The Conspirator, and Hollywood Icon Robert Redford's Pretty-Face Burden

The Hollywood legend, whose Conspirator is the latest in a string of earnest films devoted to making a point, might have had a different career had he not been forced to prove he's more than just a haircut, writes Richard Rushfield.

In another age, it might have been a great thing to be Robert Redford.

Unfortunately for him, however, Robert Redford arrived at the precise moment in history when being a handsome, soft-spoken leading man went out of fashion. While he might once have had the world without apologies, Redford’s career has been a struggle against his chiseled features, to prove he is not just a haircut. That struggle seemed to reach its sputtering conclusion this weekend with the release of The Conspirator, the latest in Redford’s long string of somber, self-serious, hectoring films.

Seeing the earnest director and the guarded, gloomy festival kingpin of today, it’s hard to picture the charismatic young Redford whose career once seemed headed in a very different direction. But that was before the star ran headlong into a little event known as the 1970s, from which his balance has never quite recovered.

A gifted actor with a touch for light comedy, with a dose of melancholy behind the perfectly sculpted features, Redford began his acting career on Broadway, winning rave notices as the uptight newlywed in Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park. He rode the part to the big screen, appearing opposite Jane Fonda, and a star was born that still dazzles half a century later.

Had Redford been born a generation earlier, however, given his good looks, acting prowess, and gift for comedy, Barefoot might have set him on the road to a brilliant if predictable career as one of the studio system’s beloved leading men. Following in the footsteps of Clark Gable or Cary Grant, he might easily not only have ruled Hollywood, but become the idol of a larger culture, held in awe by teenyboppers and intelligentsia alike.

Unfortunately, Barefoot in the Park’s 1967 release came as Hollywood’s great studios teetered on the brink of collapse. For the new breed, chiseled jaws and light comic skills would take a back seat to brooding, seething rage. The era of Taxi Driver and The Godfather would have little use for this actor who looked like Captain America and whose intensities were layers deep, not worn on his sleeve.

While Pacino, De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman spent the 1970s huffing and puffing and raking in the awards, Redford (who has never won Oscar’s Best Actor trophy, and in fact, has only been nominated once) spent the decade in star vehicles consigned to the critical dust heap, such as The Way We Were and Jeremiah Johnson. His good looks were often used as part of the joke, as in his brilliant portrayal of the well meaning but vapid boy wonder politician in The Candidate. His throwback appearance destined him for period pieces like The Sting and the ill-fated 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby, but rarely for the gritty contemporary urban dramas that transformed cinema during that period. Only in All The President’s Men did he find a part equal to his abilities, where his looks did not make him the film’s punchline.

So as the 1970s drew to a close, as the star vehicles grew wobblier ( The Electric Horseman, A Bridge Too Far) and as Redford watched his status sink from “actor” to “star,” what was a man to do to prove he was not just a haircut and good bones, but to say, OK, you want serious, I’ll give you serious.

His good looks were often used as part of the joke, as in his brilliant portrayal of the well meaning but vapid boy wonder politician in The Candidate.

And that has been the tale of Robert Redford for the past 30 years.

He kicked things off with his directorial debut, in which his face defiantly was kept off screen. Ordinary People was a tale of mourning parents that all but invented the grief porn genre. It was also the film that made Pachelbel’s Canon the official American theme music for crying at funerals and crying at weddings. It won, of course, that year’s Oscar for Best Picture, giving Redford exactly the wrong kind of validation at this turning point.

After this, Redford’s career as an A-list actor effectively wound down. He had one last gasp at a leading man triumph in Out of Africa, another entry in the pantheon of Now Forgotten ‘80s Oscar Winners, but never again would he stand at the front of a box-office bonanza. After Africa, he went on to two major-league clunkers with Legal Eagles and Havana, two parts that set the tone remaining, sporadic, and largely uninspired screen appearances.

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Meanwhile, his directing career took off with a vengeance; revenge on the audiences who had thought him a lightweight all these years. There is not a laugh between the two films that followed Ordinary PeopleThe Milagro Beanfield War and A River Runs Through It. Stolid and somber, these are films made to be admired, not loved.

These however, were followed by Redford’s one brief dip of the toe into an easier, less portentous directing style. Quiz Show still holds up today as a fun yet fascinating film, taking on a capital-B Big Topic without being preachy, built around a wonderful performance by Ralph Fiennes. It is exactly the sort of film one could imagine the promising young thespian from Barefoot in the Park growing up to make.

Between deadly serious directorial outings and picking up paychecks from acting walk-ons, Redford recast himself as the savior of the cinema, founding what would become the biggest showplace for independent film on earth. The irony that the little empire of artistes is named for his character in what was arguably the fluffiest of all his star vehicles seems lost on Redford, and on the festival itself.

Film is far better for Sundance having been created; its rise heralded the birth of an entirely new and freewheeling film sector apart from the studios. Throughout its history, however, Sundance has done constant battle with its deadly serious side, which would seemingly laud well-meaning tales of woe year in and year out. It is a side that very much seems to reflect Redford’s own unending search for depth.

In the Redford directing ouevre, nothing would follow in the footsteps of Quiz Show. In his subsequent films, the self-seriousness of Ordinary People grows louder and louder until nothing else is left. This weekend’s release of his painstakingly earnest film The Conspirator marks the final point when all dramatic instinct seems to have been sacrificed to the god of Making A Point; the point in this case: establishing not terribly illuminating parallels between the Civil War era and the current-day war on terror.

Robert Redford is now 75 years old. He has maintained his iconic status for a half-century, starred in a handful of Hall of Fame movies, directed one or two good ones and founded America’s greatest temple to independent film. After all this, he can be excused in his advanced years for getting a little preachy, for his films becoming a bit of a chore. When film students look back half a century from now, they will have plenty to remember Redford for other than the drone of these last few films. All could easily be forgiven—if these films amounted to an outlying misstep, rather than the inevitable last stop on a filmmaker’s journey that went so badly off track back in what should have been its prime.

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Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost. His new book, American Idol: The Untold Story, goes behind the scenes of the most popular TV show of the decade.