"I'm sure it will be perceived as everything from pretentious to sanctimonious," Redford says with an air of resignation. "What may get missed is the fact that, when I got involved with the film and decided to do it, the first thing I thought was, we can't be riding on the issues that are discussed in this film because those issues will be yesterday's news by the time the film comes out. How can you beat the scandals that are coming out of Washington daily? You can't top that with a black comedy!"
Though you wouldn't guess it to hear him today, the Charles Robert Redford who turned up on the streets of Paris at age 18 with vague notions of becoming an artist was not nearly so politically engaged. A prankster and carouser, he'd dropped out of the University of Colorado and sailed to Europe on a student visa. In Paris, he took up residence in a kind of student commune, where his flatmates challenged the naive, handsome American in a way he'd never experienced before. It was, according to Redford, "the beginning of my real education.
"They'd ask me how I felt about certain things, and I didn't know," Redford recalls. "It was during the Suez crisis, when America deserted the French and it was a disaster, and I didn't know what they were talking about. I felt so put down that I decided to really focus on the politics of my country, but it was done from another place. It was done from reading French, Italian, and German newspapers and talking to students and hearing different opinions. I cobbled together a point of view that was from other points of view." By the time he landed back in America two years later, "I was filled with experiences of real-life situations and the myths of this country. I guess that's where it all started."
Redford went to New York, enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and by 1960 was appearing in bit parts on Broadway and on TV in the likes of Maverick, Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Playhouse 90. His movie break came in the form of a supporting role in the low-budget 1962 Korean War drama War Hunt. (His co-stars included Sydney Pollack, who would go on to direct Redford in six films.) By 1967, when he reprised his stage role for the film version of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park, he was a bankable star. Two years later, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid didn't just catapult Redford into the Hollywood firmament in one of those marvelous tricks of the flickering light, the role imparted some of its romantic, rebel-outlaw mythos (and a lifelong nickname) to the actor himself.
The Redford who appears in a lavish 1970 Life magazine spread titled "Robert Redford Riding High," literally riding high on the back of a horse against a dramatic Utah mountainscape, is scarcely recognizable as the suburban SoCal youth who, barely a decade earlier, wasn't quite sure what he wanted to do with his life. Photographed skiing, snowmobiling, and relaxing with his wife, Lola, and their two children at the home and ski complex that would become known as the Sundance Resort, he is an Olympian vision a movie-star deity with an accompanying canonization by film critic Richard Schickel (a friend of Redford's) to seal the deal.
"There are times when it is simply intolerable to have him breezing in and out of your life . . . passing through from someplace he makes sound marvelous to someplace he will make sound wonderful," writes Schickel in a particularly perceptive take on the feelings of infatuation and resentment that great movie stars can inspire. "These moments of envious bedazzlement generally occur when you are in a temporarily weakened condition when all the children have been on penicillin for a week and aren't getting better, when your accountant has just called to tell you your tax bill was a little stiffer than he had originally estimated. In such dreary contexts, Redford stands there with his trim, tan, healthy exterior wrapped around a nervous system entirely innocent of booze, cigarettes and Miltowns, and something inside you harrumphs disapprovingly. Damn fool ought to watch his step."
But though it would be naïve to suggest that Redford was ungrateful for his genetic gifts or never took advantage of them, "sex symbol" is a label he has worn uneasily at best. Accusations that he was a pretty boy and a dramatic lightweight dogged him from his earliest days in the theater. ("He's just another California blond throw a stick at Malibu, you'll hit six of them," went the famous grumblings of one studio executive when Redford was first proposed for the Sundance Kid role.) And long after he established himself in Hollywood, Redford continued to feel the superficial tugging at the substantive. (It is hardly accidental that, of the seven films he has directed to date, Lions for Lambs is only the second, following 1998's The Horse Whisperer, in which Redford's face appears onscreen.)