Robert Redford, who turns 82 on 8.18, first disclosed his intention to retire from acting on 11.10.16, in an interview with his grandson Dylan. Several publications reported this the next day, although Redford’s publicist, Cindy Berger of PMK*BNC, insisted otherwise, claiming that her client “is certainly not retiring because he has several projects coming down the pike.”
Redford’s greatest accomplishment, hands down, was launching the Sundance Film Festival. He really and truly changed…hell, revolutionized the landscape of American independent film. He upgraded, deepened, emboldened and monetized it beyond all measure.
The best film he ever directed was Ordinary People; Quiz Show and The Milagro Beanfield War were a distant second and third. The worst film he ever directed was The Legend of Bagger Vance, a.k.a. “bag of gas.” But acting is what he’s retiring from, and so an assessment of his best films and performances is in order.
Technique-wise and especially in his hot period, Redford was (and still is) one of the most subtle but effective underperformers in Hollywood history. He never overplayed it. Line by line, scene by scene, his choices were dry and succinct and exactly right — he and Steve McQueen were drinking from the same well back then.
Redford’s safe-deposit-box scene in The Hot Rock (i.e., “Afghanistan bananistan”) is absolutely world class. And the way he says “I can’t, Katie…I can’t” during the The Way We Were finale is brilliant. That scene could have been so purple or icky, but he saves it.
Redford’s acting career can be broken down into three phases — warm-up and ascendancy (’60 to ’67), peak star power (’69 to ’80) and the long, slow 34-year decline in quality (’84 to present).
Mark Harris tweeted last night that “not many actors can claim six decades of work almost entirely on their own terms.” But Redford’s power to dictate those terms lasted only during that 12-year, golden-boy superstar era, or between the immediate aftermath of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Brubaker, his last “’70s film.”
Redford’s best peakers, in this order: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (’69), All The President’s Men (’76), Three Days of the Condor (’75), The Candidate (’72), Downhill Racer (’70), The Sting (’73), Jeremiah Johnson (’72), The Hot Rock (’72), The Way We Were (’73), Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (’70), The Electric Horseman (’79) and Brubaker (’80) — a total of 11.
Think of that — over a 12-year period Redford starred in 11 grand-slammers, homers, triples and a couple of ground-rule doubles. That’s pretty amazing.
Mezzo-mezzos & whiffs during peak period: Little Fauss and Big Halsy, The Great Gatsby, The Great Waldo Pepper, A Bridge Too Far (4).
After Brubaker Redford became an older-guy movie star who’d seen better days (i.e., wasn’t landing the greatest parts any more) and was trying to maintain his dignity as best he could. For 14 years he held his own with better-than-decent performances in The Natural, Out of Africa, Legal Eagles, Havana, Sneakers, Indecent Proposal, Up Close & Personal and The Horse Whisperer — all reasonably good films that didn’t quite have that rocket-fuel, bulls-eye element, at least as far as Redford’s characters or performances were concerned. (Out of Africa belonged to Meryl Streep.)
Things began to get a bit more rickety starting 20 years ago — The Last Castle, The Clearing, An Unfinished Life, Lions for Lambs, The Company You Keep.
But five years ago Redford rallied with what I believe is his finest all-time performance in J.C. Chandor‘s All Is Lost, as an older-guy sailor trying to survive rough seas. He was also part of a sturdy, hard-working ensemble when he played Dan Rather in James Vanderbilt‘s Truth (’15).
I’m sorry but I didn’t think that all much of his other recent efforts — Captain America: The Winter Soldier, A Walk in the Woods, Pete’s Dragon, The Discovery and Our Souls at Night (not bad but minor).
“Old Smoothie,” posted on 6.5.18: In David Lowery‘s The Old Man and the Gun, Robert Redford plays the real-life Forrest Tucker, a career criminal and prison escape artist. It looks and sounds like good, well-mannered fun. I don’t really believe the elderly Redford (turning 82 in August) as a hardcore bank robber, but the trick of these films is to nudge you into going along despite your reluctance.
Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Tika Sumpter, Tom Waits and Elisabeth Moss costar.
A few months ago I wrote that the last really good old-criminal movie, of course, was Phillip Borsos‘ The Grey Fox (’82). It starred Richard Farnsworth (61 during filming) as real-life bank robber Bill Miner. The tone of that film was established by Miner’s kindness and gentility, and that seems to be the idea with Lowery’s film also.
I bought the idea of Redford playing a career thief in Peter Yates‘ The Hot Rock (’72) because he wasn’t really invested in the character, John Dortmunder. Redford was obviously cruising easy as he went through the escapist motions, plus he was only 35 and really good-looking back then.
20 years later, the 55 year-old Redford played a computer hacker in Phil Alden Robinson‘s Sneakers (’92), but his character, Martin Bishop, wasn’t a ne’er-do-well as much as a clever operator looking to play both sides.