Robert Redford: The Biography

Image of Robert Redford: The Biography
Release Date: 
May 2, 2011
Reviewed by: 

Biographer Michael Feeney Callan gives a strong indication of what we may expect from his new work, an exhaustively researched volume on the career of actor, filmmaker, and champion of independent filmmakers everywhere (by virtue of his creation of the Sundance Film Festival)—Robert Redford—by simply reading the title that he gave his own work. Faced with a multitalented, hugely famous, and yet still mysterious Hollywood icon as his subject matter, the best and most creative title he can come up with is Robert Redford: The Biography.

And yet, no one can accuse him of false advertising.

Considering the title, the reader takes away that the book is a biography—which it is, rather refreshingly in this day of cut-and-paste documents that purport to be biographies by are, instead, slack-jawed articles of affection for this or that Bieber or Cyrus, or, worse, various volumes of “memoirs” of life as a drug mule or a seeker of Truth in pasta-laden Italy. No, this is a biography of the old school, the sort that involves actual research, travel, interviews with those close to the subject and, if one is very, very lucky, as Mr. Callan has been, access to the subject in question—and perhaps even a blessing given by that subject.

This seems to be the case. In his acknowledgements, Mr. Callan writes, “Robert Redford was a gracious host. His generosity goes without saying, but his trust was the greater gift. Because of him, I had the opportunity to talk with [Redford’s children] Jamie Redford, Shauna Redford Schossler, Amy Hart Redford, and [Redford’s present wife] Sibylle Szaggars, and their candid insights proved invaluable.”

The other fact that the title presents is that it is written about Robert Redford. But there’s the rub, because, the reader wonders as he makes his way through the true-life story: Will the real Robert Redford ever appear in these pages?

Perhaps it is the logical outcome when one writes about a subject as super-sized as Redford, or when that golden being invites you into his own home (the apparently aptly named “Big House”), but the book as written seems to be a book that has been pre-read by eyes other than the reader’s squinty own, and just as carefully gone over as interviews on television talk shows have been rehearsed via the process of the “pre-interview.” The result is a meal that seems to have been pre-digested elsewhere and returned to the plate, sans seasoning.

Through nearly 500 pages of career highs and lows, of poor childhoods yielding to prosperous and vibrant young adulthoods, of ambitions achieved, love found and lost and found again, of birth and death, the one thing missing from these pages is the man known as Robert Redford.

Not the actor. He is here. Not the visionary nor the political activist. They are here as well. Even the artist; he is well represented here: from the young man who ran away to Europe to see if he could survive, both as an artist and as a young person on his own for the first time, and found, to his great sorrow, that he could not and returned home—as does Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner: sadder but wiser.

But the man Robert Redford—the husband, the father—he never seems to appear in these pages. Not so that the reader can say that he can recognize him. Not so that the reader can say that, upon closing the book, he does so with a greater knowledge of Mr. Redford than he had when he began reading.

Robert Redford: The Biography is an exhaustive (all meanings of the word intended) look at Mr. Redford’s career, with special emphasis given to the fact that he is far more of an artist than a businessman and that he is, at all times, from youth to old age, more than willing to roll the dice and to risk a great deal for those things that matter to him, most especially the Sundance Festival, about which, in the book’s last pages, the author quotes Redford’s son as saying, “I tell him to go back to Sundance, that that’s his destiny, that’s the final frontier, as well as filmmaking (both acting and directing) and political and environmental causes.

Indeed, what little insight into the life and character of Robert Redford the man is hidden between the lines of the book, rather than presented directly. For instance, the reader was surprised to learn that, in his youth, Redford had been stricken by polio and, for a time, lay paralyzed by the disease. He recovered, though, within a paragraph of two, and went on to other things. In the same way, the loss of Redford and wife Lola’s first child is smoothed over quickly, as is the rather interesting insight that Lola came into the marriage a devout Mormon and that Mr. Redford for a period of his life was involved with Mormonism as well.

But much—way, way too much for the sake of something that is termed a biography—happens off stage, with the reader being told only that this or that was the outcome, before we are off to consider the means by which this film was cast or that film hit at the box office. Nowhere are we given insights into Redford’s relationships—although we are teased with the fact that he and Natalie Wood, for instance, shared a special friendship, and that Kim Bassinger offered him solace of a sorts while they made the film The Natural together while his marriage was falling apart—something that was much hinted about by gossips at the time.

In terms of one specific relationship, however, the book has much to say, and, in fact, it is the dynamic between Redford and actor/director Sydney Pollack that is the most satisfying aspect of the book and the means by which the reader receives not only the best insights into what makes Redford tick as a human being, but also gets the best information of movie making and the best laughs as well.

Take for example, Barbra Streisand’s comments about the making of The Way We Were, which Pollack directed:

“I just loved working with him [Redford]. Every day was an exciting adventure. We played well together—in the moment, slightly different, slightly unknowing, always interesting. He’s a man of depth who has what it takes to be a great movie star: mystery behind the eyes.”

Now consider that in comparison with Pollack’s comments:

“Each of them was a pain in the ass from time to time because they both knew how they liked to be presented; I directed, but they would challenge it. At Malibu, we went on for hours because she had a favorite profile, and I had to play around to satisfy both.”

Throughout the book, Pollack gets the best lines—at times even threatening to wrest the story away from its subject, as he seems to be the more interesting person, and certainly the bigger mensch.

Together they made some of the great movies of their era, from The Way We Were, to Out of Africa, to Three Days of the Condor, to Redford’s own favorite of his movies Jeremiah Johnson, to the underappreciated Havana. And together, their collaboration, their mutual respect and their ongoing sense of competition (Pollack was said to be jealous of Redford’s success and Oscar for Ordinary People, Redford was said to be just as jealous of Pollack’s Tootsie) gives the book a dynamic, a heart that it would otherwise lack.

Indeed, Pollack issues the best assessment of Redford (and, inadvertently, this biography) in the final pages of the book:

“Redford stands for the industry itself, in all its California dreaminess. . . . He was this phenomenon who satisfied everyone’s dream of rebellion, and then he settled down to make cozy movies. He was never forgiven. Take Stallone. He tried comedy and he made a good fist of it, but they threw it out. Take Woody [Allen]. He’s allowed to make a certain kind of movie, but dare he move out of the box? Same with a star like Bob. It’s a deal with the devil. He will always be thirty, blond. Perfection. There will be moments when smart critics will cut through it, but even the best of them want the idealized actor. They want the continuance, but no one wants the death of fantasy, no one can stand too much reality.”

Fans of Mr. Redford will be given much to satisfy them as they turn the pages, details on all the man’s movies to date, as well as a detailed history of Sundance and 30-odd pages of photographs of what is arguably one of the most photogenic faces that the film world has ever seen. But fans of the biography as art form may be a bit taken aback and may well close the volume thinking how bloated a work can become when authors, like fans, avoid too much reality.