Has any contemporary movie star more intriguingly chafed at the gilded prison of stardom than Robert Redford? Certainly, he was not the first — or the last — matinee idol who endeavored to show us there was more to him than just a pretty face (or, in Redford’s particular case, that California tan, those blazing baby blues, and that wonderfully, ridiculously tousled hair).
Some actors, so inclined, stretch themselves in their choice of material; others add producing, directing, and even political activism to the mix. But “Bob” did all that and still felt somehow unfulfilled. So, rather like a fussy housewife forever rearranging the living room furniture, he gazed out at a sizable property he owned in the mountains of Utah and thought that an institute devoted to the cultivation and support of American independent filmmakers might look awfully nice over there.
If Sundance now seems nearly as iconic as Redford himself, or as Lincoln Center — where Redford will be honored at the Film Society’s annual Chaplin gala on April 27 — it’s worth remembering that it came into existence when the term “independent film” still meant something specific, ideologically and financially, and when there were few enough film festivals in this country to count on two hands. Long before there were social-media platforms where discussions of “representation” could rage against white, patriarchal Hollywood, Sundance offered a diversity model — as ground zero for boundary-breaking work by gay, female, black, Latino and Native American filmmakers — that the industry is still leagues behind.
Like any arts institution, Sundance is the sum of many moving parts, but it remains unmistakably shaped in its creator’s own image — specifically, his yen for reinvention and his conviction that stasis is a kind of artistic death. After all, there’s always someone younger, hungrier and faster gaining ground. That idea was central to 1969’s “Downhill Racer,” the first of two movies Redford made in partnership with director Michael Ritchie (the other being 1972’s “The Candidate”) that cast a jaundiced eye on ingrained notions of American success that have only grown more eerily prescient with time.
In two roles that cemented his superstardom, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting,” Redford was easily cast as a boyishly charming outlaw type. But in the decades that followed, he was drawn time and again to projects in which those twin bastions of American authority — government and media — could be more insidious than any hustler, with films like “Three Days of the Condor” and “All the President’s Men.”
For his Oscar-winning directorial debut, 1980’s “Ordinary People,” Redford would bring that question to bear on nothing less than the model suburban family, destroying itself in its effort to maintain its portrait-studio facade. Redford seemed to be laying the groundwork for a future where he would (like Clint Eastwood) direct more and act less — a path that such humdrum latter-day star vehicles as “The Last Castle” and “The Clearing” did little to argue against.
But then, Redford the actor seemed suddenly, invigoratingly renewed. In 2013, “All Is Lost” proved a kind of seafaring equivalent to the actor’s early frontier tale “Jeremiah Johnson,” a movie that pivoted on little more than Redford’s ability to hold the screen with native intelligence and deep reserves of unarticulated rage. Then he was a Rumsfeldian war hawk — the very sort of character who gave him chase in “Condor” — in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Before the year is out, he will be Dan Rather in the final year of his career in “Truth,” and he is presently at work in New Zealand on director David Lowery’s “Pete’s Dragon.”
What does all of this mean? That career tributes or no, Robert Redford is still racing downhill in a much younger man’s game. And try as you might, you can’t catch him.