Holding the Centre
"Biological man is exploited and devoured by social patterns that are essentially hostile to his biological values" the writer Robert M. Pirsig has said. Robert Redford, who was keen to adapt Pirsig's debut book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, is pretty much the closest cinema has managed to get to reflecting such values in acting form. Redford has said he likes to "celebrate the ability of the individual to fight for traditional values," and on the subject of privacy states "it's not been easy. I've had to work at it."
There is with Redford a cinematic stoicism one rarely finds in a medium predicated on chameleon transformation - even Cary Grant dressed up as a woman and wore a lady's dressing gown. The hair remains preternaturally blonde and thick, the face consistently craggy, and the eyes innocently yet mockingly blue. The acting itself has been perfunctory and straightforward, as if to prove a theory of celebrity based on inaction. One expects from fame a certain dynamism - phrases like shooting to stardom, burning up the screen, hurtling to the top all suggest velocity - yet in Redford it is a status based precariously close to inertia. He dropped out of Blue at the expense of a lawsuit, turned down the role of Benjamin in The Graduate, and took up the role of The Sundance Kid only after Newman's insistence that he was right for the role, and after Beatty, Brando and McQueen had all passed. He lived for a number of years in New York under a private address, and rarely spends time in Hollywood, preferring the outer reaches of Utah.
Of course Redford has shown initiative in other areas: he produced the late sixties skiing movie, Downhill Racer, and put a great deal into directorial features like Ordinary People, The Milagro Beanfield War and also, of course The Sundance Institute. But these instances have in many ways been like sticking rods into the spokes of Redford's reluctant celebrity status. What they have done is try and grind to a halt 'Redford' - all American blonde star and mainstream moneymaking machine of the sixties and seventies - and indicate a mind at work rather than a body at cinematic play. Redford, after all, represented more completely than any other actor of the seventies, the waspish appeal of being American. Unable or unwilling to escape the image through the roles he took, it has been in directing that he has found respite from his saintliness.
Yet while his films as director have been worthy, well-meaning, sincere and any other word or phrase you care to throw at films of such liberal intent, it is as an actor that he's iconographically significant. His films as director indicate a social side that may be anathema to 'Redford'. And maybe one reason why he was for so long reluctant to both act and direct, eventually doing so in The Horse Whisperer, was as if that the dual role lead to an icky pleonastic sanctimoniousness. Ordinary People is a study of family, with an emphasis on the alienated rather than solitary Conrad and his steady social integration after a suicide attempt; The Milagro Beanfield War about a small New Mexican community coming up against a big business water supply; and A River Runs Through It a familial tale of a black sheep brother who can't come to terms with family repression and consequently winds up dead. Quiz Show, meanwhile, takes a Wasp college professor and illustrates how the influence of television and the pressures of family can turn a man into a liar and a cheat. In all these films, individuality is seen against a backdrop of family or community. In The Legend of Baggar Vance a war vet loses his golfing touch after fighting in WWI. While Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It shares physical similarities with Redford, and the journalist played by John Heard in The Milagro Beanfield War could be seen as another of Redford's crusading figures, there are fundamental differences. Pitt's image is based on youth (his cheeks even now seem chubby, where Redford's have always been jowly) and enthusiasm, and based on the need for a father figure to rein in that chaotic energy. Heard's -such as it is - in films like Head Over Heels, Cutter's Way and to a lesser degree Beaches - is based on a determination to find a place and be part of a milieu. Where Pitt flies in the face of reason, and Heard cagily towards a purpose, Redford's image is rather more self-assured and composed. In his film as director Redford creates egos so altered they are unrecognizable, suggesting Redford's move into direction allowed him to work on sides of himself his iconographic persona could not usually accommodate.
