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What's Wrong With This Picture?

Robert Redford and the American façade.

"They'd ask me how I felt about certain things, and I didn't know," Redford recalls. "It was during the Suez crisis, when America deserted the French and it was a disaster, and I didn't know what they were talking about. I felt so put down that I decided to really focus on the politics of my country, but it was done from another place. It was done from reading French, Italian and German newspapers and talking to students and hearing different opinions. I cobbled together a point of view that was from other points of view." By the time he landed back in America two years later, "I was filled with experiences of real-life situations and the myths of this country. I guess that's where it all started."

Redford went to New York, enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and by 1960 was appearing in bit parts on Broadway and on TV in the likes of Maverick, Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Playhouse 90. His movie break came in the form of a supporting role in the low-budget 1962 Korean War drama War Hunt. (His co-stars included Sydney Pollack, who would go on to direct Redford in six films.) By 1967, when he reprised his stage role for the film version of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park, he was a bankable star. Two years later, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid didn't just catapult Redford into the Hollywood firmament — in one of those marvelous tricks of the flickering light, the role imparted some of its romantic, rebel-outlaw mythos (and a lifelong nickname) to the actor himself.

The Redford who appears in a lavish 1970 Life magazine spread titled "Robert Redford Riding High," literally riding high on the back of a horse against a dramatic Utah mountainscape, is scarcely recognizable as the suburban SoCal youth who, barely a decade earlier, wasn't quite sure what he wanted to do with his life. Photographed skiing, snowmobiling, and relaxing with his wife, Lola, and their two children at the home and ski complex that would become known as the Sundance Resort, he is an Olympian vision — a movie-star deity — with an accompanying canonization by film critic Richard Schickel (a friend of Redford's) to seal the deal.

"There are times when it is simply intolerable to have him breezing in and out of your life ... passing through from someplace he makes sound marvelous to someplace he will make sound wonderful," writes Schickel in a particularly perceptive take on the feelings of infatuation and resentment that great movie stars can inspire. "These moments of envious bedazzlement generally occur when you are in a temporarily weakened condition — when all the children have been on penicillin for a week and aren't getting better, when your accountant has just called to tell you your tax bill was a little stiffer than he had originally estimated. In such dreary contexts, Redford stands there with his trim, tan, healthy exterior wrapped around a nervous system entirely innocent of booze, cigarettes and Miltowns, and something inside you harrumphs disapprovingly. Damn fool ought to watch his step."

But though it would be naïve to suggest that Redford was ungrateful for his genetic gifts or never took advantage of them, "sex symbol" is a label he has worn uneasily at best. Accusations that he was a pretty boy and a dramatic lightweight dogged him from his earliest days in the theater. ("He's just another California blond — throw a stick at Malibu, you'll hit six of them," went the famous grumblings of one studio executive when Redford was first proposed for the Sundance Kid role.) And long after he established himself in Hollywood, Redford continued to feel the superficial tugging at the substantive. (It is hardly accidental that, of the seven films he has directed to date, Lions for Lambs is only the second, following 1998's The Horse Whisperer, in which Redford's face appears onscreen.)

"Look, I started in the theater in New York because I was interested in the craft of performing," Redford tells me when I ask him if having one of the most famous mugs on the planet has been something of a mixed blessing, his voice registering a faint note of annoyance at what is clearly a sensitive subject. "I played character parts, villains, rapists, all kinds of different roles. When I went into film and the romantic thing struck, suddenly it was all about that, and then I was perceived as only that. If you're considered a good-looking person, you get hammered on your substance. I could see that coming, and it depressed me, and then it did come, and then it became like a hook in me that I couldn't get rid of."

Until, that is, Redford entered middle age. The talk remained focused on his looks, only now it was about how he was supposedly losing them. ("Weathered and remote" is how The New York Times described Redford's physical appearance in its review of 1990's Havana, released when the actor was 54.) "As you begin to age, then suddenly it's a liability that you're aging," Redford says. "What was I supposed to do? Die in a car crash and stay young forever?"

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