Mainstream Maverick: The Biography and Work of Robert Redford, incl. All Is Lost (& Selected Books)

By Daniel Garrett

All is Lost directed by J.C. Chandor
Lionsgate/Roadside, 2013



Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011

In All is Lost, the aged, beautiful, determined Robert Redford is reduced to his own intelligence, skills, and will, his fundamental character; and thus the J.C. Chandor film, a story of a man lost at sea, becomes a quintessential American story, a very human story. “Our Man, as Redford’s character is called in the credits, awakes in his modest yacht to a hard bump. A wayward metal container from a cargo ship has punctured his boat. Water begins to pour into the 39-foot sailboat’s cabin. His communications are swamped. He appears alone in the Indian Ocean,” wrote film critic Lisa Kennedy in The Denver Post (October 25, 2013), calling the film a triumph for Redford. It is the kind of motion picture that immerses the audience in the experience of the character: his aloneness is ours. His challenge is shared. In Film Journal International (October 15, 2013), Daniel Eagan noted “Writer and director J.C. Chandor, whose debut feature was 2011’s Margin Call, takes an admirably single-minded approach to the story. The camera rarely leaves Redford, or his point-of-view, except to emphasize his isolation. The movie’s focus on physical labor, on just how difficult it is to climb a mast or retrieve a sea anchor, evokes, a bit self-consciously, Hemingway, in particular The Old Man and the Sea.”

All is Lost is a marvelous addition to a long, esteemed career: War Hunt (1962), Inside Daisy Clover (1965), This Property Is Condemned (1966), Barefoot in the Park (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Jeremiah Johnson (1972), The Candidate (1972), The Way We Were (1973), The Sting (1973), The Great Gatsby (1974), All the President’s Men (1976), Brubaker (1980), The Natural (1984), Out of Africa (1985), The Milagro Beanfield War (1988), Sneakers (1992), A River Runs Through It (1992), Indecent Proposal (1993), Quiz Show (1994), The Last Castle (2001), The Clearing (2004), An Unfinished Life (2005), Lions for Lambs (2007), and The Conspirator (2011). In The Company You Keep (2012), Redford’s performance as a lawyer in late middle-age who had been a controversial political protester when young was a kind of generational footnote. Yet, despite Robert Redford’s continuing activity, it is possible that he was becoming a neglected institution. All is Lost renewed attention.

All is Lost is remarkable for its paucity of dialogue, for its reliance on glance and gesture. It is the kind of film that does expose an actor; and Robert Redford has sometimes been thought to be cool to the point of inexpressive (others saw a subtle thoughtful approach, a restraint born of honesty)—but Redford received acclamation in the role. “The ancient Greeks believed that character should be revealed through action. I can’t think of another film that has upheld this notion so thoroughly and thrillingly. There is certainly no other actor who can command our attention—our empathy, our loyalty, our love—with such efficiency. Mr. Redford has always been a magnificent underplayer, a master of small, clear gestures and soft-spoken intensity. This role brings him to the pinnacle of reticence but also allows him to open up in startling ways. Behind the leathery, pragmatic exterior is a reservoir of inexpressible emotion. An opera thunders in the silence,” wrote A. O. Scott in the New York Times (October 17, 2013).

Appearance or truth? Both? Form and spirit. There has been a tension in our appreciation for Robert Redford, a dedicated actor and filmmaker who also happens to be an image of masculine beauty. Redford, as a young man of impulse and integrity, and not a little rebellion, was interested in adventurous exploration, whether involving art, travel, or relationships. Everything considered, he was a lot less selfish and shallow than most of us would be. That may be part of why he has become such an intriguing and respectable elder statesman. He appreciated the help he received early in his career from people like Natalie Wood and Sydney Pollack and stayed loyal (which is not to say that some of his relationships were not prickly or disappointing). The escalating fame he entered after the films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Way We Were, The Sting, and All the President’s Men put pressures on his time and judgment, even as he received new opportunities and exercised cultural power. His recent work in All is Lost deepened perception of how powerful a presence in film he could be; and increased appreciation of his life and work. The easily readable biography of Robert Redford that appeared in recent years, a book that presents a portrait of a very agile, flinty, intelligent, and stubborn man, a genuine American character and artist, is divided into four major parts, and also contains an introduction, acknowledgements, notes, bibliography, filmography, and index. It was written by Michael Feeney Callan, a writer of drama and fiction, as well as biographies of film performers such as Richard Harris and Julie Christie.

