Robert Redford’s star power has faded during the past couple of decades. The Sundance Kid helps run the Sundance Film Festival, and he seems more interested in promoting and directing movies than starring in them.
Now 68, he’s made a remarkable impression on the other side of the camera, earning an Academy Award for best director for “Ordinary People” (1980) and winning the New York Film Critics’ award for best picture for “Quiz Show” (1994). Last year he helped produce “The Motorcycle Diaries.”
But he’s never really given up on his acting career. He keeps on trying with projects that allow him to stretch, like last year’s “The Clearing,” in which he played Helen Mirren’s doomed husband, and “Spy Game” (2001), about a retiring CIA agent who’s committed to one last job.
Next up is Lasse Hallstrom’s “An Unfinished Life,” in which he plays a cranky Wyoming rancher whose daughter-in-law (Jennifer Lopez) moves in with him to escape an abusive ex-lover. Morgan Freeman plays his closest pal. Filmed more than two years ago, and once scheduled as a Christmas 2004 release, it’s finally opening this month.
Hallstrom, who directed “My Life as a Dog” and “The Cider House Rules,” has promised “a slightly different Redford” this time around. Sometimes accused of acting within a very small range, Redford has in fact given a wide range of performances that have consistently helped him to reinvent himself.
Following a noteworthy television career (including “The Iceman Cometh” and “The Twilight Zone”), he made his big-screen debut as a Korean War soldier in a provocative 1962 anti-war movie, “War Hunt,” co-starring his longtime collaborator, Sydney Pollack. The National Board of Review named it one of the year’s 10 best.
Soon he was co-starring with Natalie Wood in “Inside Daisy Clover” (1965) and Pollack’s “This Property Is Condemned” (1966), and with Jane Fonda in “The Chase” (1966) and “Barefoot in the Park” (1967) — a popular Neil Simon comedy in which Redford recreated his Broadway role.
Apprentice performances they may have been, but Redford brought a memorably fatalistic quality to his part as an escaped convict in “The Chase." Pauline Kael singled out his work opposite Wood in “Inside Daisy Clover”: “As the young star’s no-good, vaguely homosexual husband (one of the most cryptic roles ever written), Robert Redford gives the only fresh performance.”
“Barefoot” was the first of his movies to break out at the box office. A string of hits, interesting misses and Oscar winners followed. Most of the best were released within a 15-year period. These were 10 that delivered, in one way or another:
“Downhill Racer” (1969). Director Michael Ritchie’s scathing portrait of an arrogant athlete was the first movie Redford had to carry on his own. As a small-town Colorado kid who gets a chance at glory on the U.S. Olympic ski team, he gives a brave, self-effacing performance, especially in the edgy scenes with his no-nonsense coach (Gene Hackman) and jet-setter girlfriend (Camilla Sparv).
“Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” (1969). Blacklisted writer-director Abraham Polonsky made his comeback with this gorgeous wide-screen Western about a manhunt that’s more like a witch hunt. Robert Blake plays the hunted Indian, Willie; Redford is the well-meaning sheriff on his trail. Redford and Katharine Ross won British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards for their performances.
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969). Redford and Paul Newman teamed up for the first time in this lighthearted Western box-office smash, loosely based on the adventures of two legendary outlaws from the late 19th century. William Goldman’s Oscar-winning script has a loose, flippant quality that allows the stars (as well as Katharine Ross as Redford’s girlfriend) plenty of room to kid around.
“The Candidate” (1972). Redford and Ritchie reteamed for this smart political satire about a young liberal lawyer who tries to hold on to his ideals as he campaigns to defeat a conservative senator (Don Porter). Slowly he loses his way, and Redford’s skillful performance suggests just how aware he is of his failure. Jeremy Larner’s detailed script, based on the writer’s own campaign experiences, won an Oscar.
“The Way We Were” (1973). Directed by his old friend, Sydney Pollack, Redford’s most romantic movie clicks mostly because of his chemistry with Barbra Streisand. He’s a jock with few political commitments, she’s a left-wing activist, but in spite of their differences they marry and end up in Hollywood — just in time for the blacklist. The strain on their relationship is disastrous, but the bittersweet ending is sublime.
“The Sting” (1973). George Roy Hill, who directed “Butch Cassidy,” brought Newman and Redford back together for this tricky story about a couple of con men who target a mobster (Robert Shaw) in 1930s Chicago. Showered with Academy Awards, including best picture, script and director, it earned Redford his only Oscar nomination for best actor. He’s rarely been so charismatic.
“Three Days of the Condor” (1975). Pollack’s nifty political thriller, starring Redford as a CIA researcher who knows too much, reflects Watergate-era distrust in government. It also plays like an update of Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” with Redford as the fugitive everyone wants, Faye Dunaway as the woman who shelters him and Max von Sydow as an eeriely amoral villain.
“All the President’s Men” (1976). Redford attacked Watergate head-on in Alan J. Pakula’s tense account of the investigative work of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman). Jason Robards won a supporting-actor Oscar as their boss, Ben Bradlee, but it’s the give-and-take between Redford and Hoffman that anchors the movie.
“Brubaker” (1980). W. D. Richter’s Oscar-nominated, fact-based screenplay focuses on a new warden’s attempts to clean up a corrupt Southern prison that turns inmates into slaves for local farms. Redford captures the man’s naivete and integrity (echoing the character he played in “The Candidate”), and he gets to interact with a first-rate supporting cast, including Morgan Freeman in his first strong film role.
“The Natural” (1984). Although Redford would later have one of his biggest hits with “Out of Africa” (1985), that was primarily Meryl Streep’s movie. Redford’s last memorable movie-star role was Roy Hobbs, the elusive baseball champ of Barry Levinson’s fantasy-laced sports drama. The movie’s attempts to mythologize Hobbs’ story are over-the-top, but Randy Newman’s irresistible score, Caleb Deschanel’s lush cinematography and Redford’s larger-than-life performance help you buy it.