By Scott Holleran
Robert Redford is among Hollywood’s last, great movie stars. Turner Classic Movies (TCM) features him as January’s Star of the Month on Tuesdays in 2015. Host Robert Osborne told me his thoughts on the iconic actor, director and producer during an exclusive recent interview. This is an edited transcript.
Scott Holleran: We’re talking about TCM’s first 2015 Star of the Month, Robert Redford. Let’s start with one of his few failures, Havana, (1990), one of several pictures he made with director Sydney Pollack. Why did it bomb?
Robert Osborne: For one thing, I thought he didn’t look very good in it. I thought he was badly photographed. I don’t know what happened but I’ve rarely seen a movie that protects its star less. One of Robert Redford’s greatest assets is his good looks. I’m not surprised though because any movie is such a gamble. They splice scenes together and it gets edited. That it works out at all, given the way a movie is made, is a miracle to me.
Scott Holleran: Have you seen Robert Redford’s film debut, which also features Sydney Pollack in his acting debut, in War Hunt (1962)?
Robert Osborne: Yes, I did. I saw that way back at the time. He just has a great look about him. He had such star quality. We’re showing War Hunt during January.
Scott Holleran: Is Mr. Redford scheduled to appear on TCM?
Robert Osborne: No. He doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore. I know he did a thing in Atlanta with Jane Fonda. It was some fundraiser—and apparently she did something for him—but I’m told that he was not at all pleasant about it. We’ll be showing The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jeremiah Johnson, War Hunt, This Property is Condemned, Barefoot in the Park, Inside Daisy Clover, The Chase, Out of Africa, The Way We Were and The Great Gatsby (1974).
Scott Holleran: Which is the least known motion picture to be featured?
Robert Osborne: War Hunt. Gatsby is kind of new for us. The Way We Were is such a killer—it’s such a good film. We’ll be doing something new in February, too. Our “31 Days of Oscar” [programming] in February starts with the first four films to win Best Picture. On our last night, we’re showing No Country for Old Men, The King’s Speech and The Artist.
Scott Holleran: Which Robert Redford movie would you love to show but can’t?
Robert Osborne: I love Butch Cassidy and The Sting but one of my favorites is Situation Hopeless … But Not Serious. I like that film—and I think he’s very good in Barefoot in the Park and Downhill Racer—and The Hot Rock is great fun. Maybe the one that I don’t think we have that is such a magnificent one is All the President’s Men. And it’s kind of what he’s all about. It’s so nerve-wracking and suspenseful yet you know how the story ends. I thought it was just a great movie—a great movie about newspapers and about so many things—and they created such a suspenseful dynamic.
Robert Osborne: —Right. It is interesting to see how long it took him to click. Even in Barefoot in the Park, he got top billing over Jane Fonda and everyone liked him but he didn’t catch fire until Butch Cassidy and The Sting and The Way We Were. I’m not sure why it didn’t happen with The Chase and those other 60s’ films such as Inside Daisy Clover. I’m just surprised that more people didn’t start clamoring for him sooner, especially when you’re good-looking like that.
Scott Holleran: But it’s in the 1960s that Mr. Redford’s career was established as a counterculture type with movies such as The Chase, This Property is Condemned, Butch Cassidy and Tell Them Willie Boy is Here. Did his success take root in the underlying sense that he’s really a movie star?
Robert Osborne: I think so, yes. It’s the same way with Paul Newman. I don’t know either of them but Newman’s friend Barbara Rush once told me that Newman always regretted that he didn’t look like Wallace Beery. He thought he would have had better roles. Redford and Newman both always distanced themselves from their good looks.
Scott Holleran: Let’s talk about Robert Redford’s directing. Does Ordinary People deserve Best Picture?
Robert Osborne: I’m not sure. I think it’s really good—I’m just not sure it’s that good. I think it’s really interesting and well done but to me it doesn’t have the stature I want the Best Picture to have. But that’s a personal preference. It’s also very telling that his only Academy Award is for directing. He’s never won an Oscar for acting.
Scott Holleran: He’s in good company in that arena—
Robert Osborne: —He certainly is.
Scott Holleran: Is Quiz Show (1994), which he also directed, underrated?
Robert Osborne: Yes. That’s a terrific movie. I thought that was a real exposure film like All the President’s Men. It’s about honor. It really says something and it’s really beautifully made and, of course, I loved seeing Paul Scofield (A Man for All Seasons). It says something that people have clout and know how to use it wisely. That picture shows that Robert Redford had clout and used it well—it wasn’t something just to make money—and his movies always say something. It’s the same with Clint Eastwood, another actor who, like Redford, started acting on television. It’s really using muscle to make something that matters. And both became good directors.
Robert Osborne: I think it does. It’s beautiful. It requires being shown on a big screen. It does serious damage to a movie like that to be shown anywhere but on the big screen. The one thing for me that Redford should have worked harder at was to have a British quality to his character [Denys] because the fact that his character is British has a lot to do with the way he behaves. It’s the same with Warren Beatty as the Italian boytoy in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961)—that would be more credible with an actor like Alain Delon—and Out of Africa would have been better had Robert Redford been more British, less American.
Scott Holleran: Is The Way We Were one of the great movies about Hollywood?
