Robert Redford leads two lives: movie star and maverick. Here's a guy who founded the Sundance Institute in 1981 so that independent filmmakers could stick it to Hollywood. How can he work for the merchants he moved to Utah to escape? How can the probing director of Ordinary People and Quiz Show lend his acting talent to Indecent Proposal and Sneakers? Is the Sundance Kid a schizo? Hardly. Redford is a master at using the mainstream to his own subversive ends. It is often more effective than preaching at the choir.
After closing a rebel festival at Sundance, Redford opens in Up Close and Personal, a crowd-pleasing love story set against the background of television news and buffed to a high gloss by director Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes). Redford plays Warren Justice, a hard-ass network legend on the decline. Once, Warren covered the White House; now he's a news director in Miami teaching the ropes to smitten neophyte Tally Atwater, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Their passion stalls when she zaps up the ladder to Diane Sawyer-dom in Philadelphia and New York and he stays stuck in the boonies. Without discounting the pleasure of watching two glamorous stars orbit a moonstruck romance, this is a soap opera.
Redford makes it more. In 1937, Fredric March and Janet Gaynor broke hearts as falling and rising movie icons in A Star Is Born, a film shown this year at Sundance in tribute to its wildman writer and director, William Wellman. "Wellman is really special to me," says Redford. "What these pioneers put on film was based on nothing other than their own experience. I find that a very interesting time."
Time, of course, leads Hollywood to repeat its successes. A Star Is Born was remade deftly in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, and disastrously in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. The fact that Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, the married screenwriting team who worked on the 1976 version, also wrote Up Close and Personal doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Nor do the additions -- a dash of satire out of Broadcast News and a blurred allusion to Jessica Savitch, the substance-abusing newswoman who fell for her television mentor, split from him, suffered a breakdown and died in a car wreck in 1983.
The Savitch parallels have been played down considerably, perhaps owing to Almost Golden, the highly rated 1995 cable movie in which Sela Ward played Savitch. Pfeiffer's inexperienced Tally is a lighter, less neurotic character, a Nevada waitress with a needy sister (Dedee Pfeiffer, Michelle's actual sister) and an ambition more conventional than killing. At her interview with the impatient Warren, Tally tears the sleeve of her suit, drops her purse and shows a demo tape of herself with bad hair and worse makeup, purring, "Why hire me? Because I'm going to be a star." Pfeiffer shows a buoyant comic spirit, wickedly teasing her own history as a former Orange County, Calif., beauty queen.
Warren hires Tally as a gofer before giving her a shot as a weather girl. She's a disaster at both jobs, but as Warren says, "She eats the lens." Under Warren's tutelage, she learns to stand firm against newscasting rivals Marcia McGrath (a superbly coiled Stockard Charming) and Joanna Kennelly (Kate Nelligan), Warren's ex-wife, a prison riot and the drift of news into crass infotainment.
Here's where Redford comes in. Despite the fashion parade, the love montage and the tear-jerking ending that Avnet lays on, Redford makes Warren an abrasive fighter against the system. Defying the Star Is Born tradition of playing his character as a boozer, a head case or a suicide, Redford portrays him with his talent and zest intact. It's the news that got small and sleazy. The networks reject Warren out of fear. As one exec tells him, "You've got this bad habit of calling an asshole an asshole." Warren teaches Tally to push past the sound bite to get at the truth. Whether it's in the rebel atmosphere of Sundance or in the sleek sentimentality of Up Close, Redford is hellbent on doing the same thing. If that's working both sides of the street, let's hope it's a trend.
When I got up close with Robert Redford at Sundance, he didn't temper his contempt for television news: "We're suffering from too much information. It's a bombardment of hype that leaves no time to process. After so many drops of water on the forehead, after so much torture, the public says, 'Fuck it,' and gives up. Truth has become an anachronism."
Do you think a Hollywood love story like "Up Close" can help get that point across?
It would be too hard to go to work just to satisfy a commercial formula. My character has a very strong belief, an arrogance even, in how the news should be done, having less to do with show business and market share and more to do with the truth.
Isn't that akin to you at Sundance?
Sundance is all about protecting an independent vision from being sliced, chopped or smashed by a merchant mentality to whom profit is all If filmmakers want to remain independent of the studios, we'll help them find financing. If they want to go into the mainstream, we'll help them prepare for what's likely to happen.
So the studio system isn't the enemy?
Some people thought I was creating a camp for insurgents, which was never true. Sundance is really a supplement to what Hollywood has to offer. Hollywood is not totally monolithic, but its rules come out of polls and demographic studies. I'm interested in the humanistic side. Sneakers is very entertaining, but it also brought in the danger of computers in the wrong hands. [Skeptical look from yours truly.] OK, it was thin, but the theme was there, and it justified my doing it.
You've become a target in some quarters for allegedly using Sundance as an ego trip, a way of thinking well of yourself.
When you become that much of a target, it has to mean some measure of success. The fact is, I'm here because it means a great deal to me. It's something I feel I have to stay with to keep the core purpose intact. Otherwise it can be taken over by fashion, by other people's agendas and by size.
Was it the founding of Sundance that curtailed your acting career so much since 1980?
I was offered too much formula -- cartoon versions of life. As a result, I put my energies into Sundance for 10 years at the expense of acting. I turned down stuff for so long that people said, "Aw, the hell with him." If actors don't work, something goes off. I want to do more acting.
Your next movies -- Shooter" and "The Horse Whisperer" -- are studio films. How come you, the Thomas Jefferson of Sundance, never act in any independent films yourself?
I would. No one's asked me.
You realize that answer is the equivalent of putting out a shingle saying, "Actor for Hire"?
OK by me.