him on the chairlift, Redford seemed instantly swept up in the excitement of its memory. “We really made it against the wishes of the studio,” he recalled. “We were able to make it almost without their really knowing what we were doing. You could never do that today.”
After having finally achieved real stardom with “Butch Cassidy,” Redford had enough clout to produce his own films, provided that they were cheap enough.
The brilliant “Downhill Racer” and “The Candidate,” both directed by Michael Ritchie, were made for about $ 1.5 million apiece. Lack of studio support from Paramount extended to the distribution, and lessons Redford learned the hard way through the failure of “Downhill Racer” due to improper marketing, bad theaters and other factors have been applied in helping successfully launch his similarly independent-minded “A River Runs Through It.”
EVEN THOUGH HE WAS AN ATHLETE, Redford had perversely resisted learning to ski when he was at the U. of Colorado at Boulder, because everyone else did it and “it was the expected thing. For that reason alone, I didn’t want to do it.”
He finally put on skiis in 1967, not long before “Downhill Racer” was shot, but his training was far from the usual. “I learned how to race before I learned how to ski,” he said as the exquisite, Swiss-like vista spread out before us, the lift carrying us up past 9,000 feet. Redford hung around the racers on the European circuit in the year leading up to the 1968 Winter Olympics, in which Jean-Claude Killy starred, and became adept at jumping out of chutes and barrelling down a run. The finer points would come later.
For the filming itself, which took place at major European ski areas during international competition, “I’d be down the course three or four turns from the finish. I’d be crouched out of sight, waiting and freezing, and the racers would come by at intervals, and when one of them would fall and have to be carried off , causing a delay, a guy would get on the walkie-talkie and yell, ‘Go, go now,’ and I’d get down as fast as I could.
“Somebody would tell the crowd down below that the actor was coming now and to crowd around, to go for him, so they’d react. We really stole all that footage, just got in there and did it. You could never do anything like that today.”
Redford eventually learned to ski as well as how to race, and the great pleasure of skiing with him, aside from the chat, was watching him slither elegantly down the slopes he knows so well. I did my best to follow him, even as I lagged far behind, dogging the smooth tracks of the famous Downhill Racer and imagining, for a moment, what it’s like to be so well known, to own these glorious mountains, to ski so fast. It’s great fun to try, but it’s tough keeping up.