Tuesday, March 11

The Directors: Robert Redford

It was inevitable he would direct.  He spoke of it a number of years before he finally did.  He always paid good attention to everything on the movies he acted in.  He pulled as much information out of his directors as he could and he had worked with some of the best.  He was a controlling person anyway and the way to control everything on a film is to take over the directorial reins.  He may have been one of the brightest stars in the Hollywood galaxy, but he was never one of them. 

He founded the non-profit Sundance so independent films could be made.  He wanted people educated in ways that occasionally ignored the almighty dollar.  He understood the creative process better than most actors and he needed to do it his way.

To this day he has only directed nine films.  Out of the gate he won an Oscar for best directing.  He's directed some fine films since but nothing has equalled that first one... or so says I.   Of those nine films, he has also starred in three of them. Some of the films under his direction have not made a lot of money but it appears the passion he felt about making them has turned into loyalty at having made them.

It began with Ordinary People in 1980.  Despite some Hollywood opposition to that property and to Redford's abilities to pull off a directing chore, he was gung-ho about sinking his teeth into it.  It was made for $6 million and grossed around $115 million.  It won numerous awards.  I detailed Ordinary People in one of my postings on my 50 Favorite Films.

Not making nearly as much money but one that fostered Redford's passion was The Milagro Beanfield War (1988).  It would take him eight years to get out from in front of the cameras again.  It was a David v.s. Goliath story, something he felt he knew a little something about in his dealings with Hollywood. It concerned a modest Mexican farmer who poaches on a wealthy man's land for water to sustain his own property.  It had rich performances from Chick Vennera, Sonia Braga and Reuben Blades, but failed to ignite at the box office.

His 1992 film of A River Runs Through It I avoided until I saw it a few years later on the tube.  Despite encouragement from many quarters, I steadfastly refused to see a movie on fly-fishing, likening it to the excitement of watching a fan oscillate.  I was wrong.  It was about a time (roughly from the end of WWI to the start of the Depression) and a place (Montana) and about a Presbyterian minister and his two very different sons.  When characters give voice to the ideals of the common man, I am most impressed and ever present.  It would win an Oscar for best cinematography and it well should have. 

Quiz Show (1994) is one of my favorite Redford-directed films because of its richness in language, the superb acting of Ralph Fiennes and Paul Scofield and the fact that it was history that I lived through.  The focus is the game show scandal of the 1950s, particularly the rigging of answers on Twenty One, and the Congressional investigation that followed.  It was stylish and ruthless and completely captivating.

Four years later came The Horse Whisperer.  It would be the first film he would both direct and star in.  It was the story of a young girl and her horse who have been in a terrible accident (I had a hard time watching the scenes of the accident).  Redford is the man who sweet-talks them both back into good health.  It was (again) beautifully filmed but I found it far too slow for my taste.  I mean, when he and the horse are silently staring at one another, couldn't Redford have suggested some of that rather than put the audience through the agony of monotony? 

A mere two years later came The Legend of Bagger Vance.  I never really took it to my breast.  Perhaps it's earnestness fell over in the corny arena for me.  I think it has always been more popular with golfers, sports junkies and white people.  The story of a war-damaged golfer, his mysterious black caddy and a rich white girl who puts on a golf tournament has been considered racist by some African Americans.  Redford was probably horrified at that, his liberal leanings clearly would not have had that in mind.  I was so-so on the film but, again, found it beautiful to look at and pleased that it featured Jack Lemmon's final performance.

The less said about Lions for Lambs (2007), the better.  Again, Redford starred in the film.  Even the participation of his Out of Africa costar, Meryl Streep and action star Tom Cruise (who apparently didn't quite see eye-to-eye) couldn't help.  It was certainly the second pairing of Redford and Streep that got me into the theater.  However, within a half hour I was at the concession stand asking for poisoned designer water when my partner declined my request to leave. The Afghanistan War theme and an odd assortment of bfd folks stateside became an exercise in tedium.  The use of thesaurus-induced big words couldn't make up for the fact that no one really had anything worthwhile to say.  It was a bumper-car of plot points, testy and self-important and bumping into one another with nowhere specific to go.  To me, this turkey could have stuffed Redford.

I did like The Conspirator (2010), surrounding Lincoln's assassination and its aftermath, but maybe we've been around the Ford Theater too many times because this one only made a few pennies at the box office.  The zen mistress of acting, Robin Wright, was Mary Surratt, the only female co-conspirator.  Even a cast including James McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood, Jonathan Groff, Alexis Bledel and Kevin Kline couldn't rescue it.  Pity.

I also liked 2012's The Company You Keep, his latest directorial effort and still just the third time he's directed himself.  It appeared as a thinking man's thriller to me in its depiction of 1960s radicals and how they have disappeared into the fabric of the newest millennium.  The thriller part comes from the pursuit of some of these people for crimes that have gone unpunished.  The problem with the film is something felt stale.  Perhaps it was an old-fashioned story-telling I didn't like.  Regardless, I am perfectly clear that the Shia LaBeouf reporter-character did not work for me.  On the other hand, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Terrence Howard, Stanley Tucci, Chris Cooper, Richard Jenkins, Sam Elliott and Nick Nolte added allure.

I think for a big-deal director (c'mon now, really everything this man does or says or thinks seems to be a big deal to many in the film community... still) he's had a surprising number of non-hits.  Personally, I think he had one giant hit, a couple of not-so-bad hits, a couple of so-so's, a couple I liked but were not hits, and one piece of @^%$#@)(*&. 

One might wonder how he stacks up against other actors who took over the directorial reins, men of Redford's time.  His buddy Paul Newman only directed six films, two of which he starred in and none of which were true box-office hits.  Only the first (Rachel Rachel) received substantial critical praise.  For the record, he acted in 55 movies.

One-time rival Warren Beatty has the lowest count, both as an actor and a director.  He acted in 22 films, four of which he also directed and two of which were hits.  He directed no films not featuring himself.  But that's Warren. 

We hit the jackpot with Clint Eastwood.  He is as widely known as a director as he is an actor.  He's acted in the most movies at 59.  He has directed 33 films, twice as many as the rest combined, and starred in 22 of those.  You go, Old Stick.

I have the highest regard for Redford.  He has had a lot of disdain for Hollywood and rather than piss and moan about it, he had the foresight to know he could do it his way.  As a movie star, he's right up there with the giants.  As an actor, I think his instinct is a marvel.  In my 50 Favorite Films, I have three of his acting films and also his directorial masterpiece.  As we look back on his overall career, he has done a lot for the industry at which he's always looked askance.  What a hoot.

A Trio of Character Actresses

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