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Robert Redford: Ballad of a Cool Man

The actor’s one-dimensional heroes

Robert Redford

Robert Redford stands between tree branches in a scene from the film 'Three Days Of The Condor', 1975

Paramount/Getty

Like any American screen hero, Robert Redford symbolizes certain aspects of the national ego. In his case, I find that many of these traits were most recently popularized, not by another screen actor, but by an American president—John Kennedy.

Redford’s heroes generally celebrate the Kennedy virtues—blind confidence, grace under pressure, toughness of mind and pure pragmatism. Like Kennedy, his characters think of themselves as nonconformists. Like Kennedy, they fancy themselves innovators, adventurers and pioneers. And even further, like Kennedy, they place a premium on remaining quick, witty and cool while going about their business.

Like America in the Sixties, Redford’s characters dream empty dreams and then recklessly go about doing whatever pleases them, without regard for consequences. When they finally stumble or fail, they never feel at fault. Either something was done to them or circumstances got out of control.

Most importantly, Kennedy as a politician and Redford in his screen roles share this fatal shortcoming of heroism—they can’t cope with the dark side of American life. In a Redford movie, evil is always externalized. The character has nothing to do with it. Redford’s characters show us nothing of our capacity for evil—or our capacity to transcend that evil when we face up to it.

Redford’s roles have actually offered him the chance for depth. But, like most stars, he shades his performances to fit his personal style. No matter how flawed the character, Redford finds an open, intelligent, charming side to the man—and pushes that to the exclusion of most other traits. From the Sundance Kid, to the drifter in The Sting, to the CIA agent Turner in Three Days of the Condor, he’s so charming and unassuming at one level, that we’re apt to forget that at another, his characters are smug, remote, largely unfeeling and almost always isolated by choice. They don’t love, they don’t hate and they don’t appear to feel much of anything.

Redford makes his characters attractive through his skillful portrayals of two typically American traits—cool and vulnerability. Americans have worshipped the first in countless national heroes. But when actors are cool, they usually suggest that underneath the self-control, they are wrapped in some inner turmoil. Their characters hold themselves in check for fear of the havoc they would wreak if they ever let loose; they know their own destructive potential.

By contrast, Redford has abstracted cool from the context of personality. His characters’ self-control comes from arrogance. It exists as a value unto itself. Again like America in the Sixties, his self-assurance is rarely tempered by doubt.

Redford uses vulnerability to justify his isolation and unwillingness to commit himself to anything. We need only sense his fear of being hurt and that is thought to be sufficient explanation for his turning away from emotional issues.

The full extent of the resulting superficiality is apparent when comparing Redford to his star peers. Where McQueen and Eastwood play men who are obsessed, Redford plays men who are merely stubborn. Where Hoffman plays sensitive neurotics, interesting for the ways in which they deviate from the norm, Redford plays characters who appear on the surface to be too normal. Where Nicholson gives resonance and meaning to his characters by showing their sense of depression and unquenchable self-doubt, Redford’s men rarely look inside themselves. And while his closest counterpart, Paul Newman, defuses his characters’ confidence by laughing at himself, Redford never jokes at his own expense. Also, where Newman gives his characters depth by his attraction to women, Redford narrows his by his indifference to them.

Three Days of the Condor (Paramount), a reasonably entertaining espionage picture, is mainly noteworthy for enshrining most of the Redford cliches to date. In 1975, we’re shown a good-looking, stylish, super-bright man working for the CIA. Although he appears totally committed to his work, the movie signals us that the man is somehow different—because he dresses in jeans, drives a motorcycle and makes clever retorts to his stodgy superior. Style is everything.

When Redford’s coworkers are massacred he becomes a marked man. Although shocked by the magnitude of the violence, he shows no fundamental sign of disbelief. As a hero, he’s no innocent.

Throughout the film, he’s naturally concerned with saving his own life, but never makes a meaningful connection between having worked for the CIA and suffering at its hands.

Similarly, he tragically loses his girlfriend at the film’s beginning—but she’s forgotten as soon as she’s off screen. He meets Faye Dunaway on the night of the massacre and winds up going to bed with her. Their scenes together are almost touching, but when she exits, it’s with the same finality as the first woman. This is a man who deals with women as he wants to; they pass through his life without changing it.

At the end of the film is an artificial discussion of the ethics of international intrigue. And Turner’s answer to the horror he’s witnessed over the three days—”tell it to the New York Times.” This picture covers all its tracks—it offers something for everybody.

In the end we’re left with a man admirable in the speed of his responses, ability to control himself and skill with which he thinks on his feet. At the same time he has nothing to fall back on. Turner, like most of Redford’s characters, is only the sum total of his reactions.

There is something very contemporary about the appeal of Redford’s brand of one-dimensional hero—and something very disturbing about it.

In This Article: Coverwall

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