In 1929, Dorothy Parker, America’s funniest woman ever, did an interview with Ernest Hemingway for The New Yorker. He was at the height of his popularity and was quite the literary darling. At one point in the interview, Parker asked him what he meant by “guts.” He said he meant “courage…which is grace under pressure.”
Robert Redford recently announced he was retiring from making movies and would no longer act. Meaning the Robert Redford movies we have are the Robert Redford movies we’re gonna get. Whenever I watch him act, I always think of Hemingway’s line. There is a consistent gracefulness to the characters he plays, a kind of preternatural calm in the face of tremendous peril. It’s not that he plays characters who are flawless. Far from it. And they don’t always win, either. (Butch and Sundance don’t escape the siege by the Bolivian Army; they run straight into it.) Redford’s characters just acquit themselves properly in any given bad situation.
It’s why we love him in the movies. Of course, the fact that he may be one of the most beautiful men in the movies also doesn’t hurt. Those piercing eyes, the perfect and yet slightly tousled California blonde hair (he was born in Santa Monica, for heaven’s sakes), the aquiline nose…I could go on and on. And probably should stop before I embarrass myself. Let’s take a look at what I consider some of his best roles.
When I think about American movies, this is one that always comes to mind as an example of what Hollywood can crank out at its best. Paul Newman is Butch, a wise-cracking, slightly high-strung bank robber in the Old West who runs the Hole-In-The-Wall Gang with his pal, Sundance (Redford). Redford’s Sundance is taciturn and a bit cranky, but willing to go along for the ride with Butch. If Butch says we’re going to Bolivia, we’re going to Bolivia. This is one of the best pairings ever in moviedom. Is this what Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were really like? Who cares? In this film, Newman and Redford create a pair of characters who are witty, determined, improvisational, and graceful. Yes, they are outlaws. But they are the kind of outlaws we wish we could be.
Robert Redford is Joseph Turner, a book nerd who works at a secret CIA office in Midtown Manhattan. His job is to find secret messages in books published around the world. (Sounds like a great job to me!) But one day he steps out for lunch and when he comes back, everyone in his office has been murdered. And off we go as Turner tries to figure out what happened and who is after him. Suddenly, the quiet life he was leading is shattered and he becomes a hunted man. This is a great political thriller and Redford is magnificent here—terrified, yet calm, as he finds himself alone and adrift in New York City, a target for unknowable assassins. The cast also includes a marvelous performance by Faye Dunaway. If you’re looking for a good Friday night movie to watch after the kids have gone to bed, this is the one.
Talk about an odd couple—Dustin Hoffman is Carl Bernstein, a trollish and fast-talking college dropout, and his partner is Bob Woodward (Redford), the patrician WASP who graduated from Yale and turned down Harvard Law to become a reporter for the Washington Post. These two relentlessly pursued the Watergate story until it ended up bringing down the President. Redford is so convincing as Woodward that whenever I see the real Bob Woodward being interviewed on a news program I always think, “This isn’t what Bob Woodward looks like. Bob Woodward looks like Robert Redford.” My favorite moment in the movie? The two of them step into an elevator and Bernstein lights up a cigarette. “Do you have to smoke everywhere?” Woodward asks him quietly. I would put that cigarette out, Carl. He asked you nicely. Just put it out. Thank you.
Okay, show of hands: how many of you have even heard of this Robert Redford movie? It’s undeservedly obscure and it’s one of the funnier movies of the 1970s. Based on a novel by Donald Westlake with a screenplay by the magnificent William Goldman, this movie tells the story of John Dortmunder (Redford) who has recently gotten out of prison but decides to put his old gang together to steal an extremely valuable and enormous diamond. They are working for an African rebel leader named Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn), who is represented in this matter by his high-strung attorney, Abe Greenburg (Zero Mostel). Everything that can go wrong does, and Redford and his gang keep having to steal the diamond over and over again. This is one of the best caper movies of all time. So much fun.
This movie was quite the sensation among my high school friends. The very idea of a solitary mountain man living off the land and seeking revenge amid the spectacular scenery of the Rockies, well, that was the kind of manly man life we could only dream of as we rode city buses to another dull day at school. That mountain man was played by Robert Redford, all adorned in furs from animals he had trapped. Sigh. And here I was riding along wearing an Army surplus coat and goofy shoes. I wanna be Jeremiah Johnson! Side note: this actually is a marvelous movie. Directed by Sydney Pollack, from a script by Edward Anhalt and the great John Milius. I tell you what to do with your significant other: rent both movies and he can watch Jeremiah Johnson in one room and she can watch The Way We Were in another. Meet up afterwards and I can pretty much guarantee you both will have a very good evening, if you catch my drift.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.