The undisputed star so far of the 40th Telluride Film Festival, Robert Redford received his second packed-to-the-rafters tribute this morning on top of the mountain at the Chuck Jones Cinema (each tributee must do two of these here — the Coen brothers and T Bone Burnett are up next tonight and Saturday morning). Considering he just went through the two-hour program 14 hours earlier and this one started at 9 AM, Redford was in great form and perhaps more introspective about his life and career than I have heard him in this kind of setting. At Friday night’s version of the tribute he was presented with the festival’s Silver Medallion (by surprise guest Ralph Fiennes, who starred in his Quiz Show). Of course Redford is being talked about in a big way for the Best Actor Oscar for his tour-de-force one-man starring role in J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, so a look back at his remarkable career can’t hurt. Although it wasn’t mentioned this morning, Redford incredibly has only been Oscar-nominated once as an actor, for the light-hearted The Sting (1973). He does have Oscars for his 1980 directorial debut, Ordinary People and an Honorary Oscar for his work with Sundance.
The first hour was devoted to a wide-ranging clip-by-clip look at his acting career beginning with the live TV production of The Iceman Cometh to such iconic film roles as Barefoot In The Park, The Candidate, Downhill Racer, Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, The Sting, Three Days Of The Condor, All The President’s Men, The Electric Horseman, Brubaker, The Natural and Out Of Africa. Of his nine films as a director the only clip shown was for A River Runs Through It which starred a young Brad Pitt — the one actor along with George Clooney whose career trajectory seems closest to Redford’s consistently intelligent and high-wattage movie star course over the last half century.
In a wide-ranging 43-minute conversation, Redford (and moderator John Horn) hit on a lot of topics: the state of the business today, his early days starting as an artist (he debunked the myth that he ever wanted to become a set decorator), his multi-film relationship with director Sydney Pollack, the long road to bringing All The President’s Men to the screen, his selection process for projects he gets involved in, and lots about All Is Lost which is screening separately at the festival. He also told a hilarious story about his first experience going to the Golden Globes when he received the Most Promising Male Newcomer of 1965. His impression of one Hollywood Foreign Press member who said he was “great in Dr. Zhivago” was priceless.
Redford said the most painful thing about all of this was looking at the clips. He doesn’t like to look at himself and has only seen his highly praised new film once when it premiered to a 10-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival in May where I also saw it.
For me the most interesting part of the entire conversation was when he agreed his entire on-sscreen career was truly an American one. But also one shaped by his view of his country, which is decidedly more shades of gray than red, white and blue. “It took me a long time to realize what I was doing because I was doing it subconsciously. But I think America is my subject. All of the work that I’ve done is about the country I have grown up in but not the country that was propagandized. When I came up as a kid during the Second World War there was a lot of propagandizing. One of the slogans I kept hearing was ‘it didn’t matter whether you won or lost, it was how you played the game’. Because I was playing the game I realized it was a lie, that everything mattered whether you won or lost…I got more interested in the America that I saw as more truthful than the one I saw being propagandized. The Red, White and Blue America to me had a big gray zone in the middle of it and that’s where I went. I wanted to tell the story about the complexity of a country that I loved. But I also wanted to get to the truth of what the country was all about. That’s where it all started for me… That propelled me over time and if I had any feelings about it I could put it into the work, and so I did,” he said.
He also talked in detail about the progression of his career from actor to director to Sundance enterprises and indie films to now, and noted that Chandor, whose Margin Call was developed with the assistance of Sundance, was the only filmmaker Sundance had ever bred who actually came to Redford and asked him to act in a movie. “I probably would have accepted it just because he came to me,” he laughed, but added that the mental and physical challenge of doing this story about a man adrift at sea appealed to him. Plus it was virtually dialogue-free and actually brought him back to his roots. “I had gone too far away from myself and doing All Is Lost allowed me to come back,” he said.
As to the future, the multi-faceted Redford cited the trajectory from two film roles, All Is Lost and 1972’s Jeremiah Johnson. “(They) share one thing in common. That is, at what point when times are tough and survival looks impossible, some just quit, they give up. Because it’s obvious they can’t go any further, that they can’t last any longer. And others just keep going. They don’t know anything more than to just continue…The character in All Is Lost just keeps going. And I guess that’s for me too. I will just keep going,” he said.