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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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That Was the Year That Was

The year 1960 was a monumental one during which this country elected John Kennedy as its president.   But the book 1960 – LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign That Forged Three Presidencies illustrates once again that more is less.   Instead of writing a book about President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson or the losing presidential candidate Nixon, David Pietrusza attempts to cover them all at once; as a result more is lost than gained.

One basic problem is that the backgrounds and life events of these three separate large characters in U.S. history (and modern politics) are covered rapidly.   For the reader who has already read full biographies of JFK, LBJ and Richard Nixon, far too much is missed or condensed down to Reader’s Digest style summaries.   On the flip side, the reader who has never read in depth about these figures will likely be unable to comprehend some of what he/she is reading due to the very facts and circumstances that are left out.

I’ll provide an example of the latter problem.   One of the events that made Nixon a major, but young, political figure in the late 1950’s was his involvement in investigating Alger Hiss.   That is mentioned on just two pages in 1960 and what’s missing is an explanation of the key evidence found against Hiss that Nixon relied upon in alleging that Hiss was a Communist and/or a spy (notwithstanding that Hiss worked in the U.S. State Department for Franklin D. Roosevelt and was once the Secretary-General of the United Nations).   There’s no explanation here of the microfilm found in a pumpkin or the typewriter that was supposedly found to have been used by Hiss to commit a forgery.   For the person who is not familiar with Nixon, it will seem that he is credited for “breaking” Hiss but it will be unclear as to exactly why.   Nixon’s role as a prosecutor is hazy without a sufficient review of the evidence he presented against Hiss.

There’s another issue.   The book jacket states:  “Like The Making of the President, 1960 by Theodore White – yet far more revealing than Kennedy camp insider White could ever be…  (it) has the narrative energy and suspenseful turns and twists of a headlong thriller.   Yet it’s all true.”   Well, we actually don’t know today what is and is not true about what is reported as fact in 1960.   For example, there’s an entire chapter – a somewhat odd and silly one – about Kennedy’s relationships with women (“They were a dime a dozen”); and statements about his father and brother Robert.   But these events happened so long ago that we do not, in truth, know what happened and what was alleged or was the product of someone’s imagination.

It’s also not clear what the impact of this information is supposed to be…  Enough said.   But, for me, the biggest fault with 1960 is that I never felt I was getting to know any of the three figures as human beings.   By contrast, Pietrusza shows some surprising skills by including some write-ups of peripheral figures that come off as much more real and human – individuals with true strengths and flaws.   Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller are two of the figures who come to life in 1960 in a way that the three lead subjects do not.

Finally, this is just not the suspenseful thriller touted on the book jacket.   For an excellent example of a non-fiction political/modern history book that does read like a Capitol thriller, the interested reader can turn to By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld by Bradley Graham.   Rules is an 832-page roller coaster ride that is never dull.   By comparison, 1960 is a 417-page survey that tries to cover the lives of three very large figures at one selected point in U.S. history.   It comes off as simultaneously both too big (focusing on three pivotal lives rather than one) and too small (leaving out too many key details while including a bit too much gossip).   As a result, it simply feels flat in the reading…   But maybe Pietrusza will produce a comprehensive biography of Hubert Horatio Humphrey or Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller; either would – no doubt – be quite interesting.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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