Robert Redford & Sydney Pollack: A Creative Partnership

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“In a way, he was like the country he lived in. Everything came too easily to him, but at least he knew it.” – from THE WAY WE WERE, scripted by Arthur Laurents

It’s easy to assume that this memorable line I borrowed from THE WAY WE WERE (1973) summarizes Robert Redford’s own life and career. After all, Redford was blessed with all-American good looks and is an incredibly likable performer with limitless charisma. But in truth, Redford’s early years were complicated and he spent more than a decade working in television and film before his iconic role in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) made him a bona fide star at age 33. After appearing in one of the top-grossing films of all time you’d expect Hollywood to embrace the sun-kissed actor without reservation but Redford had to fight incredibly hard to continue to make the kind of movies he wanted to make.

Behind many of the popular box office successes and critically acclaimed films that followed, Redford was battling studio heads, arguing with writers, waging war with producers and doing everything in his power to make meaningful films that provided him with complex and challenging roles throughout the 1970s. Today Redford’s impressive filmography during that decade is a testament to his artistic integrity at the time and illustrates his commitment to making quality pictures that entertained but also left audiences with a lot to think about. And some of the best films Redford appeared in during this period were directed by his longtime collaborator and friend, Sydney Pollack.

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Redford and Pollack first met as young actors on the set of an independent low-budget film called WAR HUNT in 1960. They found common ground while quietly critiquing the production from the sidelines and they shared with one another a similar desire to make more ambitious films that had something worthwhile to say about the human experience. Six years later when Robert Redford was hired to costar with Natalie Wood in THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED (1966) it was Redford who suggested that his friend, Sydney Pollack, should direct it. The experience of making the film, which was fraught with problems, undoubtedly brought the two men closer together and they developed a strong working relationship on set.

THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED was the first film that really showcased Redford’s ability to play a somewhat conventional man who is attracted to unconventional women. In the years that followed Redford would continue to develop this persona as a sort of amorous outsider who finds himself in difficult relationships that usually end badly or abruptly. As handsome as he was, Redford rarely got to keep the girl who was often hard won. This kind of romantic cynicism became typical in the decade that followed as the country’s growing mistrust in everything, from government bureaucracy to the family structure, begin to take its toll on the American dream. And few actors seemed to represent that sea change better than Robert Redford. As the 60s gave way to the 70s, the beloved blond, blue-eyed movie star was surreptitiously becoming the face of American dissatisfaction.

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Redford’s next film with Pollack was JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972). This revisionist western tells the ambitious story of a world-weary veteran of the Mexican War who decides to leave behind polite society and become a solitary mountain man who survives as a fur trapper. Like many westerns of the period, JEREMIAH JOHNSON reflected the nation’s frustration with the Vietnam War and ongoing racial tensions in the country while expressing Redford’s own desire to live a simpler life away from big cities and closer to nature. As angry as the film is, JEREMIAH JOHNSON is also equally mournful and Pollack’s majestic direction along with Redford’s magnificent lead performance suggest a deep longing for an America that was rapidly changing. The film was a huge critical and box office success that cemented Redford’s position as a resolute laconic loner whose actions often spoke much louder than his words. It also helped cement Pollack’s position as one of America’s most viable directors who was able to rework tired old Hollywood formulas into new thought-provoking films.

Following the success of JEREMIAH JOHNSON, Pollack and Redford re-teamed to make the genuinely heartrending romantic drama THE WAY WE WERE (1973). As the film traces the lives of two strong-willed individuals (Redford and Barbra Streisand) through the political upheavals of their college years, World War 2, the McCarthy era and the encroaching Vietnam War, we’re provided with a picturesque but undeniably critical look at America that suggests the end of unconditional love between a couple and their country. The film was another huge success for the director and actor team and one of many films that helped shape Redford’s distinct romantic persona while confirming Pollack’s unmatched ability to get deeply moving and authentically tender performances out of his handsome star.

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With the success of JEREMIAH JOHNSON and THE WAY WE WERE, you’d expect the two collaborators to make another western or romantic drama but what followed was THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975). This terse and suspense film rivals ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976) as one of the most significant, influential, foretelling and flat out entertaining political thrillers of the decade. Redford plays Joe Turner (codename Condor), a war veteran who was persuaded to join the CIA as an information analyst. He works in seclusion with a number of other operatives deciphering hidden messages published in newspapers, magazines and books around the world. After his offices are broken into and his coworkers are brutally murdered, Turner aka Condor finds himself on the run from his own government as well as possible outside sources that want to silence him. Once again, Redford plays a willful and proudly patriotic loner (“I was born in the United States. I miss it when I’m away too long.”) but instead of facing off against the unruly winter wilderness as he did in JEREMIAH JOHNSON, he must survive the cold harsh city streets of New York during the Christmas holiday where anyone and everyone is apparently determined to kill him.