His strengths as an actor reside in his capacity to present isolation and self-preservation. It lies in his ability to work without constant reference to the sociological mirror and cinematic convention. He has played an innocent, escaped convict in The Chase (66), the self-absorbed Downhill Racer (69), David Chappelet, a trapper in the Utah hills in Jeremiah Johnson (72), a civil servant in Three Days of the Condor (75), a prison warden in Brubaker (80), a suddenly legendary baseball player in The Natural (84), and a veteran journalist in Up Close and Personal (96). These are characters for whom society is a menacing contradiction, giving and taking meaning, and constantly impinging upon attempts at a self in whom one can trust. This is never more evident than in one of Redford's finest films: The Candidate (72), where he plays someone who says what he believes but others constantly want that image manipulated for the purposes of vote-seeking. When he gets to win the election at the end, has he sold out? He is certainly not overwhelmingly happy about his victory. Just overwhelmed, perhaps. In Downhill Racer, Redford's David initially balances his ego on the usual twin desires of winning races and getting the beautiful girl, before realizing that success is relative value; one which frequently gets in the way of a more profound development. In Jeremiah Johnsonselfhood is an achievable goal, but at the expense of social purpose: when he becomes interested in other things (like a woman, child, and revenge after their death), he's just another empty killing machine. In Three Days of the Condor a quiet life gives way to paranoia, as he finds himself implicated in conspiratorial shenanigans. It is one of a number of seventies thrillers (The Conversation and The Parallax View are the paradigmatic examples) in which reality is a failure of perception. The closer the characters get to the truth they seek, the more alienated they become from a self that society has created for them. The characters are in danger of quite literally coming apart. It's a point clearly made in Sneakers (93), when Redford finishes Ben Kingsley's sentence "everything in this world operates not on reality...but the perception of reality." His prison warden in Brubaker is a saint; too good for the a prison service which systematically corrupts, the film plays with the question of transcendent integrity, with Redford in the early stages of the film, under the guise of a prisoner, finding out just how appalling the prisoners' lot happens to be. At the end of the film he walks out of the prison on a matter of principle, even though he's been offered improved terms for the prisoners. The transcendence serves a symbolic purpose: does Redford's Brubaker sacrifice his single-mindedness to the prisoners' cause, or does he hold onto his beliefs? He goes for the latter option, but the prisoners, whose suffering will continue, do not resent him. They see a figure worthy of respect, a role model into infinity, who cannot improve their immediate lot, but can show them the path to righteousness. Redford deploys a similar character type in The Natural, where Bernard Malmud's original novel is altered so that Redford's Roy Hobbs can rise above human weakness. The book's about the way Hobbs' twin desires - baseball and womanhood - destroy him. In the film they're reduced to corruption and sexual temptation, and Redford rises effortlessly above them. Up Close and Personal has journalist Redford against the media world. He once made a mistake (actually his ex-wife's) and he's never been allowed to forget it, wallowing in despair and the non-mainstream. Love interest and career girl Michelle Pfeiffer's Tally tells him everybody makes mistakes, but Redford's character can't even afford to make one - outsider's never can. He struggles to find worthwhile work, and only does so when he takes on a risky South American mission that allows for further sanctification.
One works through a handful of Redford movies to give shape to a career which has run for over forty years, and to indicate the Redford archetype. Of course if we look at any actor/star's oeuvre we will see a certain shape and focus, because the position of power allows choice, and consequently single-minded purpose if so desired. Yet Redford seems more self-consciously aware than most, and Pauline Kael said, back in the early seventies, "doesn't it seem a little too soon for Robert Redford to be presiding over his own mutation into a legend?" (The New Yorker). We can see this self-awareness at work in Up Close and Personal, where a Gatsby gag is so weak it can only pass as an in-joke. In Sneakers, meanwhile, Redford is told by Sidney Poitier to get 'up close and personal', only for it to turn up as the title for his next film as an actor. For someone who's always said of being a celebrity "I've never believed in it", Redford's certainly been conscious of it, and utilised that self-consciousness.
