By Lynn Venhaus
Actor-filmmaker-founder of Sundance Film Institute Robert Redford turned 85 today! (Aug. 18).
He has been a major part of my film-going life, first as an actor, then making smart movies, and then deciding storytelling would be his life’s work through honoring independent films in Utah.
“Storytellers broaden our minds: engage, provoke, inspire, and ultimately, connect us,” he once said.
He has changed the film industry and changed lives.
Early on, he broke the mold in Hollywood and carved out a career on his own terms, living far from the celebrity life in Utah, raising a family and becoming an environmental activist.
He turned the perception of a ‘golden boy’ into an exploration of culture and society’s roles/expectations. (His movie, “Quiz Show” is rarely mentioned, but go back, and what he says about the American Dream — great work by Ralph Fiennes and John Turturro).
My sister Julie and I rushed to every one of his film openings in the 1970s after “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (when I was in high school), then hit after hit — “The Sting,” “The Way We Were,” “Three Days of the Condor,” “The Candidate” and “Jeremiah Johnson,” among them.
He was born to play the tortured hero Jay in “The Great Gatsby,” starring opposite Mia Farrow in the 1974 adaptation that did not measure up to expectations.
My boys used to give me DVDs of his work for Mother’s Days (and paired “The Natural” one time with “Serial Mom” — yep, that’s my John Waters’ loving son Tim’s idea of humor).
He gave us the definitive investigative journalism movie “All the President’s Men,” one of my all-time favorites and inspirations, explaining how the press changed the course of history in our country’s politics.
For his only competitive Oscar, he turned the bestselling book “Ordinary People” into an honest and painful study on families and grief in 1980.
I watched it again a couple months ago, and wow, does it resonate. Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton turn in some of their finest work. I will argue its value to anyone who wants to fight me on this.
His intelligence behind the baby blues, his sharp observations on human behavior — obvious early on in a remarkable filmography.
He only works sparingly in front of the camera these days, but I think he still has it – particularly in “The Old Man and the Gun” with Sissy Spacek,” “A Walk in the Woods” with Nick Nolte, and his solo tour de force “All is Lost.”
He has never been afraid to be a flawed anti-hero (“Downhill Racer”) or an all-out bad guy (spoiler alert: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”)
The on-screen pairings have been high points — so memorable as Denys with Meryl Streep in “Out of Africa.”
A good move was working with Brad Pitt in “Spy Game,” and he coaxed a career-best performance (at the time) from Pitt in “A River Runs Through It,” which he directed and narrated.
Of course, the pinnacle was his work with Paul Newman, and thus, the buddy movie was born.
And three films with Jane Fonda, They both started out on stage in the late 1950s and worked early together on film when he reprised his role as Paul in “Barefoot in the Park.” Then, reunited in “The Electric Horseman” in 1979 and “Our Souls at Night” in 2017.
In the Natalie Wood documentary, “What Remains Behind,” he is one of the commentators and remained a close friend, after they made two films together (“Inside Daisy Clover” and “This Property is Condemned” in the ’60s), before he exploded as a superstar. She, in turn, showed up in a cameo in “The Candidate.”
For a while in the 1990s, he experienced a screen ‘renaissance’ — “The Horse Whisperer,” “Indecent Proposal,” “Up Close and Personal” and “Sneakers.”
He will always be Hubbell Gardiner and Roy Hobbs to me, masterful screen portraits of complicated guys.
Cases in point:
Hubbell’s college writing: “In a way he was like the country he lived in — everything came to easily to him. But at least he knew it.
“Roy in hospital: “God, I love baseball.”
“There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game.”
Meryl’s Karen in “Out of Africa”: “When the gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers.”
And this:(Robert Redford) “You’ve ruined it for me, you know.”(Meryl Streep) “Ruined what?”(Robert Redford) “Being alone.”
You see all these being said, don’t you?
And of course, the “Be a Beacon” speech in “Sneakers.”
What great timing!
Thank you, Mr. Redford, for the memories and your lasting impact.
(On a Related Note: In January 2011, my two sons and I made the cut to be volunteer ushers at the Sundance Film Festival. It was a highlight of my life, and sharing it with my movie-loving boys was very special. Tim described it as the greatest two weeks of his life, and he saw something like 23-24 movies in 11 days).
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.