Robert Redford plays an ageing anti-war activist in his latest movie, 'The Company You Keep' – just one more incarnation in an ever-changing image.
Robert Redford's new film sees the Hollywood liberal play a craggy radical, hiding away from a criminally subversive past under an assumed name. Once the FBI rumbles him, the agents on his trail spend some time comparing the image of his lined face to that of his much younger, 1970s, moustachioed self.
Cinema audiences across the world have travelled down that same long, ageing trail with Redford too, watching as his luminous youth in the role of Bubber in the 1966 film The Chase was gradually replaced, first by the poised cynicism of The Candidate and then by the stately leading man in Out of Africa or the worn-out sleaze of his Indecent Proposal to Demi Moore. Yet, as a man, Redford's radical zeal remains undimmed.
The Company You Keep, which the 76-year-old also directed, tells the story of an anti-Vietnam war activist who has been forced to reinvent himself. It is a notion familiar to the actor in real life, who has a habit of "returning to zero" to refresh himself and look at things again.
"It gives you a kind of energy," Redford has said. "It's recharging, and it allows you to keep taking chances rather than getting safe with the ones you've taken."
This spring the man with the solar-powered smile has returned to public life with just this sort of renewed vigour. On Wednesday he will be in London's O2 venue to launch Sundance London, a three-day independent film festival that sprang from the non-profit event he set up in 1981 in Utah and named after his role in the western that made him a household name in 1969, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Earlier this month Redford revealed that he is to make and narrate a television documentary about the real events behind another of his totemic film roles – as the journalist Bob Woodward in All The President's Men. Director Alan J Pakula's 1976 Oscar-winner told the story of the Washington Post reporters who helped uncover the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Nixon.
Of all Hollywood's veteran stars, Redford has perhaps shown the most unyielding attitude to the fripperies of the town. Maybe because he was born there, in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Monica in 1936, he has little trouble rejecting its values or its celebrity guff. When Paris Hilton jetted into Utah for his festival in January, he spoke out angrily against her presence.
"What movie is she in?" he asked at a press conference. "She and her hard-partying, swag-grabbing cohorts have made the festival not much fun. There are too many people who come to the festival to leverage their own self-interest."
Redford is aligned with the anti-gun lobby in Hollywood, questioning the level of violence in entertainment, and he is even prepared to doubt the validity of his own festival, admitting earlier this year that he would "probably not" set up Sundance now. "There are too many festivals," he explained, although his own brand is now an established source of fresh offerings, such as last year's Beasts of the Southern Wild. The London festival will feature Michael Winterbottom's racy new film about Paul Raymond, The Look of Love, and a dark British rural thriller, In Fear.
In contrast, Redford's own direction is sometimes criticised as plodding and safe. In 1980, however, he won an Oscar for directing Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People. The film now looks tame, but at the time it daringly lifted the lid on a disintegrating upper-class US family.
Addressing real issues
The Company You Keep, based on the novel by Neil Gordon, has so far won two awards from the Venice Film Festival and is a hard look back at the radical era that made Redford. As a young actor in the late 1960s, he followed the leftwing organisation Weather Underground, founded on the University of Michigan campus with the express aim of overthrowing the American government.
"I supported their cause because I also thought the Vietnam war, just like the Iraq war, was built and sold on a faulty premise," Redford has said. He saw the risks members took and watched the movement destroy itself. "I thought, 'Gee, there's quite a story in this. I don't think it's a story I want to tell right now'," he has recalled. Now, with the help of stars Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Jenkins and Julie Christie, who are working for low rates, the time is right. Despite his illustrious cast, Redford feels he has joined the ranks of the struggling independent film-makers.
"I've got skin in the game," he said at Sundance. "I am now living in the same stream as the film-makers we support."
Most recently he has spoken out against the sale of 70 Hopi tribal masks at auction in Paris this month, dubbing it "sacrilege", while last year he made an agitprop film, Watershed, about scarce water resources, supplying free copies of the film to anyone hosting a screening.
"Films like Watershed are a necessary part of the solution. Raising awareness of the problem is a first step. Engaging the masses in taking action comes next, and in this case action means conservation," Redford said. But earnest campaigning has always gone hand in hand with sex appeal for Redford. His fellow liberal, "Hanoi Jane" Fonda, with whom he co-starred in The Chase, Barefoot in the Park and The Electric Horseman, was recently asked by Oprah Winfrey for a word to sum Redford up. She said, "sexy". Before Robert Pattinson, before Leonardo DiCaprio (now taking on Redford's screen role of Jay Gatsby), and before Tom Cruise, Redford was the go-to goodlooker. The actor swears he does not like his own face, though, and finds it hard to direct himself because he does not like looking at it.
Redford's career has been littered with happy screen partnerships. At first came Paul Newman, who was Butch to his Sundance and then starred with him in the stylish con movie, The Sting. Redford has spoken of his regret about not making the Bill Bryson walking movie with Newman before he retired. He will now walk those Appalachian paths with Nick Nolte for director Richard Linklater later this year.
"A Walk in the Woods is the kind of movie that has something to say but can also be really commercial because it's just so funny," Redford said. "It will be nice to get back to doing a comedy."
The actor has also memorably played opposite Barbra Streisand, in The Way We Were, and Dustin Hoffman, who played reporter Carl Bernstein to his Woodward. Redford's new documentary about the Watergate investigation was celebrated this month with an Annie Leibovitz photo shoot at the Washington newspaper offices. Hoffman was absent, but Redford joined former editor Ben Bradlee, played by Jason Robards in the film, and the two real life reporters. His two-hour special, All The President's Men Revisited, comes to the Discovery Channel later in the year and heralds a series of new Sundance Productions that Redford hopes will "address critical stories across a multitude of relevant platforms". Speaking to the BBC, he said he had lost faith in newspapers and believed documentaries had replaced them as a main source of investigative journalism.
An Obama supporter at first, Redford has also lost faith there too, particularly with Congress's progress on future fuel sources. He frequently bemoans government's tendency "to think short, short term, and therefore apply short-term solutions to longer-term problems".
At school in California young Redford was bored and a poor student. "My eyes were always out the window," he has said, so he travelled through Europe and returned in the 1950s to find his country "full of propaganda about how great we were and how we won the war".
Back in New York, struggling as an actor, he married a mormon college student and neighbour, Lola Van Wagenen, and the couple had four children. Their first, Scott, died of sudden infant death syndrome at two months. The couple stayed together for 30 years and, even after their divorce, were united in their fight to support their son Jamie through a critical transplant operation.
Since 2009, Redford has been married to the German-born Sybelle Szaggers. The couple met at Sundance and now split their time between Utah and a home in Arizona. Redford claims he must spend as much time "in nature" as he does working.
Despite being mocked for what one critic of The Company You Keep has called his "camp-counsellor manner" on screen, Redford still represents America's brave but ailing self-confidence. If Clint Eastwood is forever the unspeaking, vengeful cowboy, then Redford is a disillusioned, hopeful counterpoint.
He admits to some optimism in the face of all his foes: "I watch younger people, and there seems to be a lot of attention paid to child rearing, putting in time with the kids, expressing a lot of love and being really smart about it. Maybe I'm looking at a very small segment of society, but this generation of babies, they're going to grow up with a whole lot more of love that's been expressed. And some day they'll be out there making decisions with a value system that might help turn around some things that have been so devalued in our society." – © Guardian News and Media 2013