[18 August 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
He was rarely taken seriously as an actor. Even with extensive credits in theater and television, Robert Redford was regularly cast as the patented pretty boy for a medium, film, always desperate for a strikingly handsome leading man to lure the ladies. Even as he worked through formidable dramas and comedic pairings with pal Paul Newman, the golden boy with superstar status found industry respect incredibly hard to come by. The public loved him, making many of his movies throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s certified hits. But the ability to be something more than a pre-tabloid presence, and punchline, always appeared to elude him.
So imagine the stifled snickers when Redford announced he intended to direct. In 1978, he helped launch the original Sundance Film Festival (and later Institute) and longed to move from in front of the camera to behind it. After reading Judith Guest’s devastating novel of suburban angst, Ordinary People, he immediately bought up the rights. He hired Oscar winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent to adapt the book and went about securing Paramount’s support in financing and distribution. As major league names such as Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro prepared to take the ‘80 awards season by storm, Redford snuck in with his tale of a suicidal teen and the tragedy which reshaped his weak-willed WASP family, walking away with many of the year’s most important accolades in the process.
Scorsese’s Raging Bull would lose Best Picture in 1980, and more importantly, the Best Director would go to Redford’s People. Today, it seems a stunning upset, a questionable move among many made by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences over the decades of their existence. But at the time, it was seen as vindication. While Raging Bull had a reputation of being ‘arty’ and ‘anti-Hollywood’, Redford played directly into the mainstream mindset that most critics and audiences appreciated. Even better, he opened the door to a whole new career, trading in his lead roles for more work outside of acting. He became more involved with Sundance, starting workshops and independent production support.
More importantly, Redford allowed his always present activism to finally take front and center. Bolstered by that little gold statue (though he never really needed an impetus to battle for the causes he cared about), he became much more vocal for his support of the environment. He used his profile to make the movies he thought important, measuring the commercial with the critical. For his follow-up to People, Redford chose the unusual novel The Milagro Beanfield War. While it offered up a storyline and subtext—the infiltration of big corporations into the area of the small business owner—perfectly suited for his talents, it was not the most audience friendly idea. As would be the case with most of his career, Redford would be graded against an unrealistic curve, said standard getting more and more muddled as the years unraveled.
With A River Runs Through It, the filmmaker seemed to regain his stride. Lush, lively, and featuring the latest iconic incarnation of himself (Brad Pitt), it had all the earmarks of a return to form. Well received, it led to the Redford’s second run at Oscar glory, 1994’s Quiz Show. Taking on the true tale of how early television manipulated game shows (and their results) throughout the ‘50s, it suggested that the actor hadn’t left all his moviemaking mantle back in the outskirts of Chicago. However, since then, Redford has been an obvious critical no show. The Horse Whisperer was less than successful, while both The Legend of Bagger Vance and Lions for Lambs argued for a man too enamored of his message to get an actual movie to unfold.
Now comes his latest, the relatively unseen The Conspirator (new on Blu-ray and DVD). Again, Redford is walking into highly charged politicized territory, this time uncovering the trial of Mary Surratt and her involvement in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. As the only woman charged in the rapidly unfolding conspiracy, she would become part of a litigious circus surrounding the death of a beloved leader. It takes an attorney, played by James McAvoy, to sift through the stories and discover the truth. While Surratt may have had a connection to the case (she ran a boarding house where many of the plotters, including her son, often stayed), her proposed guilt may have been nothing more than a rush to judgment.
Those last few words sound familiar, right? Indeed, one can easily see why Redford, the activist auteur, would tackle such a story. From the anti-War screed of Lions for Lambs to the racial intolerance tenets of Bagger Vance, it seems like every film since People has had a particular political bent. While it might be hard to see it in something like The Horse Whisperer, what’s clear is that Redford doesn’t want to go back to being a mere dramatist. No amount of hand wringing or heart wrenching will drive him back to the simple pleasures of his stunning debut. While it’s hard to hold in up against what Scorsese and DeNiro did with Bull, it’s not to be belittled, either. Indeed, what Redford managed was a missive for future families to witness and learn from. After that, he apparently needed to teach the world.
That’s what makes his career so interesting, and so frustrating. Granted, when working from the top of the moviemaking mountain, ‘down’ seems like the only logical direction and while never as lauded, efforts such as A River Runs Through It and Quiz Show are equally as fine of films as People. What’s the most disconcerting, however, is how easily Redford gets lost in his own ambitions. While the premise for both Lions for Lambs and The Conspirator infer various levels of Establishment corruption, this is one filmmaker who can’t see the entertainment forest for the argumentative trees. He would rather bore a viewer with a long speech on a specific subject than cut it and keep the organic flow and feel of his story. It’s almost as if that, with a soapbox soundly in place, he intends to speak from it early and often.
As a result, Redford has gone from intriguing icon to shrill shill. On screen, he’s aged but not old, wise without wearing every facet of his life along the various wrinkles in his famous face. Yet the activist born out of his early days appears to have overwhelmed everything else. Indeed, when was the last time an Oscar winning director had his latest film unceremoniously dumped along the pre-Summer spring without so much as a media whimper? When he started, all he wanted was respect. Now, Redford’s career behind the camera is constantly viewed with reverence, and since that solid start, it’s been slipping ever since.