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Robert Redford

Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan (Alfred A. Knopf; $28.95; 468 pages)

Robert Redford is a glamorous and gorgeous biography of a man the book’s editor viewed as “undervalued” as an artist.   Callan fully makes his case that Redford is an actor, an artist, of substance.   I have never before read an actor’s bio that makes me want to sit down and watch every one of the films mentioned within it; which is a measure of the seriousness with which Callan treats his subject.

Callan does three things that an actor’s biographer should do…  Firstly, he explains how and why Redford went into acting, after originally considering a career as a painter or illustrator.   Secondly, he goes to great lengths to help us understand how intelligent Redford, the man, is.   In some cases, this involves using long quotes from Redford about acting or politics.   No matter the subject, the actor-director’s comments are always deep and thorough.   And thirdly, he helps us to observe a career in which the actor grew and began to hit his peak at the young age of 34.

Callan writes that Redford, at 34, became “a far more internal actor.”   A director was to say of Redford:

“He surprised me.   He was running around with me, doing all the production things…  But then the shooting started, and he retreated inside himself.   So much of it was mime.   And to mime, you need some extraordinary composure because if you are going to be self-conscious, this is where it will show.   

…honesty took him to this very, very calm place.   Everything became minimalistic, very contained.   I did not direct that pacing.”

Indeed, Callan makes the fine point that Redford established  himself as an actor of silence, a man who left us wanting more from his character’s mouths but appreciating them as they were filmed.   Think, for example, about the silences of Hubell in The Way We Were, or as the ballplayer Hobbs in The Natural.   Then think about how different the role of Hubell would have been played by, say, Jack Nicholson!

Callan’s research is quite impressive except in one instance.   At one point, while preparing to film the provocative film The Candidate (both California Governor Jerry Brown and U. S. Senator John Lindsay thought the film was based on their real-life careers), a writer proposed a scene in which the fictional candidate McKay – played by Redford – would don the gift of an Indian headdress.   Redford absolutely refused to consider this, and Callan presumes it is based on the actor’s respect for American Indian tribes.   It’s more likely that Redford was aware of John Kennedy’s vow, during his successful run for president in 1960, to never do either of two things:  wear a hat/place anything on his head, or hold or kiss a baby.

Like Paul Newman and his vaunted Newman’s Luck, Redford has had great instincts throughout his long, successful career.   Callan shows us how, early on, Redford elected to play an outlaw (an escaped convict) instead of an establishment figure.   Making similar choices with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting was to cement his success later.   Newman and Redford, we come to see, were both actors of skill who were also blessed with the best of luck.   Perhaps they were both fated to choose the right roles in the right films at the right time.

Robert Redford: The Biography is, in its entirety, an excellent and valuable overview of Robert Redford, the man whose career has been one – in Michael Feeney Callan’s words – of “adventurous disinhibition.”  

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Giving Away the Books

Thanks to Doubleday Publishing, we have three (3) copies to give away of a memoir that was released just a week ago today, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg.   This hardcover release with a Deckle Edge has a value of $26.00 and runs 416 pages.   Here is the official synopsis:

 “Avi Steinberg is stumped.   While his friends and classmates advance in the world, he remains stuck at a crossroads, unable to meet the lofty expectations of his Harvard education and Orthodox Jewish upbringing.   And his romantic existence as a freelance obituary writer just isn’t cutting it.   Seeking direction – and dental insurance – Steinberg takes a job as a librarian in a tough Boston prison.   Over time, Steinberg is drawn into the accidental community of outcasts that has formed among his bookshelves – a drama he recounts with heartbreak and humor.   But when the struggles of the prison library – between life and death, love and loyalty – become personal, Steinberg is forced to take sides.   Running the Books is a trenchant exploration of prison culture and an entertaining tale of one young man’s earnest attempt to find his place in the world while trying not to get fired in the process.”

Here are some early comments on this book:

“Acidly funny…  Steinberg proves to be a keen observer, and a morally serious one.   His memoir is wriggling and alive – as involving, and as layered, as a good coming-of-age novel.”   Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Hysterical, ingenious, illuminating.   I wish I had left yeshiva for prison right away.”   Gary Shteyngart, bestselling author of Super Sad True Love Story.

Running the Books presents [Steinberg’s] experiences working in the prison’s library as a fiendishly intricate moral puzzle, sad and scary, yes, but also – and often – very funny.”   Salon.com

If you would like to try to win one of the three available copies of this unique – and clearly funny – memoir, just post a comment here or send an e-mail with your name and e-mail address to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   To submit a second entry, tell us briefly about the most unusual or strange job you’ve ever had.   Did you like it or hate it?   Did you learn anything from it?

This is it for the complex contest rules.   To be eligible for this giveaway, you must live in the continental U.S. and have a residential mailing address.   Books cannot be shipped to P. O. boxes or business-related addresses.  As always, the winners will be drawn at random by our experienced contest administrator, Munchy the cat.   (Munchy reserves the right to change this contest’s rules and/or dates at any time.   That’s because he’s the boss.)  

You have until midnight PST on Saturday, November 20, 2010 to get your entry or entries in.   Good luck and good reading!

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