Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on January 22, 2015
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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