News Column

The Buffalo News, N.Y., Jeff Simon column

October 27, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 27--It remains one of the exemplary spewings of executive stupidity in Hollywood history. According to screenwriter William Goldman, a Hollywood producer once said of Robert Redford "he's just another Hollywood blond -- throw a stick at Malibu and you'll hit six of them."

Because Goldman was the screenwriter of both "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting," the best guess has always been that the unnamed idiot mogul was Richard Zanuck, who was executive producer of "The Sting" though never credited for it.

File that name away for a few seconds. It's significant.

Thirty years ago last Aug. 1, Robert Redford and the most mind-boggling cast ever to hit this town arrived to film Barry Levinson's "The Natural," now considered something of a classic American baseball movie.

The cast was jaw-dropping in 1983. It's even more so 30 years later -- Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Darren McGavin, Barbara Hershey, Kim Basinger, Joe Don Baker, Robert Prosky, Michael Madsen, Richard Farnsworth, Wilford Brimley along with Redford. If someone had put them onscreen reading the Pawtucket phone book, it would have been interesting.

Redford was a huge star in 1983. He also was, as I wrote in a piece that appeared the Sunday before cast and crew arrived in full to start filming here, the most underrated actor in American movies. If, as I wrote, Paul Newman and Robert Mitchum were the most overrated underrated actors in America -- i.e. the Hollywood stars everyone and their brother-in-law always trotted out for "most underrated" status back then -- Redford was the pure, uncut thing: a movie star thought to be a generic "Hollywood blond" at box offices otherwise found in large clusters on the beaches of Malibu.

It stayed that way for Redford's acting reputation for the next 30 years. He is now 77 years old. And the performance of his life -- and one of the great original performances in American movies -- is on its way to Buffalo in J.C. Chandor's "All Is Lost" (perhaps as early as Nov. 8).

We pick up the tale again in 1982 by going back to the man likely to have been Redford's scoffer-in-chief, producer Richard Zanuck. This was the year before Redford and Co. would arrive in Buffalo to film "The Natural." It's the year when Sidney Lumet's "The Verdict" starring Paul Newman was released. Just before it was, I took part in "The Verdict" film junket. Zanuck, the film's producer, regaled one and all with his galling tales of casting the film's lead part, a boozy washed-up Boston attorney. Robert Redford was going to play it at first. He drove everyone crazy with script objections and finally pulled out, supposedly because he could never see how the actor's innermost thoughts could be conveyed to an audience so they could fully understand him.

Enter Newman, who gave one of the greatest performances of his life. There is one consummate scene in the film -- a tribute to both the actor's and the director's gifts -- in which you can see, in the film's key dramatic moment, a completely coherent thought silently and suddenly enter the lawyer's mind and pass readably across his face.

Don't for a minute think that wasn't a very competitive Newman -- the senior partner in the long Newman/Redford friendship and partnership -- saying to one of his best Hollywood friends "That's how it's done, kid."

And don't for a minute think Zanuck telling that story wasn't a little resentful that his film starred Newman, not Redford, who would, quite likely, have added a wee bit of extra box office to things in that era. (Newman was no box office slouch, but he seldom, on his own, scorched box offices the way Redford did back then.)

So, in the 21st century, we have a 77-year-old Robert Redford who never quite recovered from being underrated as an actor, no matter how much acclaim as a director he'd go on to win for "Ordinary People" and "Quiz Show" or how much idealism his invaluable Sundance Festival represented for the movie world.

And now comes "All is Lost," a movie with fewer than 10 words of dialogue in which Robert Redford is the only actor seen onscreen. The performance, indeed the movie, is all Redford -- doing the physical labor of a man alone on his yacht trying to survive the angriest of seas and conveying his thoughts as they pass across his well-creased face.

To reiterate the hyperbolic cliche of our era, a dropped jaw for this film will be nothing but appropriate. And everywhere there are people who actually know what they're looking at onscreen, Redford's performance has blown critics and audiences away.

I truly wish, in this case, that I could be the sort of higher being who hates to say "I told you so" but I can't.

Because I told you so. In these pages 30 years ago.

Redford was a remarkable actor right out of the box. I knew that from seeing -- when it first ran on CBS -- an extraordinary episode of the TV series "The Defenders" in which Redford played a psychotic who takes a bunch of innocent people hostage. It was a riveting performance and, in its time, original -- intense and somehow different from what any other actor his age was doing. It seemed to owe nothing whatsoever to Brando or the Actor's Studio.

It took me quite a few films in his run as a smash hit movie star to figure out what Redford did that was so good. I did so by putting together his films "Little Fauss and Big Halsy" and "All the President's Men." It's physical. In tiny little moments, you could especially see it brilliantly sticking out of Redford's performance as Bob Woodward.

Did it belong in his Woodward performance? For the sake of realism, of course not. For the sake of cinematic magnetism and artistic insight, it did so many times over. The way Redford as Woodward slid quickly into a courtroom pew behind someone he needed crucial information from, was perfect to convey the narcissism of a cocky reporter who knows he's onto an immense story and is expressing that knowledge by moving through a courtroom like a wide receiver juking a safety out of his jockstrap.

People always have had trouble seeing, as acting, things that don't begin to resemble conventional stage performance. Chaplin's contemporaries would sputter in exasperation that he's a "G-D ballet dancer!"

No comic performer in American movies ever began to approach Chaplin's cinematic opposite, Mel Blanc, the unseen man who supplied the platoon of hilarious voices in Warner Brothers cartoons. The best opinion that the Hollywood mainstream could seem to muster in Blanc's life was that he was a genius from radio put to perfect use in cartoons for kiddies. The idea that Mel Blanc was, at what he did, as great and as accomplished as Olivier or even Brando, has never caught on and likely never will.

And now, at the extraordinary age of 77, Redford, has finally shown the world how very much an actor expressing emotions in nothing but physical motion can do in one movie where his is the only face and body we see.

In Robert Redford's acting career, all has at long last, been found.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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