Robert Redford was right.
Under the pretext of programming an evening of his work for Turner Classic Movies, he and his director on "The Old Man and the Gun," David Lowery, went on that network to do some sideways promotion for their new film, which opens Friday in the Dipson Amherst and Eastern Hills theaters.
Quite typically, what Redford did was immensely telling. He showed two films: Michael Ritchie's "The Candidate" (1972) and Ulu Grosbard's "Straight Time" (1978) starring Dustin Hoffman. He was showing us personal starring vehicles -- one of them a film he had nothing to do with -- about men of dubious heroism at best.
He was also telling us that after a fascinating beginning where he played terrific character parts -- usually narcissists on the make -- "All the President's Men" (1976) and the creation of the Sundance Institute in 1980 virtually knocked crassness and self-love off the table for him as an actor. He locked himself into good guy roles.
On TCM, he was also telling us how much of his huge popularity depended on on-screen partners -- buddies and romantic partners -- even though he was far more ambiguous and interesting in roles on his own.
Partnerships were where the huge box office was.
Here is a list of my top 15 Redford films. If, as he says,"The Old Man and the Gun" is his goodbye as an actor, these are the films he's saying goodbye to:
15. Our Souls at Night
Because it was on Netflix, Redford's octogenarian pairing off with Jane Fonda again didn't get a fraction of the attention it deserved. They're a primal cinematic couple still. The lack of attention to the film may account for Redford's current statements about giving up acting for directing.
14. A Walk in the Woods
No one's idea of a great film or even a good one. It is, nevertheless, a film with a great idea: Adapt Bill Bryson's book starring Redford and his near-exact opposite, Nick Nolte. The very idea of a film starring Redford and Nolte still makes me chuckle.
13. The Natural
Every Buffalonian's favorite Redford movie. The best film ever made in this town. A good Redford movie about heroism on the baseball diamond and love with Glenn Close.
As good as Redford is in the film, how much better might it have been with a star who wasn't as much of a commodity as he was by then? With Redford as the star, it couldn't, at that point, ask any questions. It could just be a mysteriously ominous baseball movie.
The good news, by the way, is that Bernard Malamud admitted he rather liked the film despite the changes made to his original novel.
12. Inside Daisy Clover
A hugely underrated movie. Strictly in terms of quality, this movie should be higher on the list. It's not really a Redford movie, though. It's a Natalie Wood movie where her high school friend Redford has a fascinating, sexually ambiguous small part playing her husband.
Another one of Redford's early career parts where his golden boy looks were used to ask good American questions rather than make easy statements about virtue.
11. Three Days of the Condor
First-rate spy thriller and a much more memorable movie than it's usually given credit for. That may be, in part, because the passage of time made co-star Faye Dunaway seem far less lovable than Fonda. Director Sydney Pollack almost always knew what to do with his friend (the major exception: "Havana").
10. The Sting
Almost as good of a Redford/Paul Newman buddy movie as "Butch Cassidy." It won an Oscar for best picture for good reason. It's an entertaining movie.
9. Barefoot in the Park
Where the Redford/Fonda screen partnership began. Redford had done Neil Simon's comedy on Broadway with Elizabeth Ashley. He told me he didn't enjoy doing it again on film. Nevertheless, he should have done more comedies. Imagine, if you will, what Mel Brooks might have made of him if he'd been turned loose on Redford's film persona.
8. The Electric Horseman
Pollack was Redford's close friend and most loyal director. They understood each other. No one ever took better care of the actor. The best of Redford's films with Fonda.
7. Out of Africa
Another cunning, A-1 romantic partnership -- in this case with Meryl Streep playing writer Isak Dinesen.
6. The Way We Were
A truly great romantic fantasy. Redford as an archetypal golden gentile and Barbra Streisand as a nervous, live-wire Jewish girl. One of the earlier of the seven films Redford starred in for Pollack.
5. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
One of his most popular films and the beginning of the hero idolatry that changed the trajectory of his career. Credit Newman and director George Roy Hill with hanging tough against the suits and plucking Redford from the A-minus list to become Newman's equal on the A-list.
4. Downhill Racer
This, Redford told me, represents the life that acting, thankfully, took him away from. Another great movie with Redford playing an egotist on the make, in this case an Olympic skier who's nobody's idea of a "good guy."
3. All the President's Men
Redford produced, too. One of the primal American newspaper movies. Too bad it locked him into being a good guy ever afterward. He was a smarter actor when he was doing character parts where self-adoration was capable of eradicating all that pop virtue.
2. All is Lost
One of the worst titles ever on a unique movie -- an astonishing and astonishingly taxing, almost wordless part undertaken by a 77-year old man. If possible, see it in a theater with a big sound system that can carry the terror of being alone on a yacht in a raging sea. You won't really get the primordial power of it otherwise.
1. The Candidate
Redford's right. His fullest and subtlest portrait on film is of a young political idealist molded by political professionals into a soulless product. A lot of it was improvised and surprisingly little has dated.
. . .
Jeff Simon's picks for top films with Redford as director
- Ordinary People
- Quiz Show
- A River Runs Through It
- The Horse Whisperer
After that you're on your own. If you never see the rest, you won't be missing much.