Throughout his career, as actor, producer and director, Charles Robert Redford, Jr. has seemed to choose projects that were personal and conflicted. You look at movies he starred in like Downhill Racer and The Way We Were and The Candidate, with their gilded, priviledged, clueless protagonists, and you see the man playing the parts rebelling against the "easy" "golden boy" persona, trashing it, criticizing it, while also, to be truthful, personifying it. Redford was just too much the California golden boy, smart and handsome, to have it rough getting parts in movies or on stage—so he picked carefully.* He chose anti-heroes in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jeremiah Johnson, and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. And although his acting range was limited, his determination to challenge himself, and his boyish good-looks-image early in his career is reflected in his choices as a director. Carefully, precisely, he picked challenging material ...and true to form scored gold with his very first effort. He must have been very pleased, then questioned why he won it.
Redford has never been complacent, even when he's made very complacent movies. One gets the idea that he goes into each movie, sparkly-eyed, wondering how much damage he can do with the project, upsetting the status quo.
Ordinary People (1980) Intimate family drama of coping with tragedy in the hopes of trying to stave off another one. Strong cast with Donald Sutherland (whose amazing work in this is too-often neglected), Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth McGovern, and Academy Award winners Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore. Everybody's great, but Moore got the most attention for her fine work as a wound-too-tight grieving mother, whose grief over losing one son in a boating accident, threatens to destroy the life of the surviving son. Casting "America's sweetheart" as a control-freak exposed the vibrating neurosis at the heart of Moore's comedic acting that could turn hysterical in dramatic turns. Redford also won Best Director that year, and the film—his first—took home top honors as Best Picture, too.
It proved both a blessing and a curse, it took Redford eight years of careful choosing to find a second effort that might top the first.
The Milagro Beanfield War (1988) Milagro, New Mexico is about to die and only the residents of it object. A farming community, it depends on water for irrigation, but Big Business and their glad-handing lackey politicians agree to divert water only for development. That means the water in a ditch running by the beanfield of Joe Mondragon (Chick Vennera) can't be used for it. Coming across a valve that diverts water from his father's property, Joe kicks it, breaking it, and flooding the field. Hilarity, irony, and civil disobedience ensue. Redford probably wasn't the right guy to make this one, an adaptation of John Nichols' best-selling novel, as, at this point in his career, his attempts at fanciful film-making come across as deadly earnestness. And so, though it wants to be a kind of cautionary folk-tale, it comes across as heavy-handed preachiness. Plus, for all the attempts at ethnically correct casting, it's a little top-heavy with Anglo stars (Christopher Walken, Daniel Stern, John Heard ...Melanie Griffith???) in an attempt to generate income, which, in its way, is Hollywood's version of swamping a town under. Redford would become surer with a lighter hand, but still manage to be heavy-handed later in his career.
A River Runs Through It (1992) Redford directs—and narrates—this superb adapatation of Norman Maclean's late-in-life debut novella. The story of two Montana brothers (Craig Sheffer, Brad Pitt), sons of a Presbyterian minister (Tom Skerritt, never better) who, despite ever separating fortunes, are united in their love of the land...and fly-fishing. Sheffer plays the good, dutiful son living a correct life as a teacher and courting a proper girl (Emily Lloyd), while Pitt (looking eerily like a young Redford) takes his chances on a roustabout's life in sensationalistic journalism. It's a story of conflicts that disappear on the river, as the brothers and their father compete, learn and share secrets for "the perfect cast" that will simulate Nature enough to lure a fish. It's life-lessons in miniature, writ large but humbly, but the interpretations by the two brothers of finding their bliss could not be more different.
Simple story simply told. With McLean's way with words managing to make a successful transition to the projected image and a shimmering soundtrack.
Quiz Show (1994) Redford started his acting career right at the end of "The Golden Age of Television," so he knew the milieu of this fact-based story about the "21" game show scandal. Wasp-ish golden boy Charles van Doren became a TV sensation across the country with his winning streak on a popular prime-time game show during the 1950's. What the public didn't know was that the game was rigged in Van Doren's favor in order to generate drama and higher rating numbers, so he was getting the answers and being coached on how to act as if he was struggling to remember them. Ralph Fiennes plays van Doren, John Turturro the contestant not attractive enough to compete (according to the producers), Rob Morrow as the investigator looking into the chicanery, but the best scene is between Fiennes and Paul Scofield as the elder Mark van Doren, a poet laureate who is incensed by all the easy fame his son has achieved. Redford's direction is more self-assured in this, taking on more of a jazzy editing rhythm than the simple, careful presentations his earlier films had.
