Monday, May 9, 2011

'Robert Redford: The Biography' runs a bit cold

Monday, May 9, 2011

Each celebrity bio tends to be frustrating in its own way.

  • Michael Feeney Callan's Robert Redford: The Biography is comprehensive, if a bit unexciting.

    Michael Feeney Callan's Robert Redford: The Biography is comprehensive, if a bit unexciting.

Michael Feeney Callan's Robert Redford: The Biography is comprehensive, if a bit unexciting.

Last year, Peter Biskind's much-anticipated exposé of Warren Beatty was slammed by reviewers as little more than an encyclopedic plundering of the notorious lothario's every conquest, with occasional interruptions for filmmaking anecdotes.

Never has reading about sex seemed so laborious.

Now we have a new buzzed-about Hollywood title, one that attempts to chip away at the golden-boy aura of Robert Redford, an equally enigmatic septuagenarian superstar. Unlike fellow sex symbol Beatty, however, very little of substance has leaked over the years about any high-profile liaisons — partly because Redford, now 74, was only 21 when he wed Lola Van Wagenen, an uneasy union that managed to last 27 years.

Who can really blame anyone craving a little dirt on Brad Pitt's generational predecessor, especially in a nearly 500-page volume? But while author Michael Feeney Callan ladles out abundant insights on Redford's eco-activism, his political lobbying, his father issues, his peripatetic lifestyle, his disregard for punctuality, his attachment to his Utah mountain retreat and his patron-of-the-arts status as the founder of the Sundance Institute and its influential namesake film festival, there are few revelations about matters of the heart.

We are told that, as a teen, the Los Angeles native was an unabashedly girl-crazy petty criminal-in-training who preferred hotrods and Beat poetry over scholarship, and dated an older woman of 20 because he was "hungry for experience." But save for passing references to the "bizarre sexual attention" that Redford attracted as far back as his college theater days and a timid description of his connection to co-star Natalie Wood (1962's cult oddity Inside Daisy Clover and 1966's This Property Is Condemned) as being "closeness beyond friendship," only above-board relationships are broached.

Even the actor's most chemically charged pairing onscreen, the prototypical bromance shared with Paul Newman in two of his biggest hits, 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kidand 1973's The Sting, is dealt with perfunctorily. Although a quick-witted Newman once saved Redford from being attacked by a crazed stalker who somehow sneaked onto the set of The Sting.

Title: Robert Redford: The Biography

Author:Michael Feeney Callan

Publisher/price: Knopf, 470 pp., $28.95

Still, no one can accuse biographer Callan of squandering the access afforded him by his subject, which includes hundreds of hours of interviews, private correspondence and journals, as well as discussions with such forthright sources as the late director Sydney Pollack, Redford's like-minded collaborator on seven films including 1975's Three Days of the Condor, and his three grown children. (A fourth, Scott, died in infancy in 1959.)

Even more admirably, Callan didn't let a suddenly gun-shy Redford, who cut off contact after disapproving of the direction of what would become a 16-year project, get in the way of producing a densely comprehensive account of an uncompromising artist who never felt at ease with his glamorous image even while regularly taking advantage of it.

The writer avoids going overboard with critically assessing his subject's work (and he strangely fails to note that Redford's best-director Oscar win for 1980'sOrdinary People still rankles cineastes who believe Martin Scorsese was more deserving for Raging Bull).

Yet true satisfaction will likely come from the behind-the-scenes look at the movies, especially 1973's The Way We Were. Turns out, Barbra Streisand and Redford's potent opposites-attract chemistry wasn't so unlike real life. As an unnamed observer quoted by Callan says: "When she played scenes with him, like the fireside courtship scene in Malibu, she was drooling."

Sadly, that is about as hot as this book gets.

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