Robert Redford had been a child in a precariously middle class environment, with parents who loved motion pictures: personal interests raised the family’s consciousness and pleasures above the limits of its income. When the young Californian boy, Bobby, visited his mother Martha’s Texas relatives, he loved the house, land, fishing, and hunting, and the strength and energy of the people. His visit to his father Charlie’s Connecticut family was gloomier. The young Redford had a loving but reserved father who sacrificed a writing talent to join a corporation that provided a stable income, a personal compromise that provided a stable income, a personal compromise of which his observant son did not approve. Robert Redford was a myth-loving, athletic boy with an interest in drawing and jazz, a boy who inspired confidence and exasperation. His mother had a friendship with the well-known actor Zachary Scott, who sometimes drove the young Redford and Scott’s daughter to grade school. (Zachary Scott would lose his wife to the writer John Steinbeck.) Redford made other Hollywood contacts, such as with the children of Dore Schary and Robert Rossen, before he began to run with a wilder group. Although Redford was not a disciplined student at grade school or college, he was a lover of the arts. Robert Redford’s appreciation of the more radical currents in American life, whether through painting, poetry, music, or film has been a constant in his life. (He liked Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley as well as jazz; and he thought about everything he liked with genuine appreciation and insight.) His love of geography led to a lifelong commitment to environmental conservation.

Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute was an experiment that became an alternative to the Hollywood studio system, and then a launch pad for those who wanted to enter that system. Like Redford, the institute operated at both the center of the culture and on its margins. Meanwhile, some of Redford’s own film choices as a performer became suspect (Legal Eagles, Havana). Yet, Redford’s pursuance of work behind the camera as a director yielded a significant body of work, exemplifying his ability to entertain and his ultimate seriousness: Ordinary People, The Milagro Beanfield War, A River Runs Through It, Quiz Show, The Horse Whisperer, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Lions for Lambs, The Conspirator, and The Company You Keep. Robert Redford has led a singular life as a man and artist. It is worth learning more about the man. Reading about his life and work is worth the time of anyone interested in modern culture; as is perusal of books on cinema such as The Cinema of Richard Linklater, and Film Dialogue, and Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos, and The Routledge Dictionary of Turkish Cinema.

Other Books worth buying or borrowing:

Africa in the American Imagination: Popular Culture, Racialized Identities, and African Visual Culture by Carol Magee
University Press of Mississippi, 2012

Africa Must Be Modern: A Manifesto
By Olufemi Taiwo
Indiana University Press, 2014

Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist
Edited by Richard J. Powell
(Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University)
Duke University Press, 2014

Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution:
Voices from Tunis to Damascus
Edited by Layla Al-Zabaidi and Matthew Cassel
Penguin Books, 2013

Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos:
Conceptions of the African American West
By Michael K. Johnson
University Press of Mississippi, 2014

How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement
By Ruth Feldstein
Oxford University Press, 2013

Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems
By James Baldwin
(Introduction by Nikky Finney)
Beacon Press, 2014

Lectures on the Philosophy of History
By G.W.F. Hegel
(Translated by Ruben Alvarado)
WordBridge Publishing, 2011

The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America
By David Dante Troutt
New York University Press, 2013

The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World, 1000-1927
By Jace Weaver
University of North Carolina Press, 2014

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Latino Art
By Ilan Stavans and Jorge J.E. Gracia
Duke University Press, 2014

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.