Sixteen years in the making, Michael Feeney Callan’s Robert Redford: The Biography invites the reader to contemplate the following quandary: How does a former juvenile delinquent and hot rodder from Santa Monica transform himself into a Broadway and Hollywood leading man and then maintain a semblance of equilibrium while juggling family life, superstardom, multiple residences, stewardship of a financially strained Utah ski area called Sundance, operation of a production company, liberal political activism, athletic pursuits, directorial ambitions, spiritual questing and creative labs that sprouted a major film festival and cable channel, all the while remaining impossibly good-looking, madly articulate and an all-around cool guy?
Even if Redford has projected an air of thoughtful confidence, he was always “spinning like a top,” in the words of his seven-time director and confidant Sydney Pollack, and Callan makes it clear that his subject’s journey has rarely been easy.
Crucially, the Irish author — who has written fiction and less ambitious biographies of such tricky personalities as Sean Connery, Julie Christie, Richard Harris and Anthony Hopkins — never loses track of what he submits is Redford’s central personality trait: He’s a rebel, a contrarian, a bad boy. His most self-revelatory performances, he suggests, are in such early films as Downhill Racer, in which he plays an arrogant heel; The Candidate, as a maverick politician sucked in by the system; and the mostly forgotten Little Fauss and Big Halsy, which Alan J. Pakula felt was “the last unself-conscious revelation of the actor’s real-life ‘edge.’ ” Charting how this key component of his makeup became channeled, modified and suppressed through the years remains a point of interest, even if Callan shows little inclination to analyze Redford’s work in a way that would explore how the dedication to a pared-down aesthetic and penetrating social commentary in much of his work — from Racer through at least Ordinary People — eventually transformed into the lax pacing and mushy-headed mysticism of The Horse Whisperer and The Legend of Bagger Vance.
Above all, Callan’s book benefits from access. Not only did Redford grant the author hours of interviews, but also he opened up his diaries, notebooks and correspondence. Fortunately, Callan got on the case in 1995 and was able to interview key figures before they died; the firsthand recollections and insights of Pollack, Pakula, George Roy Hill, Arthur Penn, Michael Ritchie, Paul Newman and Stuart Rosenberg are among the best things in the book as they reveal much about Redford’s attitudes toward acting, self-image, artistic ambitions and self-expression.
Even for veteran Redford watchers, there is much to ponder: his difficult relationship with a distant father; his teenage street-gang shenanigans; his bottoming out as an aspiring bohemian artist in France, Italy and Spain; his acting breakthroughs in New York; his involvement with Utah Mormons because of his marriage to Lola Van Wagenen; the trauma stemming from the crib death of his firstborn child; his pursuit by Roman Polanski to co-star in Rosemary’s Baby; his choice of Jeremiah Johnson over Apocalypse Now; the seemingly pernicious influence of Michael Ovitz on some of Redford’s choices beginning in the mid-1980s; and the star’s near bankruptcy because of Sundance mismanagement.
Redford’s involvement with the book precludes Callan from prying too intently into his subject’s personal life; the most the author will do is indicate “close” relationships with Natalie Wood, Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda and Kim Basinger, among others. The final section seems rushed and compressed, and the concluding pages paint a current existence of a smooth, resolved serenity too much at odds with the struggle and turmoil of everything that came before it to be entirely credible. Callan doesn’t analyze Redford’s life as future writers no doubt will, but his comprehensive discussions with his subject as well as about 300 people in his orbit lay invaluable groundwork that could not be duplicated even today.
Author Michael Feeney Callan
(Alfred A. Knopf, 468 pages, $28.95)