'Robert Redford: The Biography' gallops after slow start
A biography about one of Hollywood's greatest leading men should be hard to put down, especially considering his off-screen achievements and real love interests.
Instead, "Robert Redford" is a slow read from the start with its lengthy lead-in about the actor's forebears.
Michael Feeney Callan spent 14 years researching, interviewing and traipsing in the 74-year-old star's footsteps and has provided great insights into a man who shied from public scrutiny throughout a luminous career.
Readers find out what has moved and driven this iconic star, from his days as a child in a dysfunctional family and a young man who brushed with pretty serious delinquency. He studied art, dropped out of the Pratt Institute, turned to theater and then got to Hollywood, where the ride was bumpy until he got on the missile to fame that was "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" in 1969.
Mr. Redford reigned as a box-office draw for most of the next 30 years. During that time, he was also in retreat of Hollywood, having come to loathe Southern California, where he spent his youth. At 21, he married Lola Van Wagenen, a 19-year-old from Utah. He told the author that he found the grounding he was desperate for in her and her Mormon family.
The couple lived in an A-frame he built in the mountains of Utah, where they raised three children before divorcing in the 1980s.
Mr. Redford is revealed as a deep-thinking and honorable man who has chosen his projects on principle and a reverence for the environment, which he has championed as an activist on the national level for years.
His acting may be underrated precisely because of his good looks. Most curious about his sex appeal, though, is the lack of chemistry he had with almost all of his female co-stars. The notable exception is Jane Fonda, with whom he starred in "Barefoot in the Park" and sizzled with in "The Electric Horseman" in 1979.
But it was as a director that he renewed himself.
Regarded as an instinctive, incisive and generous director, he won an Oscar on his first attempt, for the exquisite "Ordinary People."
The author says Mr. Redford had prickly relationships in the making of several of his movies, most notably with Sydney Pollack. But the two men had a foundational friendship and mutual respect and kept teaming up. With Mr. Pollack directing, Mr. Redford starred in "This Property Is Condemned" (1966), "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972), "The Electric Horseman," "Out of Africa," (1985) and "Havana" (1990).
The book is chronological as an almost definitive text, with an end-of-book list of every Redford credit.
It covers the actor's family life, his close friendship with Paul Newman, his co-star in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting," and the women he loved after his first marriage. In 2009, he married Sibylle Szaggars, an artist from Germany.
Mr. Redford's greatest film production was the Sundance Institute and Film Festival in Park City, Utah. It was his mission to create a place where up-and-coming filmmakers could get an audience for works that were at least initially not commercial.
At the outset, he brought together about 20 friends and colleagues to figure out how to make it happen. In the first years, it walked on wobbly legs, then he whispered it into a full canter. The little indie film incubator, which he ran in part with his brother-in-law, has since become an international destination for not just new filmmakers but tourists.
It was easy to watch Mr. Redford on film and it is easy to admire him beyond it. Many of his statements in the book contribute to this admiration, but there is one that stands out.
During the development of the Sundance resort, he was in partnership with a tax management expert named Gary Hendler, who made a lot of money for many movie stars.
At one point, Mr. Hendler goaded the actor, "Sean [Connery] is doing three movies a year. You can be like Sean. You can use this money for the resort." Mr. Redford responded:
"Who made the world? An accountant? No, it was made from chaos, and creativity led the way out of the chaos, so for God's sake let us focus on the creativity."
First Published September 11, 2011 12:00 am