Thursday, November 10, 2005

Redford in Pittsburgh

In The Candidate (1972), Robert Redford played a reluctant candidate for U.S. Senate. As the earnest son of a popular former California governor with whom he enjoys a less than smooth relationship, Redford's "Bill McKay" has a good face for TV but a clunky sense of political timing, and initially he fumbles and stumbles his way toward the spotlight. In the end he is seduced by the shallower aspects of electoral success, losing his sense of self in the process -- only to wonder somewhat helplessly after his victory is secure, "What do we do now?"

Though he was on Broadway for a number of years before becoming a film icon in the 1960s and 70s, Robert Redford is an uncomfortable public speaker, and speaking in Pittsburgh last night at Heinz Hall, he immediately reminded me of "Bill McKay," struggling to find his voice before the assembled crowd. He shambled sheepishly to the podium, with mussed hair, and before sitting down with WQED's Jim Cunningham (playing the role of a kind of local James Lipton, host of the far-too-precious Bravo series, Inside the Actors Studio), he delivered a halting, meandering address about the evils of the Bush administration's foreign and domestic policies (especially, concerning the latter, regarding Bush's "smirking" disregard of environmental protection). The crowd was mostly sympathetic (I only saw one blue-suited couple leave early), but Redford, like "Bill McKay," lacks the rhetorical gifts required to make his arguments anything more than platitudes or half-formed rallying points.

"I thought he sucked," said my red-headed wife, who was born well after the premiere of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The only drama in Redford's short political speech was retrospective, after the program, when it was revealed that as a 2005 recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, he will soon be dining with President Bush and the First Lady. Redford says President Bush and his gang "don't have a clue . . . and they don't want one." That should make for an interesting conversation starter over the appetizer course.

To be fair, I don't think people expect much from Robert Redford. He illustrated this with his own reminiscence about a speech he had to give in front of a convention of bankers during the early days of his development of Sundance. He remembers asking the organizers of the affair what it was these bankers wanted to hear from him, and being told, "It doesn't matter." Some remarks were prepared for him, but after glancing over them he decided he didn't like the text, so instead he went off on an impromptu rant about how difficult it is for small business owners to get loans from "you guys." The room fell quiet, and afterwards as the bankers filed out, one of them came over to shake Redford's hand. "Did I say something wrong?," Redford asked.

"No, that's okay," said the banker. "I was just wondering -- did you really make that jump into the gorge in Butch Cassidy?"

All that people really want are the behind-the-scenes anecdotes. To someone as detached and private as Redford is in real life, such evenings are no doubt an anathema -- but he soldiers through them, eager to sneak in a few plugs for independent filmmaking, for environmental protection and for a few other choice causes.

Cunningham ably took Redford through a series of questions, and seemed to warm Redford to the subject of "Robert Redford," as much as he didn't want to go there. We heard about Redford's early interest in drawing and painting -- about the 3rd grade teacher in L.A. who recognized his talent and had him tell stories in front of the class with a flip book of his own drawings, and about cadging drinks in Paris in exchange for sketches and portraits while living a starving-artist's life studying at the Beaux Arts -- and about his early auditions in New York, waiting all day to read opposite Jane Fonda for a part he didn't get. And we also heard that Meryl Streep is "a consummate professional," that Jane Fonda is "always buzzing underneath . . . a real American," that Demi Moore's got "a lot of heat," and that Barbra Streisand is "very smart, and erotic as all hell."

We also heard that Redford hasn't seen himself on screen all that often. He puts so much of himself into his work sometimes, he says, that the only way to get past it once a film is finished is to simply let it go -- with the result that there are some films of his that he still hasn't seen. He told a story about how recently he saw The Sting for the first time. His daughter and grandchildren were visiting him at Sundance, and one evening his daughter told Redford that she felt like getting a pizza, staying in and watching an "old movie."

So Redford and his grandson went down to pick out an "old movie," and Redford was startled to see The Sting in the "old movie" section. "Well," he said to his grandson, "I guess you've seen this one already." The boy replied that he had not. They brought it back home, where Redford proceeded to berate his daughter for not showing his films to her children, whereupon she asked, "Well, have you seen it?" He had to admit that he had not; but after watching it over a few slices of pizza, he also had to admit that it was "pretty good." He is almost apologetic now about not having seen it back in 1973, noting that he was out of the country making The Great Gatsby while the film enjoyed its success back home. He says he "had a lot of fun" working with his friend and mentor Paul Newman on The Sting, but that he had little idea of what was happening in the story while making the film. "He [Newman] would say, 'Do you understand what's going on here?' and I'd say, 'No, I haven't got a clue . . .'"

Robert Redford, as revealed in one conversation in one symphony hall on one rainy, blustery evening in the 'Burgh, often seems to have these unsolicited moments of self-reexamination and re-discovery pressed upon him by an appreciative public. He'd much rather be outdoors, alone, soaking up the Utah sunshine, than doing fundraising or Sundance "corporate," or anything else that puts him in the public eye as himself, or forces him to tread over the old and sacred ground of the past.

It is probably true that one of the reasons that he is so often cast in films as an aloof and detached lone wolf is that . . . this is precisely what he is. It is at least passably entertaining and a bit revealing to see such a man struggle through coming to terms with meeting his audience face to face, live and on stage -- glancing around nervously and wondering, "What do we do now?"

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