I USED TO BE RIDICULED FOR MY LOOKS... SO I LEARNED TO BE A LONER
Maybe when you play Death on The Twilight Zone at the start of your career, mortality doesn’t faze you. ‘It’s all part of the deal,’ Robert Redford tells me. He didn’t think about dying while he was making his new movie about it, JC Chandor’s melancholy mariner’s tale, All Is Lost. He thought about enduring. ‘I’m interested in that thing that happens where there’s a breaking point for some people and not for others,’ he tells me over morning coffee in the deserted Owl Bar at his resort in Sundance, Utah. ‘You go through such hardship — things that are almost impossibly difficult, and there’s no sign that it’s going to get any better, and that’s the point when people quit. But some don’t.’
It’s also what drew him to an earlier story: his 1972 tale of a 19th-century mountain man battling the wild, Jeremiah Johnson, parts of which were shot on Mount Timpanogos, where we’re sitting. ‘You just continue,’ he says. ‘Because that’s all there is to do.’
Like Chandor’s 2011 Wall Street drama, Margin Call, about a Lehman Brothers-type firm struggling not to go under, All Is Lost is an existential horror story about trying to survive the worst moment of your life — in this case being stranded on a crippled boat at sea — as panic rises.
Redford has made a career out of playing what he calls ‘intrinsically American guys’ going up against implacable forces. He battled the banks and the ‘super-posse’ in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, Native Americans and grizzlies in Jeremiah Johnson, a dumbed- down political system in The Candidate, the Irish mob in The Sting, the CIA in Three Days Of The Condor and Spy Game, Richard Nixon in All The President’s Men, big business in The Electric Horseman, and — his most formidable adversary — Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were.
Hollywood is no country for old men. Yet at 77, the subject of considerable Oscar talk, Redford is soaring as the solo star of a movie that evokes the elegiac spirit of Sailing To Byzantium by Yeats, one of his favourite poets. Yeats wrote about sailing ‘the mackerel-crowded seas’, coming to terms with the agony of ageing and contemplating how the soul can rise above a heart ‘ fastened to a dying animal’. Redford likes to write poetic observations himself. He recites one he has written: ‘You look up and you realise, what a beautiful day, the leaves are turning and you’re starting to feel confident. You’re feeling full of yourself until you realise you’re drooling.’
He laughs, that great Redford laugh. The thing that’s easy to forget about Redford, with his serious pursuits and perfectionist strivings, is that he can be really fun. We end up talking for three hours next to the 1890s rosewood bar from Ireland commissioned by the real Hole- in- the-Wall Gang. Sitting beneath a picture of him and his pal Paul Newman glowing as Sundance and Butch Cassidy, he tells a story about fame. ‘It’s right around the time where I’m beginning to think I’m a pretty big deal,’ he says. ‘At a kerb in Beverly Hills, there’s a car coming with a bunch of teenage kids in it. I see they’re freaking out inside and trying to get their windows rolled down. I step back. I’m ready for it. “Robert Redford!” they scream. “You are such a ****.”’ He grins. ‘That’s probably what I would have done at that age.’
Redford grew up in Los Angeles, a wildchild breaking away from a remote, hard-to-please father, the real Rebel Without a Cause caught up in drinking and drag races. Breaking into Bel-Air mansions, he and a friend were the Bling Ring before the word ‘bling’ entered the popular lexicon. Bob Redford was popular with girls early, winning a Charleston contest at 13, but the other boys grew jealous and ‘vicious’. ‘Pretty soon it became a regular thing where guys would pass me when I was with a girl and say, “ARF! ARF! ARF!”, and I could see that the girls were bothered.’ Finally one of his friends explained that ARF stood for Anti-Redford Federation. ‘I was so hurt and shocked,’ he says. ‘From that point in my life, I retreated into a more loner place, — I was then forever shy of going out and expressing myself and I would do it in my art.’ After his mother died when he was 18, he left the University of Colorado to be a starving art student in Italy and France. The girls he met in Paris in 1957 did not find him attractive; he was mocked for knowing nothing about the Suez Canal and US politics. ‘I got kicked in the teeth by Paris,’ he says. He started to read the newspapers, trying to see beyond American sloganeering and explore ‘the grey area that was underneath the red, white and blue’.
His long-time collaborator, Sydney Pollack, said Redford’s allure came from the darker shades lurking beneath his golden facade. Still, Redford has been criticised for not taking grittier roles over the years. But he enjoyed
Regally blond Clockwise from above: Redford in All Is Lost; with Paul Newman in The Sting (1973); with Demi Moore in 1993’s Indecent Proposal