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Robert Redford: The Biography

Michael Feeney Callan

(Knopf; US: May 2011)

Robert Redford: The Biography claims in its title to be simply a biography, but it’s a much larger work. It’s essentially a highly descriptive history—of immigrants finding their way to California, of the American West vs. East or South vs. North, of Hollywood from infancy to maturity, of like-minded artists choosing the best way to make a difference in the world, of the turning and tipping points in politics and ecology, of stewardship of the American West. This book tells a compelling story with dozens of enigmatic, intriguing characters who each take a turn in the narrative thread and whose voices echo through the decades that lead into the 21st century.


Robert Redford tells a story in which Robert Redford is only one of the many characters, albeit the catalyst who presents his own stories of American life, as well as becomes the instrument through which other Americans’ stories are told.


A few words of advice to those looking for tell-all scandals, behind-the-scenes gossip, or late-in-life confessions: skip this book. Robert Redford is not a quick read or a book to skim. It’s for those who may not have realized just how each of Redford’s films resonates not only with his personal past but with America’s rich history.


This book is for film students who may be familiar with the business of Sundance, but not its origins or aims. It’s for film historians who have seen, in the past decade, the loss of such cinematic giants as Paul Newman, Sydney Pollack, and George Roy Hill and want their (as well as Redford’s) contributions and personalities documented for posterity. It’s for scholars who will value the chapter notes, filmography, and comprehensive index. It’s for fans like me, who have watched Redford’s films since the ‘60s and admire the man’s politics as well as his artistry. If you fall into one of these latter categories, you should treasure this book.


Michael Feeney Callan took about 15 years to write the definitive biography of Robert Redford. The author attempted to interview “all and anyone who knew him.” Quotations from family members, actors, directors, and Redford himself are interspersed throughout each chapter. Feeney Callan also includes literary quotations (from such works as Owen Wister’s The Virginian, Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods. and T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets) that reflect Redford’s personality or philosophy.


The book is less about a series of key events in the actor’s filmography than the evolution of the way Redford thinks and the actions that follow his thought processes. Perhaps that is why my favorite quotation from Redford is this, as he fondly remembers childhood trips to the library:  “None of my friends were interested in ancient myth, and I often wondered why. I think my interest originated with the way information was handed down to me as a small boy. It came encoded. And the big themes of mythology decoded it and made sense of a lot I didn’t otherwise understand.” From childhood, Redford understood the significance of a powerful story.


Of course, as in the telling of any star’s life story, the usual biographical suspects (e.g., the defining friendships, the prominent projects) make their expected appearances. Redford’s friendship with Newman is chronicled, and Feeney Callan provides insights into the making of such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the film that made Redford a commercial success and heavily influenced the rest of his career, and The Sting. Redford’s even longer, although more troubled friendship with Pollack also warrants several pages throughout the book. But for every expected name or film reference, Feeney Callan analyzes why that relationship or film is significant.


Redford also gets a chance to explain his side of the story, for example, the reasons why he fought to portray Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby (1974), when he was hardly anyone’s first choice for the role, and why his performance may have been misunderstood. Feeney Callan then analyzes why the film failed to live up to its commercial hype.


Redford’s stubbornness in developing Sundance his way, instead of bowing to Hollywood, is explained in depth. The book is hardly a fawning fan’s tribute to a film icon; Feeney Callan also explains how difficult Redford can be, not only because of his determination to do things his way but his chronic tardiness. What emerges is a story much deeper than the expected anecdotes or friendly jibes from Redford’s friends; it’s an analysis of the way that history, personal or national, shapes us and we, in turn, shape it.


People who see the cover photo of Redford smiling down from a bookstore shelf or online book list may question whether Robert Redford is a relevant force in today’s industry or whether he, like the back-cover photo of Redford and Newman as Sundance and Butch, is a relic from an earlier era of movies. Certainly Redford’s legacy as an actor and a director is secure, and his role as Sundance’s founder and protector has ensured his name’s continuing importance in the future of film. Even as a long-time Redford fan cognizant of his influence on American film, I still questioned his current relevance for a younger generation of actors just making their mark on the industry.


A few weeks ago, during the 11 April edition of Piers Morgan Tonight, I found an answer to my question. Redford, alongside cast members Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, and James McAvoy, fielded questions about their film, The Conspirator, which was about to gain wide release in the US. Interviewer Morgan teased the actors about what it was like to work with Redford. Of course, the youngest actors were supposed to be awestruck by Redford’s aura, and they were.


However, McAvoy, in particular, joined Redford in a more thorough analysis of the film and film-making process. They seemed to share not only a love for their profession, but an analytical respect for and dedication to the art of storytelling. Instead of passing the torch to a younger generation, Redford continues to provide a bonfire of opportunities that spark creativity in actors of all ages. 


Redford’s legacy as actor, director, and conservationist is also summarized in a whopping 24 pages of photographs. The final photograph shows Redford’s son, Jamie; Redford’s current spouse, artist Bylle; one of Redford’s five grandchildren, Lena (Jamie’s daughter); and a relaxed Redford smiling for the camera. However, this is more than a family photograph; it illustrates Redford’s place in the world. As a storyteller, Redford knows he is part of a continuing saga whose conclusion is far from over. His story will continue through Jamie’s future, and Lena’s, but also through the lives of all those who have enjoyed his films, analyzed his work, benefited from Sundance, or read this comprehensive biography.


Our lives are part of a bigger narrative that each person’s dreams, thoughts, and actions help shape. Feeney Callan understands this, as does Redford, because they are storytellers.


Don’t read Robert Redford if you’re looking for a beach book or a superficial retelling of famous movie moments. If, instead, you want to immerse yourself in an entertaining, enriching reading experience, have I got a recommendation for you.

Rating:

Lynnette Porter is the author of performance biography Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition (MX Publishing, 2013) and The Doctor Who Franchise (McFarland, 2013), and the author/editor of Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century (McFarland, 2012), among many other books and chapters about television or film. Dr. Porter is a professor in the Humanities and Communication Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.


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