Cowboy, candidate, cause
BAM pays tribute to the many faces of Robert Redford.
Wed Sep 2 2009
It’s easy to take the guy for granted in any of his incarnations: an enviously handsome, old-school movie star during the grungy heyday of New Hollywood; a director with a penchant for austere Oscar bait; the geriatric golden boy who still oversees a tastemaking film festival from his skier’s-paradise hamlet. He never seemed as stoically manly as Clint Eastwood nor as Me Decade sensitive as Alan Alda; the sandy-haired boy next door wasn’t even in the same screen-Adonis league as his favorite costar, Paul Newman.
But BAM’s “Robert Redford: Artist & Activist” serves up a nice reminder of what this show-business elder has accomplished during his nearly 50-year tenure in the public eye. Less a retrospective than a tastefully curated highlight reel, the venue’s weeklong look back at the career(s) of our 73-year-old Renaissance man may omit as much as it showcases. The dual emphasis in the program’s title, however, isn’t an accident; the selections begging for reappraisal and reviewing are the ones that brim with both overt political advocacy and surprisingly subversive smarts.
If it’s been a while since you’ve seen the paranoid post-Nixon thriller Three Days of the Condor (1975), in which Redford’s CIA analyst dodges Euro-baddie Max von Sydow (memo to Bob: just beat him in a chess game, that usually works) or the peerless All the President’s Men (1976), then by all means, go. We’ll point you toward two ’72 picks, however, that exemplify the “Artist & Activist” tag. Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate attacked the all-filler attitude of mediafied campaigning with a McLuhanesque vengeance, slowly turning Redford’s Senate hopeful Bill McKay from an outspoken liberal into a generic pol-bot. The star wasn’t shy about flying his lefty flag (dig the George McGovern cameo), but this satire-cum-spin-doctor-primer points its finger at both parties for preferring a pretty face over everything else—even if that gorgeous puss is his. Said handsome mug is hidden under a mountain-man beard for most of Jeremiah Johnson, the oddball eco-oater that Redford and longtime collaborator Sydney Pollack unwisely turned into a frontier-vigilante parable for its last act. But prior to Johnson going all Death Wish, the Western emphasizes living harmoniously with nature in a way that reflected the actor’s commitment to environmental conservation. Audiences may have paid to see the Sundance Kid gone Woodstock-hippie, but they left with a noggin full of earth-first concerns.
In terms of the selections from his directorial career, neither the subzero sap of 1980’s Ordinary People—best known as the film that beat out Raging Bull for Best Picture—nor the Hallmark-card masculinity of 1992’s A River Runs Through It says much about Redford’s worldview. The same can’t be said for the extraordinary Quiz Show (1994), which rivals The Candidate in terms of bitterness about the boob tube’s power over the public. Dramatizing the late-’50s scandal involving fixed game shows and disgraced Twenty-One champion Charles Van Doren (played by Ralph Fiennes, sporting a conspicuously Redfordesque ’do), this re-creation of a historical low point for the mass-culture medium suggests that the bilking of public trust is more than a loss of Eiserhower-era innocence. It is, according to Redford, an example of how entertainment would trump morality for years to come, and how corporate powers—the show’s slimy producers, the network heads, the pharmaceutical sponsors—call all the shots. You almost wouldn’t believe that such a politically cynical movie was made during the early Clinton years.
BAM’s inclusion of two Sundance-related titles reflects how Redford has used his Utah-based organization to further his progressive ideology. Gregory Nava’s El Norte (1983), a tale of diaspora culture shock, was one of the initial products to come out of the Sundance Institute’s workshops—Redford himself has been credited as a behind-the-scenes shepherd—and remains a major influence on the earnest, ethnically informed Amerindie cinema that would follow. The Unforeseen (2007) comes from the later years of the Sundance Film Festival, long after accusations of selling out would somewhat tarnish the brand name. But Laura Dunn’s look at how real-estate developers compromised the ecology of Austin presents its case in a solid, streamlined manner, without succumbing to the usual bleeding-heart attacks that color such cine-journalism, and it’s proof that the fest still offers vital work. Redford did double duty as a talking head and executive producer, but his patron-sainthood is what made it possible in the first place.
“Robert Redford: Artist & Activist” screens at BAM Tue 8--Sept 16. Find showtimes