The last film Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack made together in the 70s was the touching romantic comedy, THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN (1979). This unabashedly sentimental and sorrowful ode to the fading American west is also a pointed look at Hollywood myth-making. It features Redford as an aging cowboy who drinks too much and decides to steal a cruelly kept race horse so he can release it back into the wild. He is pursued along the way by a somewhat irritating, self-assured and cloistered reporter (Jane Fonda). The two have a brief romantic connection but ultimately Redford’s heart belongs to the imposing western landscape and the wildlife that populates it.

It was another popular hit for Redford and Pollack and the creative duo would go on to make two more movies together, the hugely successful Academy Award winning OUT OF AFRICA (1985) and the less successful HAVANA (1990), but I prefer to think of this smaller and more personal film as their last together.

THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN is the perfect coda to Robert Redford’s career in the 1970s. His future films, no matter how successful they were, lost much of their intimacy as well as their immediacy. But the role of cowboy star Norman ‘Sonny’ Steele seems to incorporate everything that made Redford and the characters he played for a decade so damn likable and heartfelt.

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“We were co-conspirators, really, trying to make sense of Hollywood together.” – Sydney Pollack on his relationship with Robert Redford

Sonny (an obvious play on the name ‘Sundance’ that made Redford a household name) doesn’t talk much but when he does, he’s funny, warm and wise-cracking, incredibly sincere and often brutally honest. He isn’t afraid to take chances, ruffle feathers and piss off authority. He’s a perpetual outsider who also happens to love people but only in moderation. He’s more comfortable camping on a hillside or sleeping in a small cabin than living it up in a luxury hotel in Vegas. He lives in the moment and loves without much forethought. And last but not least, he’s American through and through.

In a myriad of ways, the films that Redford and Pollack made together during the 1970s encapsulate the American experience during that tumultuous and challenging decade. And watching Redford walk down that dusty road all alone at the end of THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN remains a poignant and personal moment in the actor and director’s careers.

It’s not surprising that once filming ended, Redford had become so attached to the horse that he rode and raced in the film that he adopted it and took the five year old thoroughbred home with him to his Sundance ranch in Utah. It seems typical of Redford’s character (on and off screen) that he kept the horse for 18 years until it died in 1997. It also suggests that the film meant a lot to the actor and was undoubtedly an important milestone in the long and fruitful creative partnership he shared with director Sydney Pollack.

Next Tuesday marks the end of Robert Redford’s turn as TCM’s Star of the Month. Make sure you tune in where you can see him in Sydney Pollack’s first-rate political thriller THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975) as well as THE CANDIDATE (1972), ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976) and DOWNHILL RACER (1969).

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17 Responses Robert Redford & Sydney Pollack: A Creative Partnership
Posted By LD : January 23, 2015 3:43 am

It is my understanding that Pollack decided Redford should play Denys Finch Hatton without an English accent in OUT OF AFRICA. He felt Redford with an accent would be a distraction. For me, his not having an accent was distracting. Wish Redford had been given the opportunity to show what he could do.

Posted By Marco : January 23, 2015 7:11 am

Actually, I believe that casting Robert Redford as the very bald, very British Denys Finch-Hatton was almost the only flaw in this otherwise great movie. Meryl Streep is very convincing as Karen Blixen, and Klaus Maria Brandauer is simply terrific as her womanizing, charming husband, Bror Blixen. Michael Kitchen is just right as Berkeley Cole, as is Michael Gough as Lord Delamere. All of the African actors are credible and well cast. It’s only the fully blonde-haired Redford who sticks out like a Yank at Oxford. If only Pollack had cast a real Englishman with a proper accent as Finch-Hatton. Most of the obvious historical misfires in “Out Of Africa” are built around Redford’s obviously American Finch-Hatton. He is portrayed as being opposed to fighting the Germans, when, in fact, he was all for giving the Huns a good dusting. The romance between Karen and Denys was real, but he had already moved on to Beryl Markham (Felicity) by the time of his death. Nonetheless, this picture captured this long eclipsed period better than any other movie about the White Man’s Country known as Kenya better than any other ever will. I just wish Pollack had cast a real Englishman, instead of a movie star as Denys Finch-Hatton.

Posted By LD : January 23, 2015 9:45 am

Sorry to be off topic but just a thought. Whenever I see photos of Denys Finch Hatton or T.E. Lawrence I think of Leslie Howard. He physically resembled them both, facially.