The Horse Whisperer (1998) The first novel of Nicholas Evans starts with an intriguing idea, resolves it, then splashes down into turgid soap-opera material that completely negates the earlier tense story of healing the wounds, psychological and physical, of a girl and horse, received in a horrific riding accident involving a 18-wheeler. The girl loses a leg and becomes problematically depressed, the horse is scarred and hysterical, and the girl's mother—a pre-occupied fashion magazine editor (Kristin Scott Thomas, probably based—again—on Vogue's Anna Wintour) can't cope. She hires a "horse whisperer" (Redford) to deal with both, frustratingly, because he insists on his rules, his terms, dragging the family to a remote Montana location (the film is beautifully filmed by the eclectic Robert Richardson), where conflicting emotions get churned up. Evans has the characters act on them. Redford, knowing that all parties in the story, are disciplined and have histories, just ends the story before the romance novel aspects start. Smart choice, that. It was Redford's first time directing himself, and the first major role of a young actress named Scarlett Johansson.
The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) Imagine that. Redford abandons reality for a moment to dabble in Myth and Folklore. It's a Tall Tale twice removed: an old duffer (Jack Lemmon) has a heart attack on the golf course, and recalls the story from his childhood of Savannah's favorite son golfer (Matt Damon) who goes to WWI and loses his way, then is coerced into a celebrity golf-match to help publicize a course owned by an old flame (Charlize Theron). Already the narrator may be unreliable due to health and the distance of time, but it's a good variation of the Western tale of the war vet who comes home and regains a family after losing himself. Sure, Bagger Vance (Will Smith) may be a little bit Obi-Wan, and the kid (J. Michael Moncrief) a little "Say it Ain't So, Joe," but Redford's take is funny, sad and sublime, a far better film about golf and the struggle with self than, say, Tin Cup. Redford's direction is sure, not staid, taking chances and occassionally doing something amusing with it. And for a golf movie, there's a haunting after-image of the purely artificial golf course as a living entity that affects play, and that the director emphasizes with a persistent sound-design that accentuates Nature. Really much better than its reputation.
Lions for Lambs (2007) Redford's first film post-"9/11" is a polemic mis-fire that feels like a sociology lecture. As it is, directed carefully by Redford, with Big Stars Tom Cruise (who produced), Meryl Streep, and himself, it feels talky, staged and stacked in the favor of one side over another—negating any persuasion the movie might actually create. All the anti-Bush sentiment Redford built up over the Iraq/Afghanistan War and it's "selling" to the American public must have boiled over in the deadly earnestness (that phrase again!) in which this film is presented. It could have used a bit more humor—even gallows humor would have sufficed. One leaves with the Daniel Dennett quote (that Jim Emerson has prominently displayed on his Scanners movie blog): "There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear." Full review here.
Redford's next film is a true-life historical drama based on one of the great miscarriages of justice done in the name of national tragedy and patriotic fervor: the trial and hanging (the first of a woman by the U.S. Government) of Mary Surrat (whose crime was that she owned the boarding house where the conspirators met) after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It's clearly meant to be addressing the knee-jerk trash-canning of basic principles of jurisprudence in the face of the 9/11 attacks ("Military tribunals" and indefinite incarcerations without charges), but, taking a lesson from the failure of Lions for Lambs, cushioning it with an example from the past. Whatever the reason, it is one of those stories you wonder why it had never been made before.**
* Mike Nichols, who directed Redford in the Broadway production of Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park," wanted Redford to play Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, as Ben is described in the book as a golden-haired California boy. But Redford balked, saying that a privileged handsome kid wouldn't be so sexually awkward. So, Nichols hired schlumpy Dustin Hoffman instead...away from playing Nazi playwright Franz Liebkin in Mel Brooks' The Producers. Brooks was only too happy to help. Mrs. Brooks, Anne Bancroft, was also starring in The Graduate.
** It has, but on TV, in the long-forgotten "The Joseph Cotton Show."