Robert Osborne: I think so—I love it because it says something about human behavior and about that blacklisted period. Barbra Streisand’s character is so dedicated to her cause. It’s one of the great Streisand movies, but at the beginning of her career when she played people who were not attractive and she knew she wasn’t attractive. She was so good. It’s only when Streisand started acting in roles where she thought she was beautiful that she kind of lost it, like in The Mirror Has Two Faces in that scene where that guy—I think it’s the Jeff Bridges character—grabs her and says ‘oh, my god’ [you’re beautiful] and she’s lit that way. She’s so adorable and beautiful when looks don’t matter with her but when she plays it the other way, like, ‘look at how gorgeous I am,’ that’s when you don’t buy it. It’s so real and beautiful and she’s so willing to give him up in The Way We Were. She’s not just giving mouth to something—she’s still adamant about standing up for her rights—and that’s what makes her admirable.
Scott Holleran: Is The Great Gatsby (1974) a failure?
Robert Osborne: [Pauses] I don’t think so. I don’t think it truly works. I just saw the Alan Ladd version and that doesn’t work either. The problem is that they never get the right Daisy. I love Mia Farrow but you never feel that he’s going to give it up for her. It’s the same in the Alan Ladd version as in the 1974 or more recent version—you need an actress as dazzling as Hedy Lamarr or Ava Gardner [to portray Daisy Buchanan]—she’s got to be the whole woman, the whole package, especially when [Gatsby] looks like Robert Redford. I don’t think the version with Leonardo DiCaprio works, either. It’s the director showing off too much.
Scott Holleran: Does it say something about the culture that so many of Robert Redford’s heroic movie characters end up compromised, unhappy or dead?
Robert Osborne: I think it’s more about storytelling than anything. [Pauses] It could be the culture. It could be what audiences were pushing him towards. We have 50 years of John Wayne to judge him by. Redford kind of came from a time when it didn’t really pay off to be good-looking. He should have been leading in the days of Tyrone Power. He came in that Dustin Hoffman-Al Pacino era and he was fighting something that was not his doing—when people wanted movie heroes to look like everyone else. That’s when glamour went out of movies.
Scott Holleran: After Robert Redford’s epics such as The Natural and Out of Africa, he chose a romantic comedy, Legal Eagles, and didn’t return to the epic for another commercially successful picture. Did his leading man status peak in the mid-1980s?
Robert Osborne: [Pauses] I think it did. It peaked right after The Sting and The Way We Were but I think it had to do with the time. It just wasn’t what moviegoers wanted. You used to go to see Grace Kelly and movie stars that were beautiful and magnificent and didn’t look like anyone you knew.
Scott Holleran: Let’s talk about the impact of Robert Redford’s politics. He is a paragon of the radical New Left, with pictures such as Incident at Oglala and The Company You Keep which attempt to mitigate and dramatize leftist criminal or terrorist attacks on the government and he’s a devoted believer in the ecology movement. Do audiences like Robert Redford—as they do with John Wayne—in spite of his politics?
Robert Osborne: No. John Wayne is just like a tree, like Katharine Hepburn—they’ve been around so long. You want John Wayne there when ISIS comes to wipe everyone out. I don’t think audiences think that way about Robert Redford. He’s more cerebral; we like him but we don’t really know him. The others are great heroes. John Wayne was complicated but solid. I was reading Scott Eyman’s biography [of John Wayne] and I was fascinated that he never tried to talk about politics between scenes for a movie. He never tried to change other people’s political views. With Robert Redford, people don’t feel like they know him. He’s more guarded.
Scott Holleran: Three Days of the Condor forecast the surveillance state and another of his box office disappointments, Lions for Lambs, forecast the debacle of Iraq. How much of Robert Redford’s legacy is rooted in a savvy sense of a meaningful theme?
Robert Osborne: I give him a lot of credit for producing, directing and acting in movies with stories that are relevant. He grabs a hold of movies that matter. He hasn’t just coasted along.
Scott Holleran: Mr. Redford’s Sundance Film Festival arguably legitimized and mainstreamed the film festival and had an enormous impact on motion pictures. Has the film festival helped or hurt classic movies?
Robert Osborne: I think it’s helped a great deal. Ours is so successful—it’s different when you see Casablanca with 2,000 people. You see things you haven’t seen before. To see Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand three stories tall and share that with hundreds of people, there’s just something about that communal experience going back to the days of the ancient Greeks. It’s like seeing a ball game and hearing the roar of the crowd.
Scott Holleran: Robert Redford was born in Santa Monica and grew up in southern California, yet Sydney Pollack once told me that Mr. Redford essentially succeeded in never going Hollywood and Robert Redford ultimately came to represent the opposite of the Hollywood status quo. Is Robert Redford the un-Hollywood movie star?
Robert Osborne: Yes. He defines it. He really worked against it. That’s why he and Paul Newman became friends because Newman was the same way. He thought it would irk his being an actor to go to all the parties in Hollywood and hang out with studio heads. They both knew that it can really mess with your acting ability.
Robert Osborne: No.
Scott Holleran: Fundamentally, is Robert Redford, as a movie star, a throwback to Hollywood—?
Robert Osborne: —Yes. And he can’t help that. It’s just the way he looks.