Posted By Klara : January 23, 2015 12:51 pm

Love this topic, and love that you recounted their history together. Makes me want to watch all of these films again. Your point about Redford representing American dissatisfaction despite his looks and appeal is so true –– and it highlights why he was and is so unique. It’s quite rare to find a genuinely reluctant golden boy; that’s what made him such an anomaly, and later a formidable figure in Hollywood… That he never rested on his laurels (or allowed his appearance to dictate his journey.) Thanks for this!

Posted By Klara : January 23, 2015 1:01 pm

And wow, that quote really does sum him up beautifully: “In a way, he was like the country he lived in. Everything came too easily to him, but at least he knew it.” (At least he did, unlike far too many.)

Posted By Lyndell : January 23, 2015 4:17 pm

Thank you for a very helpful postI To round it out, wish you had added a followup sentence about the last three films. (I dislike criticizing in public, but don’t know how else to reach you. You need someone to proof your copy—lovely work, but every proofing error distracts from your content; this also applies to the other Morlocks. If ever I may be of service, I’d be happy to help.)

Posted By Autist : January 23, 2015 6:06 pm

I agree with Lyndell. I find those sort of mistakes annoying, and there are several in this article. This also reads too much like a puff piece for my taste.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 25, 2015 5:47 am

Kimberly: This is a terrific post, and I agree with your thesis regarding Pollack, Redford,and their connection to 1970s America. BTW, anything with a sense of history and cultural perspective is not a puff piece, which by definition is an article with the intent to praise or flatter.

If it were easy to write an original piece each week for an iconic organization like TCM, while working at other jobs and venues, then anyone could do it.

Posted By kingrat : January 25, 2015 8:31 pm

Kimberly, I enjoyed your thoughtful post very much. It fits Redford’s star persona into the 1970s cultural milieu quite astutely.

A topic for an entirely post might be the sexual passivity of Redford’s star persona. He doesn’t go after women; they go after him. THE WAY WE WERE exploits Streisand’s aggression and Redford’s passivity very effectively. He controls situations by walking away from them. (By the way, this psychological mindset is common to handsome men in gay bars, who rarely approach other people and are thus never seen to be rejected.)

Posted By george : January 25, 2015 9:19 pm

Reminds me of the famous story about Mike Nichols, when considering casting Redford in THE GRADUATE, asking the star if he’d ever “struck out with a girl.”

Redford’s reply: “What does that mean?”

It convinced Nichols that Redford was the wrong actor to play Benjamin. I don’t think Redford had much experience with rejection.

Posted By robbushblog : February 3, 2015 5:10 pm

I’ve still never seen THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. I will correct that soon. I love ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN though.

On the flipside, was OUT OF AFRICA boring as dirt? Why, yes. Yes, it was. The only thing I liked was the trip through the clouds, which was quite beautiful.

Posted By Klara : February 3, 2015 5:49 pm

I agree about the flight scene in OUT OF AFRICA being the best, most beautiful in it, hugely due to John Barry’s gorgeous score, the song ‘Flying Over Africa’ in particular. I used to listen to that soundtrack all the time and that song never fails to make me teary-eyed (it has even made me sob a couple of times!) So moving when the music takes off. Also reminiscent of Barry’s greatest romantic Bond themes, which is why I love it so much: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUXs8dGxWyo

Posted By george : February 3, 2015 9:01 pm

When I was younger, I used a videotape of OUT OF AFRICA as an insomnia cure. Fifteen minutes and I was snoring away!

Posted By robbushblog : February 3, 2015 9:29 pm

I can understand that, George!

Posted By robbushblog : February 3, 2015 9:32 pm

Last year I watched all but 2 of the Best Picture winners that I had not seen. There were 15 of them that I watched over a month’s time. OUT OF AFRICA was possibly my least favorite of the bunch, which included OLIVER!, BROADWAY MELODY and CIMARRON, but good movies too, like GANDHI, CHARIOTS OF FIRE, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS and ORDINARY PEOPLE.

Posted By george : February 3, 2015 10:48 pm

ORDINARY PEOPLE doesn’t deserve the bashing it’s taken from infuriated RAGING BULL fans over the years. It’s an excellent movie and still holds up well.

My guess is that a lot of the attacks on Redford’s film have come from people who have never seen it.

Posted By Klara : February 4, 2015 11:55 am

I could never understand the disdain for ‘Ordinary People’ –– since it’s actually one of my all-time favorite films. It is extremely effective. Doesn’t matter how many times I’ve watched it, gets me every time.

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