Redford: A big-screen life told in fine detail

May 16 2011 - 2:02pm

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"ROBERT REDFORD: THE BIOGRAPHY." By Michael Feeney Callan. Knopf. $27.95.

A travel photographer once told me how she disliked images captured with wide-angle lenses.

"They take in so much you don't know where to look," she said.

Her point kept coming to mind as I read Michael Feeney Callan's "Robert Redford: The Biography." Like a sweeping shot of the Grand Canyon, this prodigiously researched book offers much to admire. But ultimately, the trove of details about Redford lacks a focal point.

Admittedly, Redford's life is suited to a wide focus. Consider the seminal moment when, at age 13, Redford emerged from a tunnel at Yosemite to gaze on the splendor of El Capitan, Bridal Veil Falls and Half Dome. "I remember thinking," Redford tells the author, "I have to be part of this."

And indeed, in the life and career that Callan recounts, Redford almost always seems a figure in a Super Panavision image.

There is Redford in his early 20s, a starving young painter bumming through Europe in the late '50s, studying painting in Paris, burying himself in cow dung in Italy on a frigid winter night. There is Redford the aspiring actor in New York, learning his craft from mentor Jason Robards in a TV production of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh," then becoming a star on Broadway in "Barefoot in the Park."

There is Redford, starting in the '60s and on into the present, behind and before the widescreen camera in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Great Gatsby," "The Candidate," etc. And there is Redford, the conservationist; Redford, the founder of Sundance Film Institute; and Redford, father and husband.

So it's no surprise that Callan's biography took on an epic scope.

Considering Redford's film work "undervalued" and "unexplored," Callan devoted more than 14 years to the project, with Redford's cooperation. Redford granted Callan scores of interviews and turned over to the author his professional notebooks, journals and correspondence. Callan also interviewed more than 300 sources, topped by an A-list of interviewees that included Jane Fonda, Paul Newman and Sydney Pollack, who helmed some of Redford's biggest films: "The Way We Were," "Out of Africa" and "Three Days of the Condor."

The plus in all this is that Callan's book is not a cut-and-paste job of everything that has already been written about Redford. Interviews from primary sources flesh out almost every aspect of his life. Redford himself recalls Christmas as a child when his mother stood outside his bedroom door shaking sleigh bells while his father grumbled, "There's no darn Santa. Have you any idea how much sweat it takes to earn those toys?"

Callan's many sources also provide detailed, insightful production histories of Redford's films. Of directing Redford, Pollack says, "Over the years with Bob, I learned to make adjustments. Like running five angles on a scene to cover my (expletive) so that it will cut in the editing. Like not showing my anger when he showed up late, which is normal for him, dishing some (expletive) excuse."

And the sources Callan quotes point to major themes in Redford's work, especially in the films Redford has directed. "The Milagro Beanfield War," "A River Runs Through It" and "The Horse Whisperer" express Redford's distrust of authority and a passionate closeness to nature.

It's disappointing, then, that Callan largely stays in the background when it comes to appraising Redford's work. The critical comments he does provide sometimes border on glibness. He describes "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," for example, as "a quirky, original movie laced with sepia-tinged stop frames and stand-apart music."

This consistent lack of a strong critical point of view -- surprising since Callan has written biographies of Anthony Hopkins, Richard Harris and Sean Connery -- deprives the book of a center. Callan also loses sight of his subject by devoting almost half the book to following Redford's work with the Sundance Institute in Utah.

The author makes it clear the institute, in the canyon that's also the site of the beloved home Redford himself built in the 1960s, reflects the actor's iconoclastic spirit. Sensing a need to shepherd independent film, Redford founded the institute in 1981 as a workshop for aspiring filmmakers. When "sex, lies and videotape," produced at Sundance, scored with audiences and critics, the yearly Sundance Festival Film Festival went on the calendars of every established and would-be agent, actor, writer, producer and director in the film business.

Sundance is indeed important to Redford's story. But in writing about the enterprise, Callan piles on myriad details -- as he does with the book's other topics -- until Redford gets lost in a panoramic take.

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