It is an awareness that parades itself simultaneously as innocence and sophistication. Redford's image indicates one who is innocent (in the sense of unsoiled), and sophisticated (educated, Waspish, reticent rather than inarticulate). These aren't necessarily incompatible characteristics, but, in an American cinema wary of intellectual purpose that could destroy its populist sentiment, it is unusual. True, other actors occasionally come to mind. Gregory Peck has covered a similar patch. Possibly it is so rare a combination, though, in American movies, because it demands a polished veneer and an underlying hardship: a Gatsby like past of relative poverty (Peck for example, intent on attending Berkeley, didn't have the money and instead took to truck driving for a while), and a self-conscious regenerating present. In Redford and Peck films, all those liberal narratives echo Gatsby's long island parties: the films themselves contributing to the mythology of the persona.
Redford's background serves as an interesting study of a man looking for a purpose and an identity He was born in Santa Monica on August 17th, 1937, the son of a milkman. There are tales of youthful delinquency, and of cinema trips where Redford and friends would shout and boo at the screen. He received a baseball scholarship for the university of Colorado in Boulder, but soon dropped out to travel Europe and pursue a career as a painter. In typically romantic fashion he spent most of his year in Paris, often, so we're informed in various bios, wandering around without shoes on his feet. But by 1958 he had married back in the States, and a year later taken up acting. Early theatre work led to a movie part in 1962 (War Hunt), and to more recognizable roles by the mid-sixties: Situation Hopeless But Not Serious and Inside Daisy Clover.
This is Redford before the mould had set, and what one sees is an outsider looking for a way in. The image Redford has since projected is rather different. There is no sense of sweaty ambition, of the gatecrasher at the door. Instead what he suggests is an aloof disdain for any signs of social recognition. There is no ego sustenance or puppy dog approval. Unlike Tom Cruise with his endless goals - making money in Risky Business, getting the girl in Top Gun, outsmarting the military in and a corporation in respectively A Few Good Man and The Firm - or Richard Gere with his cajoling seduction techniques in almost anything, and his wish to prove himself in an Officer and a Gentleman, Redford is a man who holds his own counsel. Both Gere and Cruise define themselves in relation to the immediate world, and for all Cruise's interest in scientology, and Gere's in Buddhism, the overwhelming impression given is of purpose defined by contemporary western notions of achievement. Redford's persona does not.
As a sex symbol, Redford's aloofness indicates an image closer in some ways to femininity than the masculine, as he is rarely violent, nor sexually predatory. He moves smoothly and a little self-consciously, observed and observant rather than action oriented. Writer and art critic John Berger has said "the social presence of a woman is different from that of a man...A man's presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you and for you...a woman's presence...defines what can and cannot be done." It's a passivity central to Redford's role in, for example, The Way We Were. The early stages of the film detail Hubell Gardner's college years in the thirties, his sporting success and political lack of interest. Left-wing Jewish activist Barbra Streisand falls in love with him and, in time, years later in New York, he falls in love with her. Redford is the film's passive character, fallen in love with, and successful almost despite himself, he drifts as readily into mediocrity come the film's conclusion as he did into aesthetic prowess and writing success in the film's early stages. In The Way We Were it is Streisand who "suggests what he is capable of doing" as she states his weaknesses as a writer and how he could improve. When they make love for the first time, Redford is almost unconscious; and it is Streisand who undresses, follows him into bed, and quite literally positions him into making love. Throughout the movie Redford is shot as the object of desire, with dreamy soft-focus images of Redford, say, sitting on a stool at the bar, eyes shut, as Streisand looks longingly at his locked jaw and haloed head. This take on masculinity is quite at odds with Laura Mulvey's much read and much quoted 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', where she says "The man controls the film phantasy and also emerges as the representative of power in a further senses: as the bearer of the look of the spectator..." In The Way We Were, Streisand acts, Redford follows her actions. There is a scene in the film where Streisand defends communism in front of a large student crowd and the camera cuts to Redford's face, watching his response. Filmmaker Budd Boetticher once reckoned that the woman is in a film really only for the "love and fear she inspires in her hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself, the woman is not of the slightest importance." Yet in The Way We Were, Redford is consistently inactive and unresponsive. In the early scenes he shows not the slightest interest in Streisand as a lover; when they do become a couple it is she who initiates and determines to please. When they go to Hollywood, he does so not for her, but despite her. (She'd rather go to France.) When the child is born, Redford chooses to have nothing to do with it.
