HOLLYWOOD — Robert Redford has always been more complex than his screen persona might indicate. And when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences presents him with an honorary Oscar on March 24, it will not only be for his work in front of and behind the camera, but behind the scenes as well.
Almost 21 years ago, still flush from winning the Oscar for directing “Ordinary People,” Redford characteristically belied expectations by founding the Sundance Film Institute in the mountains of Utah, putting his career on hold for at least three years. What started out as a modest filmmakers lab, along with a festival that would later share its name, has become synonymous with the indie film revolution.
“I think he’s constantly trying to figure out different directions for himself because he’s someone who’s always taking on new challenges,” says Geoff Gilmore, co-director of the Sundance Film Festival.
That the Academy, the standard-bearer of the studio establishment, would honor a man who has been perpetually critical of Hollywood, and his association with an institution that represents the antithesis of mainstream moviemaking, is not surprising. While not always rewarding them with competitive Oscars, the Academy likes to embrace its mavericks, iconoclasts and provocateurs with career achievement laurels. Besides, with films emerging from Sundance playing an increasing role in the Oscar derby, the Academy’s board of governors likely views Redford less as a rebel than a savior.
“Sundance is only one of his truly remarkable achievements,” says Academy president Frank Pierson. “When you look at the sum total of everything he has done as a producer, director and actor, there are not many people who have dedicated themselves so completely to their ideals as Bob Redford.”
For many, though, those ideals have been hard to pin down. The rap on Redford is that, contrary to the Sundance ideal of creativity over commerce, his choices as an actor from the ’80s on have been safe, and his work less than experimental.
“He’s been absolutely conventional and he doesn’t seem troubled by that inconsistency at all,” says noted film historian and critic David Thomson, author of “Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles” and the biography “Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes.”
“I think (the Academy) is looking for someone big who’ll go over on television,” adds Thomson. “They’re looking for a moment in the show that will appeal to the older generation: the people who loved Robert Redford once and who are probably a little disappointed about what has happened to him in recent years.”
Gilmore disagrees: “If you look at what he’s done as a director, it’s an extremely impressive body of work, not only in terms of him as a storyteller, but as an artist. He has an impressive understanding of character and psychology. From ‘Ordinary People’ to five different features, he displays a very eclectic and broad-ranging vision.”
While Pierson doesn’t discount Redford’s marquee value, it’s a factor “that doesn’t enter into the discussions of the board,” he says. “As president, I would attempt to rule that out.”
Despite their rumored competitiveness, perhaps the talent Redford most resembles is Warren Beatty, recipient of the Irving Thalberg award two years ago: Both shot to major stardom in the late ’60s; both worked within a system they battled every step of the way; both display activist liberal leanings; both won Oscars for their directing debuts; both are highly intuitive artists; and both are very protective of their image.
“He’s a very instinctive, impulsive actor,” says Sydney Pollack, who has directed Redford in seven films and participated in the first Sundance filmmakers lab in 1981. “I don’t think there’s anything studied or premeditated about the work. He’s the opposite of the actor who wants to rehearse and pin things down.”
Like Cooper, Peck and McQueen, Robert Redford as an actor has never been considered rangy, but as a movie star — with his tousled, blond locks and granitelike jaw — nobody could touch him.
“I think Redford was always the golden boy,” says casting legend Marion Dougherty. “I don’t think he was as much of a character man as Pacino, Dustin (Hoffman) and so forth. He was always a leading man.”
Between 1973 and 1980, Redford was considered one of the top 10 box office draws, placing first for three consecutive years beginning in 1974. That he achieved such popularity despite characters who were aloof, sardonic, even thorny, is all the more remarkable. In films like “This Property Is Condemned,” “Downhill Racer” and “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here,” he played unrepentant heels, and yet his charisma is undeniable.
“He’s a very brave actor when you get down to it in that sense,” says Pollack. “A big part of what made Bob popular is what he withheld.”
Thomson concurs: “Redford as a young actor had both enormous charm and a real edge. It seems to me, though, that he, like Beatty, shied away from that self-exploration that there is in acting. Redford’s later work very much plays off the older version of the iconic image.”
If Redford came of age when male leads looked like men and exuded a rugged individuality, his work as a director has displayed remarkable sensitivity. Either consciously or subconsciously, his image as golden boy has been projected into such films as “A River Runs Through It,” “Quiz Show” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance” — all movies with fair-haired heroes filled with early promise who fall from grace and seek redemption.
The serious side of Redford emerged early on, when, parlaying his overnight stardom as the latter half of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” he formed a production company in 1969, developing the first of a planned trilogy on the American mythology of success: “Downhill Racer,” about a cutthroat Olympic skier. This was followed by “The Candidate,” centering on a senatorial candidate who makes a Faustian bargain with unscrupulous campaign strategists.
Looking at the two films today, one is struck by their brutal honesty and verite style, qualities Redford embraces in his Sundance acolytes. “I believe there is a role for activist filmmakeing,” says Redford, “and there should be. I think it is wholly appropriate to focus on social cultural issues of our time — particularly documentaries as the truth seems harder to find in the traditional avenues of media and journalism.”
This fascination with politics, compromise and corruption would reach its apotheosis in “All the President’s Men,” which Redford executive produced, starred in and shepherded from the early manuscript stage of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s bestselling book. Lately, Redford displays his politics on the stump, speaking out mostly on environmental issues. His latest cause: protecting Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge from oil interests.
Speculating on Redford’s legacy even as the 65-year-old icon is in the midst of reviving his acting career, Pollack speculates: “There’ll be those who remember him for offbeat movies like ‘The Candidate’ or ‘Downhill Racer.’ There will be those who’ll remember him as a great romantic leading man in movies like ‘The Way We Were.’ There will be those who will consider him a great force in the emergence of independent filmmaking. There will be those that will remember ‘Ordinary People’ as an impressive directorial debut. The one thing he has always been is difficult to anticipate. I think he enjoys, in a perverse way, not doing what you expect him to do.”