Robert Redford’s appearance at the San Francisco International Film Festival to accept the Peter J. Owens Award is a major occasion. Public-fuss-shy, Redford has done an amazing job, considering the odds, of remaining private. (He started buying Utah land well before he was a star in order to Get Away From It All.) And while he has, on occasion, stepped up to the podium to comment on his frequent environmental and political concerns, or on the status of the now-fabled Sundance Institute and Festival he founded years ago, he hasn’t used the podium to blow his own horn as a movie star (or even director) since the last time a publicist made him. And when was the last time a publicist had that much clout?
When the still youthful Redford takes the Castro stage this Wednesday, one wonders if he will squirm through a celebratory clip reel of career highlights, or find questions of a flattering nature an endurance test. It’s easy to imagine him ducking out before the world premiere restored-print screening of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the 1968 smash that "made" him and forever linked he and late close friend Paul Newman—another unassuming good-doer with a larger-than-life profile—as one of the great screen teams. (They only appeared together one more time, in 1973’s Best Picture winner The Sting—which also marked Redford’s sole acting Oscar nomination, surprisingly enough).
It’ll be good to see Butch again, particularly since his laconically funny Sundance Kid was one delightful highlight in a career that subsequently wouldn’t allow much space for comedy. Before that, he’d been an admired stage and TV performer for some years, only making his big-screen debut in 1965.
Unless you were there and cognizant at the time, it may be hard to grasp how a golden nimbus of movie stardom hung over Robert Redford throughout the 1970s as it did no one else. (Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds certainly made more films, but Redford’s greater selectivity was part of his mystique.) Just as the Sundance Kid provided him with a breakout at the dawn of the ’70s, Ordinary People offered the breakout directorial opportunity at the dawn of the ’80s.
For a while there, every Redford film was a big event, even the ones that didn’t transcend pure star vehicle (Great Waldo Pepper, Electric Horseman). But as someone whose actual productivity was at drastic odds with his demand, Redford made just about every moment count: The Candidate (1972) is still considered by many the best Hollywood film about politics; that same year’s Jeremiah Johnson is the most rapturously lyrical of "westerns." The duo from 1973, The Way We Were (with Streisand) and The Sting, were, simply, massive. Three Days of the Condor is now a classic of Watergate-era paranoia; All the President’s Men is a remarkably fine real-world reenactment.
Though them all, Redford himself was reserved, thoughtful, and of course wildly handsome—not an acting chameleon or mere charismatic personality package, but conveying intelligence in an unshowy way that was perhaps too easily taken for granted. Though there were two big hits immediately ahead (The Natural and Out of Africa), he seemed increasingly indifferent toward maintaining popular stardom. The Oscar bonanza of 1980’s Ordinary People proved he had been no idle observer of various fine directors’ craftsmanship—as did, with varying success but reliable care, the subsequent Milagro Beanfield War, A River Runs Through It, The Horse Whisperer, The Legend of Bagger Vance and Lions for Lambs. A diverse, heavily literary oeuvre that, interested in both aesthetic and character detail.
Then there were all the obligations of his Sundance Film Institute, Sundance Festival, Sundance Cinemas, activism on behalf of environmental and Native American concerns. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Redford off-screen, however, is that despite all his ambitious endeavors, he is far from a "brand," or even an empire builder. He’s always generously given majority credit to his appointed administrators and other collaborators. When you hear him speak about issues of personal/global urgency, the last thing that enters the mind is "Oh great, another celebrity adopting a ‘cause’ to get attention."
As anyone who’s witnessed his slightly abashed yet always disarmingly frank and articulate impromptu speeches opening each year’s Sundance Film Festival can attest, he’s a guy with a lot to say who actually knows how to say it—though one suspects he wishes he didn’t have to. Ergo it’s really a special occasion that this Wednesday at SFIFF, he’ll have to do considerably more talking than usual, even (horrors!) about himself.
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