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.”
This book was purchased by the reviewer.