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The Way He Is and Always Was

Robert Redford's his own man, growing from a thoughtful young actor into the director of a tale of redemption.

November 02, 2000|JOHN ANDERSON | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — A blue sky, a blue breeze and a yellow cab, carrying its fare to a Saturday morning interview with Robert Redford, hurtles along Park Avenue--and hits about 30 green lights in a row. Now, the obvious question for the passenger should have been: Has the world come to an end? Has the vehicular population of Manhattan been beamed aboard that alien space vessel moored over New Jersey?

No. Just another marathon, creating a traffic tourniquet somewhere to the south.

What seems really strange, though, is the sudden recollection of a December 1974 Playboy interview with a 37-year-old screen star named Robert Redford. In it, Redford recounted his own quixotic attempt as a very young man to beat the lights on Park Avenue, piloting his sports car on an ever-accelerating quest toward something elusive, almost mythical--and, had the Motor Vehicle Department of the City of New York been consulted, definitely illegal.

"In those days there was just the Grand Central building, before the Pan Am was built. It was 1962," says Redford 2000, having entered the Manhattan hotel room smiling, blond, trim, casual, a bit craggy at 63 but pretty much as you expected. "And I just went for it. And you build up a certain speed when you go for something sometimes. You go out of control. It's like 'I can't stop myself--somebody stop me, 'cause I can't stop myself!' I said, 'I'm going all the way with this thing.' "

And he almost did, until his car went into what he called a "controlled two-wheeled slide," and almost wiped out at Vanderbilt Avenue.

For those who've followed Redford's career (which by 1962 had included a "Twilight Zone" episode and something called "War Hunt"), the idea of a Robert Redford out of control evokes cognitive dissonance. His private life has been below the radar: He may spend most of his time now in Utah or the Napa Valley, but he raised a family in New York and his presence there was hardly a presence at all. His carefully cultivated superstardom has made the actor-director-producer a kind of totem in the annals of Hollywood stereotyping. Robert Redford, after all, always has been Robert Redford--the way Gable was Gable, Cooper was Cooper, William Powell was William Powell.

Redford is his own man, and his own model, too--and he doesn't deviate from it much. Younger stars may push the envelope--Tom Cruise has done "Magnolia" and "Eyes Wide Shut," Brad Pitt "12 Monkeys" and even Matt Damon--seemingly the most Redfordian of them all--was in "The Talented Mr. Ripley," although his sexually ambivalent homicidal maniac was the most sympathetic sociopath you had ever seen.

Damon, not coincidentally, is the star of "The Legend of Bagger Vance." The film, which opens Friday, is Redford's sixth as a director--the area of Redford's career where he really has stretched. In the Oscar-winning "Ordinary People" (1980) or the much-honored "Quiz Show" (1994) or even his last, "The Horse Whisperer" (1998), Redford exhibits more daring than he ever did in his choice of movie roles--although nobility, or a grasping for nobility, is afoot in all his work.

In "Bagger Vance," a Jazz Age golden boy (Damon), a wizard of the links, goes off to World War I, has his ideals shot out from under him and returns a broken man. With the aid of a mysterious caddie named Bagger (Will Smith), he strives to regain his swing, his soul and his girl (Charlize Theron).

Redford did fly fishing in "A River Runs Through It" (1992). Maybe a movie about golf is not so strange. And maybe golf isn't the attraction at all.

"No, that would not interest me," Redford says. "First of all, it's everywhere. It's ubiquitous. You turn on the Golf Channel. Airlines. It's everywhere."

Some would suggest that's just the reason to do it.

"Yeah, but it wouldn't be mine," he says. "But golf as a metaphor for life does interest me."

Wanted to Do Something Uplifting

"Bagger Vance" is based on a novel by Steven Pressfield (screenplay by Jeremy Leven) and what Redford found in it was the way to create a story in a classic form: the hero's fall into darkness, from grace, and his struggle to return to the light. Pressfield, Redford says, borrowed heavily from the Bhagavad-Gita and other Eastern sources, as well as Western mythology "and the part that interested me was the part that related to the character's battle with himself, the idea of focus, concentration, center, what we now hear of as 'the zone'--the way an athlete gets into the zone."

"I was intrigued by that. And I saw that the book was full of wonderful raw material. That's how I saw it. I don't know that I would ever be so interested in doing a book verbatim. I'd have to make it my own somehow."

He also needed a break after the gravity of "The Horse Whisperer."

"I was looking for something uplifting, as much for myself as anything else. Because that was a heavy trip. Even though it had some positive aspects to it, it was about healing, it involved damaged animals, children, and was a hard, heavy movie to make.

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