Review: Robert Redford: The Biography

Book by Michael Feeney Callan

Robert Redford: The biographyLike a more industrious, fair-haired Warren Beatty, Robert Redford has carved out a Rushmore-like reputation as iconic star, Oscar-winning director, influential activist, legendary sex symbol, and meticulous control freak. But unlike Beatty, this golden boy was no playboy, and seems immune to gossip and scandal. At least that’s the impression gained from this highly authorized portrait. Whether he’s bridging the gap between Hollywood and indie cinema as founder of the Sundance festival, or making a fable of Watergate in All the President’s Men, Redford has built a legacy of heroic virtue. So it’s revealing to read how he grew up in the mean streets of Los Angeles as a delinquent jock, came of age as a renegade painter who worshipped the Beats, married his first wife (Lola) at 22 in a five-minute wedding on the Vegas strip, and cut his teeth playing psychos on TV. “I didn’t want to be an actor,” he says. “I wanted to be Modigliani.”

Ever since Redford’s career as a romantic lead exploded on Broadway in Barefoot in the Park—followed by the 1969 screen version— he has bridled at his designated role of matinee idol. Redford’s discomfort with his manifest destiny, and his quest for a higher calling, is the main thread of this diligent biography. Documenting Redford’s impressive career, from Butch Cassidy to Ordinary People, Callan acknowledges a “disarray of failures—marriage, friendship and films.” But as wives and children come and go, along with one-line allusions to possible lovers such as Natalie Wood, there is scant detail. Sidney Pollack, who directed Redford in eight movies, expresses some frustation with his long-time friend. But Bob’s worst sin seems to be his disregard for punctuality. Redford is a compulsive diarist and Callan had access to all his personal papers, plus hundreds of hours of taped interviews. Yet the subject’s privacy seems all too well protected, as the author’s softball approach fails to penetrate Redford’s elusive strike zone.

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