Robert Redford... This combination actor/director/producer and guiding force of the Sundance Institute and Sundance Film Festival is a textbook American success story. Other actors/directors/producers who raise eyebrows among the film-going masses are here one moment before disappearing into oblivion. But not Robert Redford. His most recent film in front of the camera, one which reportedly will feature his final acting role, is THE OLD MAN & THE GUN, a fact-based tale in which he offers one of his better performances as a career robber. His character, whose name is Forrest Tucker, is not to be confused with the actor Forrest Tucker, of F TROOP fame. Plus, he is not the lone “old man” or “old woman” in the film. He is surrounded by a veteran cast, among them Danny Glover, Keith Carradine, and Sissy Spacek.
Back in the 1960’s, Robert Redford was the one classically handsome Hollywood actor to earn super-stardom. Then, the “new” celebrities, the De Niros and Pacinos, Hoffmans and Nicholsons, looked more like your next-door neighbor: the guy with whom you shared a beer at your local watering hole. In other words, they were character actor-types. Plus, otherwise fine actors who already were established now were playing romantic roles. Take for example Walter Matthau. In CACTUS FLOWER, from 1969, his character is romantically entangled with two screen beauties of different generations. One was Goldie Hawn. The other was Ingrid Bergman!
But unlike the De Niros, Pacinos, and Matthaus, Robert Redford’s on-camera looks were strictly Old Hollywood. Now I must admit that, back in the day, I was not impressed with Redford the actor. At one point, I discussed Redford and Paul Newman, who co-starred in the hugely successful BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and THE STING. I observed: “Newman and Redford are similar in that both are among the beautiful people whose fortunes are in their faces. But Newman, unlike Redford, has chosen not just to play ornaments in glossy Hollywood star vehicles. From SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME in 1956 through TWILIGHT in 1998, Newman has played a wide range of interesting, challenging, deeply complicated characters. Meanwhile, Redford’s characters have been confined to a fairly narrow spectrum. Rather, his characters remain dispassionate as they become involved in the dynamics of the story.
“Even when his character is flawed-- the idealistic, naively deluded candidate who compromises his integrity in THE CANDIDATE-- or victimized-- the tragedy-tainted baseball phenom in THE NATURAL-- Redford’s overriding image is that of a Golden Boy. For this reason, recognition as a truly great actor as opposed to truly great movie star always has eluded him....The quintessential Redford-as-handsome-icon performance is found in THE WAY WE WERE. Here, his character is not so much a person as an object, a larger-than-life divine blond-being to be admired by Barbra Streisand. Streisand has the meaty role, that of the ethnic, committed political activist who undergoes the bulk of the character development. Redford is essentially a male Bo Derek: a shallow Joe College who is called upon to do little more than be beautiful.”
Has my view of Redford’s acting improved, or even changed? Well, more often than not, the answer is no. But his career has lasted longer than most. To some, his looks may have been his burden. To others, and in spite of his looks, he is nothing more than a so-so performer. But Robert Redford has remained in the spotlight for decades, and this in and of itself is no minor triumph.
Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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