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Robert Redford biography

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Post  eddie Mon Jun 13, 2011 10:14 pm

Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan – review

An elegant life of Robert Redford gets to the heart of an enigmatic, Gatsbyesque charmer who dreamed of freedom, honesty and social fulfilment

Philip French The Observer, Sunday 12 June 2011

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Robert Redford, left, and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Photograph: AP

Actor, director, producer, conservationist, political activist and patron of independent cinema, Robert Redford has lived a formidably energetic life while continuing to look like the diffident, tousle-haired all-American boy next door. He'll be 75 on 18 August, and his latest film as director, The Conspirator, a study of the fallout from the assassination of President Lincoln, is as ambitious and serious as anything he's done.

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Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan

The Irish writer Michael Feeney Callan has known this enigmatic, Gatsbyesque charmer for 14 years, interviewed him at length, spoken to some 300 witnesses and had access to his diaries and notebooks. Callan is thus in the best possible position to answer a key question that's been sung on family occasions by Redford's children these past few years to a tune by Andrew Lloyd Webber: "Double R superstar/ Who in the hell do you think you are?"

The fellow actor-director whom Redford most resembles – in the way he's taken control of his career, if not in his politics – is Clint Eastwood. Both were born in California, and the Depression as well as the Hollywood western and its values form an essential part of their cultural heritage. Redford's family history goes back to 16th-century England, where a Redford was an early Speaker of the House of Commons. Both parents came from relatively modest English, Scottish and Irish stock long resident in the States. His father, Charles, was sent from the east coast to Los Angeles as a teenager to escape an unsuitable attachment; his mother, Martha, was brought there from Texas by her divorcee mother. The father, with whom Robert never got on well, had so severe a stammer he was initially unable to find work as an accountant and became a milkman. Redford felt closer to his paternal grandfather, a wild New England Irishman, and to his maternal grandfather, a vigorous Texas outdoorsman, who passed on to him his frontier skills. But his idol and role model was David, his father's older brother, a brilliant athlete, linguist and Rhodes scholar who was killed in action near the end of the second world war.

From his mother Redford inherited an interest in spiritual matters (she was a Christian Scientist and supporter of Moral Rearmament) and grew up sharing her passion for the cinema. Despite his family's straitened circumstances, Redford came to move with a sometimes wild Hollywood crowd. The film star Robert Young was a cousin of his mother; another actor, Zachary Scott, had been her teenage sweetheart in Texas; Redford counted the children of producer Dore Schary and director Robert Rossen among his close friends.

He was an indifferent scholar but good at games, a nonconformist, and strikingly handsome. A high-school girlfriend recalled him as "a beautiful specimen, like some Scandinavian god with a fine blond down across his body". Callan paints a picture of an honest, contradictory character in unceasing pursuit of some sort of resolution. A restless traveller directed by the trembling needle of an uncertain compass, he was both arrogant and modest. Torn between painting and acting, he studied both in New York before opting for the latter, making a major impression with an original interpretation of Konstantin in a drama school production of The Seagull. He was a loner yet married young to a Mormon and rapidly had a family. While his professional fortunes lay in the city, he was early on attracted to the wilderness. He spent his first disposable money from films and theatre acquiring a tract of land in mountainous Utah, a property he constantly expanded, eventually naming it Sundance after the screen character that brought him enduring fame.

Success came relatively soon to Redford and, in Callan's view, he perversely fought against it as unworthy of his destiny and deflecting him from his mystical dream of freedom, honesty and social fulfilment. During the Broadway run of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park in 1963 (Redford's first major success and last stage appearance), Ingrid Bergman visited him backstage. Her exit line was a sonorous piece of advice: "Do only good work." This seems to have guided him over the next half-century as he entered into a creative alliance with the equally serious Sydney Pollack (who directed him in seven films), formed a lifelong friendship with Paul Newman, and became a major star. Along the way his evolving interest in social, political and ethical issues was brought to bear on the movies he produced and directed, with The Candidate, All the President's Men, A River Runs Through It and Quiz Show arguably his major achievements.

Of course, there were significant compromises. To support the Sundance Institute and the Sundance film festival, the organisations he created on his land in Utah to promote small-scale independent film production, he had to strike Faustian Hollywood bargains that would provide him with a regular annual income in the millions. With the ruthless agent Mike Ovitz shaping packages to exploit his talent, he found himself starring in slick, hollow vehicles aimed at an impatient youth audience, films such as Tony Scott's Spy Game, where the average shot lasted 2.6 seconds. To guarantee the profitability of those films, he had to preserve his popular romantic persona, the sort he projects in The Horse Whisperer, the most calculated of his films as actor-director. "I was thinking of this theory I developed," he told the audience of the TV talk show Inside the Actors Studio. "It's called taking responsibility for a talent. I came to accept that a large audience wanted to see me as this representational romantic character of some moral standing. I concluded there was a rightness in that."

Feeney has written an elegant, perceptive book, admiring, friendly, but neither hagiographic nor obsequious. The benefits of most doubts go to his subject, but generally he gives us Redford warts and all, the worst of which apparently – to fellow professionals at least – is his appallingly bad timekeeping. But these no more disfigure his character than those familiar physical blemishes disfigure that handsome, weathered face. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
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