It is a passivity of purpose one finds in Havana, (90) when he tells Lena Olin's married beauty "what do you think, I'm just some kind of jerk trying to pick you up", and again in Sneakers, when he convinces ex-girlfriend Liz that he only wants information; not to get back together. In Up Close and Personal, the isolated arrogance reaches its nadir when he pops round to tell Pfeiffer's Tally Atwater something and then says, "thought I came by to fuck you, didn't you." This approach could be seen as no more than game-playing (in each instance the character gets what he claims he doesn't want), yet even if this is a narrative ploy, it works because of Redford's ability to stay outside the demands of male ego expectation. As an actor he seems neither intensely involved, nor schematically removed. He can make such scenes work because he promises nothing and therefore loses nothing. He does not predicate his ego on satisfying or pleasing women. Here is at least partially where one can witness his passivity paradoxically at work.
It may then be no accident that Redford was at the forefront of what became known as the buddy movie in the late sixties and early seventies. Molly Haskell ruefully recognized this in From Reverence to Rape when she said, "it is the rapport between Newman and Redford in Butch Cassidy rather than between either one of them and Katharine Ross that has all the staples - the love and loyalty, the yearning and spirituality, the eroticism sublimated in action and banter, the futility and fatalism, the willingness to die for someone..." This need not necessarily be homoeroticism, however, for Redford is an actor alone no matter whom he acts opposite. That he is used in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (69) in a conventionally feminine way (Newman acts; Redford observes), doesn't make it a gay movie in all but name. Rather, it suggests an escape from the expectations of masculinity. As John Berger once proposed, talking of nineteenth century man, "they were devoid of 'presence' altogether. The promised power may have been moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual - but its object was always exterior to the man." They became men of 'character', as August Strindberg says in his introduction to Miss Julie. "Originally character meant the dominant feature in a person's psyche, and was synonymous with temperament. Then it became a middle-class euphemism for an automaton."
Did out of this impasse come existentialism, a belief that man could define his temperament and impose meaning on the world? In cinema, the man with 'character' and the man with a self-defined purpose are probably the most frequent 'types'. Dependable actors - often supporting players fill out the former roles. They're the husbands whose wives have an affair before returning to the tried and trusted, or fathers who represent values so deeply socially rooted they need never express them, but just register disapproval when deviated from. The man with purpose is intent on changing the world he lives in and his role is generally played by a star because a star, by virtue of his presence, changes the cinematic world (the filmic world) he appears in: he must represent on some level progress and development.
Redford fails to fall neatly into either category. What he does is take in some of the values from the man of character (deep seated traditional beliefs, taciturnity and minimal action), with an aura of existential purpose. His interest in changing the world is always secondary to his desire not to change himself. Hence in Brubaker the compromises demanded to achieve a sociological goal (the greater rights of prisoners) is secondary to his belief that he must remain true to an intrinsic self. Ditto in Up Close and Personal, where Redford's ambition to change the world of journalism is secondary to any trace of selling out. It's as if existentialism in inverted: one's action's are dictated by the core self's non-action. In The Candidate, we feel he could walk away from his election victory without too much indecision. He only ran for governor with the idea that the worst thing would be defeat. Yet as he realises by the end there is something worse for a Redford character than losing, and that is compromise.
