Robert Redford: The Golden Oldie
Not that Redford looks bad for 71, but he's been playing middle aged with such success for the last three decades it's a bit of a shock to see him up close and personal.
Apparently it was Redford's Out of Africa costar Meryl Streep who first got behind Matthew Michael Carnahan's screenplay Lions for Lambs - an earnest political drama about the rights and wrongs of US foreign policy post September 11. But it was Redford who took on directing duties, while Tom Cruise agreed to play a rightwing senator and got the film made at United Artists, the studio now run by his long-time producing partner Paula Wagner.
Although its box office prospects are only middling, this looks like a strategic move on Cruise's part. Having made an ass of himself two years ago with his antics on Oprah, and alienated many of his fans with his remarks about psychiatry and depression, he badly needed to re-establish his credibility. A hot-button prestige movie with Redford and Streep is a sure way to pick up some gravitas.
Cruise and Redford are very different animals - whatever his personal politics may be (and he's kept them to himself) Cruise came of age in the Reagan era, while Redford is basically a JFK liberal. What's more, he was an up and coming actor for ten years before fame came his way; Tom Cruise was a pin-up by the time he was 21. But they both became superstars on the strength of their boyish good looks, and they exude a similar diligent, clean-cut charisma. At 45, Cruise might well be looking at Redford's impressive career longevity and pondering what lessons he might learn.
Redford was 44 when he took the plunge into directing. He'd been one of the biggest stars in Hollywood for a little over a decade (Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid came out in 1969). Even in the 70s he was considered a bit of a throwback to the classical leading men of the 1940s. The really hip stars of that era were Nicholson, Pacino, Hackman and De Niro. But Redford chose thoughtfully, won kudos for his solo ventures (The Candidate; Jeremiah Johnson) and proved irresistible in package deals: with Paul Newman in The Sting; Barbra Steisand in The Way We Were; Faye Dunaway in Three Days Of The Condor; Dustin Hoffman in All The President's Men (which he also produced).
As the decade drew to a close Redford must have worried that things were slipping. Between 1977 and 1984 he only appeared in three films, none of them hits. But in this period he set up the Sundance Institute to foster independent filmmakers - which would take over the ailing US Film Festival in 1985. And he won the Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture with the carefully observed family psychodrama Ordinary People, which beat out Raging Bull in 1980.
Filmmaker and indie godfather: this was his finest reinvention, and a more complete makeover than he has allowed himself on screen. An innately cautious actor, he's always shied away from anything that might encroach on his golden boy image, and too many of his performances in the last ten or 20 years have been cloaked in a gauzy soft focus. Playing it safe hasn't exactly hurt his profile, but it hasn't allowed him to break any ground either.
I once had the opportunity to ask him about this and he claimed that it served the films better if he played the romantic leading man, even when his impulses as an actor might have led him down quirkier alleys. Be that as it may, it's impossible to imagine him taking the role of sex guru JT Mackey in Magnolia, for instance (or playing it half so well as Cruise did).
In many ways an admirable figure, not least for his lifelong espousal of environmental causes, Redford the man hasn't been getting such great write-ups lately.
Books by former friends and business associates like William Goldman and Mike Medavoy talk of personal betrayal ("What I learned about Bob is that he is difficult to be friends with because ultimately a friendship must be all on his terms," wrote Medavoy). Peter Biskind's "Down and Dirty Pictures" paints a portrait of an infuriatingly indecisive and vacillating employer, alternately hands-off and controlling, a charming narcissist who leaves scores of disenchanted collaborators in his wake. He also suggests Redford stole Quiz Show out from under Steven Soderbergh.
The funny thing is, disillusionment is one of Redford's pet subjects. It's a story he keeps on telling: how idealism meets compromise and disappointment. It's there in the earliest pictures he got made, in Downhill Racer and The Candidate, The Way We Were and The Great Gatsby, All the President's Men, Quiz Show, even Ordinary People.
"When I was young I was told all these things about how to conduct myself, how to live my life," he told me. "You're told things like, 'It doesn't matter if you win or lose, it's how you play the game,' and you find out that's just bullshit, that you live in a society where winning is everything… So maybe a lot of my work has to do with getting clear about that."
Interestingly, in his more recent work (in The Legend Of Bagger Vance and The Horse Whisperer, for instance) he's come at it from the opposite angle, as if he was trying to rekindle the hopes and dreams of his youth. In Lions for Lambs, he preaches political engagement to a generation that (he suggests) has given up the good fight.
What could an unapologetic winner like Tom Cruise pick up from this example? In some ways he's already surpassed his old idol. He's as big a star as Redford ever was; he's made more money, and now he's practically running his own studio.
It's pretty clear that Redford lost his passion for acting some time back - that's something no actor can fake. Whatever his limitations, I don't think that's true of Cruise yet. He still wants to wow us if he can.
But what's most impressive about Redford is the way he's mined his own doubts and disappointments and made movies out of them: good, bad and indifferent. Cruise's films certainly don't reflect his personal convictions in the same way… Not yet, anyway. Intriguingly he's started talking about his yearn to direct. Perhaps that's the biggest lesson he could learn. If Tom Cruise really wants to be taken seriously, he's going to have to earn it.
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