Saturday, October 20, 2012

"Outtakes" movie column, Dec. 14, 1990

Robert Redford
As I recall, Vincent Price's derisive remark concerning Robert Redford during a 1984 speech at Utah State University drew a big laugh. Charles Laughton, he said, was wonderful when it came to playing tragedy. And Boris Karloff was a sweet man who nonetheless could terrify an audience.

But Redford, Price quipped, was quite remarkable at being, well, Redford.

I laughed right along with everyone else -- that conspiratorial laugh we commoners share at the expense of public figures who are wealthy and famous and talented. Redford is something of an easy target, after all; he's good-looking and people tend to notice that more so than his finely tuned artistry in front of the camera.

Redford is not, nor has he ever been, standard-issue beefcake. His appearance may have helped him snare early parts on the stage, in television and movies, but it is his talent that has allowed him to prosper. George Hamilton is handsome too, but he hasn't starred in movies the caliber of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Jeremiah Johnson," "The Candidate," "The Sting," "All the President's Men" and "Out of Africa."

Vincent Price can be forgiven his remark. For reasons unrelated to his talent, he has not enjoyed the graceful career Redford has. Whether it be petty jealousy or just good-natured ribbing, his glib remark concerning Redford's abilities is at the very least arguable, and at most inaccurate. Redford is good at what he does and has long been underrated, if not unappreciated.

It's easy to lose sight of the actor's contribution to his art. From the moment he was catapulted to a debilitating level of fame in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," he has been draped -- sometimes by his own hand, sometimes not -- in various guises that distracted from his acting and directing. People dubbed him a "radical environmentalist" despite the fact that he built a ski resort on the side of a beautiful Utah mountain. And they claim his politics lean "left," even though his fortune was earned in the most capitalist of fashions.

I've often wondered what makes Redford so enigmatic. Certainly, it begins with the fact that he often plays loners in movies -- individualistic characters who resist the status quo, who buck tradition, who are sometimes egocentric and almost always plain-talkers. People assume Redford is like these characters or vice versa. But, in fact, nobody knows what's in the man's heart except his most intimate friends and family.

Several years ago rumors circulated that Redford was considering a run for the Senate. If a doofus like Ronald Reagan could ascend to the presidency of our nation, the figuring went, what could stop a man like Redford, whose thoughtful, sincere approach to politics would surely hit home? While not an altogether abhorrent notion -- national politics is in constant and desperate need of someone courageous enough to speak his or her mind -- the harm to the film industry would be significant.

Reagan, bless his forgetful mind, blurred the line between showbiz and Really Important Things enough for one century.

Now the point is moot, of course. Redford did not run for the Senate and could not even help his pal, Ted Wilson, nab a seat. Furthermore, he has been quoted within the past few weeks as saying he plans to make more movies, as actor and/or director and producer, in the next few years than he has during the past decade. While this is good news -- especially if the characters he plays are as edgy and decadent as his latest, Jack Weil, in "Havana" -- it has a more significant impact on the industry at large.

Redford's Sundance Institute, now entering its second decade, has helped to rekindle an interest in independent filmmaking. Beginning with scripts by new writers, projects are nurtured until they're fit to be filmed. Directors, actors, writers, cinematographers and the like collaborate and learn what's needed to make intelligent films. While the institute's scope is limited, it offers an avenue for beginning filmmakers to hone their work before leaping headlong into the Hollywood shark tank.

The potential represented by the Sundance Institute -- and now the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, the industry's premier showcase for independent films -- cannot be overstated. It is critical to the future artistic health of the movie industry that people who write character-driven screenplays and make films without car crashes and gunplay have a place to develop their work and later screen it before an audience.

While many individuals at the Sundance Institute make these things happen, Redford, the hands-on chief, remains the driving force. His commitment, it appears, is for real. If Redford had done nothing else, his founding of the Sundance Institute would be enough.

But he has, and moviegoers everywhere benefit, however fleetingly, from his influence and tutelage to new generations of hopeful cinematic artists.

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