Redford's apparent femininity may be no more than the centrality of 'presence', and the relative absence of action. Presence suggests a stillness, an ability to exist without action or interaction. It is probably why so many critics (Kael, David Thomson and David Shipman for example), hold him in so little regard, and believe he has "too often relied on the handsome, all American face", as Shipman reckoned. Thomson, meanwhile, noted that in Redford's seventies work, "he seemed muscle bound by gloss and charisma". Yet that is too easy. When Thomson says "There is some restraint in Redford that resists exploration of humour, anger, even sex - all of which seem on his cards", he is attacking Redford for what he isn't: a conventional actor and star. Redford, falling perhaps quite deliberately between the two expectations, has found a perverse niche as an icon that represents values which, are, we could say, anti-materialist. Over a forty year career (and especially in the middle-period between about 1969 and 1987) he has created characters whose goodness is a cinematic moral centre, transcendent of the actor or the character he plays.
When Pirsig met Redford, he described how "a fixed image of the famous person, like the Sundance Kid, seems to overwhelm...the real time person who exists in the moment of confrontation." Pirsig describes the process as a "Zen hell of celebrity..." One loses sight of self, and replaces it with a cultural hall of mirrors variously distorted. However, a moral centre, one based on some notion of intrinsic feeling and not on cultural variables, reaffirms the self, and does so by escaping the mirrors. When Redford says at the beginning of this piece, "it's not been easy. I've had to work at it", he is of course not talking about the expected difficulty of rising to the top, but the reclusiveness demanded of one who needs privacy to protect the possibility of a deteriorating sense of self.
His limitedness as an actor, his weakness as a star, lies in this sense of self-preservation. "Any role that I play is always approached from character - not from me" Redford claims. We might replace character, though, with persona, with image, because while Redford may not work from himself - he gives no sense of being an autobiographical actor, like Woody Allen for example - he generally works from a clear sense of his cinematic personality. On The Verdict, Redford reputedly wanted the script changed to suit his 'personality', before Newman stepped in. And on The Way We Were, the writer believed Redford didn't want to be an actor but a star. Such anecdotes can give the impression of prima dona celebrity, but maybe it is simply a case of offering a consistent moral centre rather than self-absorbed stardom.
So Redford is neither an actor nor a star, really, because what he leaves us with is not a clear sense of Redford, in whatever permutation, so much as a tone, a cinematic temperament. The moral good so many balk at. If his films are finally predictable, and his performances relatively unvarying, it is because the dynamic energy in his films is transcendent of the narrative action. In Brubaker he has a number of minor confrontations, but any loss of self-respect would not be in relation to other characters, but in relation to himself. In The Way We Were, his love for Streisand is less important than his own equilibrium. In a great scene from All the President's Men (76), there is a moment that would seem to play straight into central conflict theory, as Journos Woodward and Bernstein are in the process of cracking Watergate, and Dustin Hoffman's Bernstein casually re-writes a Woodward piece. It looks like an ego conflict is going to take place, but Redford accepts that Hoffman's improved the story, when he takes a close look at the changes, but insists that Hoffman's way of doing so, without consulting him, was not fair. An ego battle dissolves into an ethical issue of fair play.
This article is no more than a way into Redford's status as an actor, a way of understanding a persona less active than most, less keen to define itself in contemporary terms. When Strindberg says "the word 'character' has over the years frequently changed its meaning", and says "originally it meant the dominant feature in a person's psyche," we can now see that it means the dominant cultural interpretation: what Pirsig calls "the mirror, the Giant, the gods." Redford's always tried to have a notion of character that is quite fundamental, even biological; so what one sees in Redford's work is an attempt to throw off the notion of 19th century character, 20th century existentialism, and even clear notions of masculinity and femininity. The hostile social patterns Pirsig talks of are insignificant next to the 'traditional' values Redford so frequently reiterates. His films as director are no more than extended feelings of good-will (liberal in intent, slightly smudged in execution), even if their central characters are more wayward than Redford's own characterizations. Then there is the Sundance Institute, and the important yearly festival which has given us many an independent feature that may otherwise have languished. This success shouldn't be ignored, but neither too readily venerated - hasn't it in many ways become all grasping ambition and the antithesis of Redford's own moral tenor? It is as an actor that he suggests something more distinctive: a minor but not insignificant icon who, like all film icons, redefines the term cinematically.
© Tony McKibbin