The Populist Films of ROBERT REDFORD.

Author:Gehring, Wes D.

The popular actor's directorial efforts are following the trail blazed by Frank Capra in the 1930s and 1940s.

Like most major movie stars, Robert Redford has assayed many parts. The most memorable include his career-establishing outlaw in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969), the mountain man "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972), the novice politician in "The Candidate" (1972), the writer in "The Way We Were" (1973), the con artist of "The Sting" (1973), an investigative journalist in "All the President's Men" (1976), a contemporary cowboy in both "The Electric Horseman" (1979) and "The Horse Whisperer" (1998), a baseball player in "The Natural" (1984), the great hunter and aviator Denys Finch Hatton from "Out of Africa" (1985), the security expert of "Sneakers" (1992), and the TV news director in "Up Close and Personal" (1996).

Also, like most great stars, even his lesser works have their moments, such as the conservative attorney in "Barefoot in the Park" (1967), the reluctant sheriff of "Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here" (1969), the mysterious gangster of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" (1974), the flyer in "The Great Waldo Pepper" (1975), a CIA low-level functionary in "Three Days of the Condor" (1975), the warden of "Brubaker" (1980), and the assistant district attorney in "Legal Eagles" (1986).

No major career is without a few clunkers. Two Redford candidates which come readily to mind are "Little Fauss and Big Halsy" (1974) and "Havana" (1990). In the former, he plays a thoroughly unlikable motorcycle racer, while the latter work casts him as a self-centered gambler in a picture that tries too hard to be a Cuban "Casablanca." What is most impressive about Redford's filmography is that the number of true failures is decidedly modest.

Redford's batting average as a director is even more praised. Indeed, his greatest critical success has come behind the camera. He won an Academy Award in his directorial debut on "Ordinary People" (1980), a family melodrama that won the best picture Oscar as well. His direction of "Quiz Show" (1994), a thoughtful examination of the TV scandal of the 1950s, rated a second nomination. Although he has directed just three other pictures, each has been critically acclaimed: the populist fantasy "The Milagro Beanfield War" (1988), the elegiac coming-of-age story "A River Runs Through It" (1992), and a western tale of healing and love reborn, "The Horse Whisperer."

There are five basic themes that surface in Redford's acting resume. First, the past is preferable to the present. A high percentage of his work has a period setting, and frequently, even the contemporary films are rooted in the past, such as the Old West undercurrent of both "The Electric Horseman" and "The Horse Whisperer."

Second, the superiority of the past often is tied to a country setting. In the populist tradition of director Frank Capra, Redford's characters draw strength from the land, be it the mountain man world of Jeremiah Johnson or the Montana mountains of horse whisperer Tom Booker. It bears noting that Capra's celebrated "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) is based on the story "The Gentleman From Montana."

Also like Capra, praise for the pastoral past in Redford movies often means contrasting it with a negative modern, urban setting. This dichotomy is showcased most effectively in "The Electric Horseman," where the everything-for-sale, anything-for-a-buck tradition of Las Vegas becomes synonymous with the film's evil conglomerate, whose exploitation includes Rising Star--the champion stallion that is the organization's logo.

As in "The Horse Whisperer," the saving of a horse (and pivotal people around it) involves a return to the American frontier. "The Electric Horseman" escape is depicted imaginatively in a scene where Redford's Sonny Steele (in his twinkling, corporate cowboy outfit) rides the stallion out of Caesar's Palace, where he and the horse briefly have appeared on stage, and down the equally twinkling Vegas strip. They seem to represent just one more product for sale in a sea of neon.

Steele then pulls the plug on this one-man light show (both...

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