Over-rated Redford and the Sundance kidding
Robert Redford was born in Santa Monica, California. Burt Lancaster was born in East Harlem, New York. There the similarities end.
Redford claims to be a facilitator of alternative artistic dreams and talent. Lancaster genuinely was. Redford can’t act. Lancaster could.
Redford has never risked playing characters that make him look malevolent or wrongfooted or unpleasant. Lancaster often played characters without redemptive traits. In 1961, with the war still close to many damaged hearts, he played a Nazi war criminal jurist in “Judgment in Nuremburg”.
Redford uses his face to show his face. Lancaster used his face to show a man’s soul.
Why this? Why now? Burt Lancaster has been dead for 18 years.
It’s because the Sundance Film Festival is up and about in Utah, an event that each year, when Redford rolls himself out as the film industry’s morality guarantor, reminds me that vacuous celebrity for celebrity’s sake is not the recent phenomenon many claim it to be.
It is the time of year when Redford accepts his annual praise for being a great guy, a great actor, a great director and a great supporter of unknown film talent – even though he’s never himself made a great film.
It is as creepy and fawning as a Mark Nicholas interview with Richie Benaud.
Sundance also means the Academy Awards are in the air, which in turns means the lobbyists are circling, infiltrating, influencing and distorting outcomes.
Redford has never won an Oscar for his acting. Not even the Academy Award judges could be as brazenly dishonest as that.
But Redford did win Best Picture for directing “Ordinary People”, which is sobering when you consider that in that same year, 1980, he was going head to head with Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull”.
(Ten years on, Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” would lose to the Kevin Costner’s “Dancing With Wolves”, which confirms the Oscars are more about weak-kneed sentiment than disinterested appreciation.)
It’s also because I watched “Jeremiah Johnson” the other night. It’s yet another film in which Redford claims a special spiritual connection with indigenous people or creatures of the wild lands, who are invariably belittled as noble failures beside Redford’s stronger white man instincts.
And it’s also because I watched, again, two brilliant Burt Lancaster films, being “The Sweet Smell of Success”, where he plays a black-hearted, possibly incestuous, oppressive and powerful newspaper columnist; and “Elmer Gantry”, in which he’s a charismatic hobo who reinvents himself by joining a tent show revival that is heading into dangerous mystical terrain.
For his role in “Elmer Gantry”, one of Lancaster’s greatest, he (deservedly) won the Oscar for Best Actor.
For a superhumanly fit fellow, Lancaster certainly proved false the axiom that exercise clears the mind, entirely. Initially hired by Hollywood for his physique, he didn’t let it define him.
He could be a psychopath, vicious and cruel without needing a gun. He could be the old deluded man in “Atlantic City”, perving through the curtains as his young neighbour, played by Susan Sarandon, washed herself down with lemons in the sink.
He ventured into strange, uncomfortable places. “The Swimmer”, of 1968, is the story of a man who decides to swim home across the backyard swimming pools of wealthy Connecticut. He spends most of the movie in tight trunks as he laps his way to a sorry truth.
Ridiculed as a pretentious film, it was nevertheless a brave one. There is the dodgy “Valdez is Coming”, in which he plays a Mexican constable who seeks to avenge a Mexican widow with a none-too-subtle crucifix tied to his back.
And there’s “Castle Keep”, a war/art/acid film co-starring Peter Falk and Bruce Dern, in which a straggler crew of US misfit soldiers, some of them thugs, some of them intellectuals, are sent to guard a count’s castle against the Germans.
One of the soldiers develops a sexual attraction for a Volkswagen. It’s that kind of film. It was 1969.
Burt Lancaster conducted or participated in these remarkable experiments as a seeker rather than a big box office opportunist, which is why he needed to create his own production company to make films the big studios wouldn’t touch.
There were, of course, popular successes, such as “Bird Man of Alcatraz”, “The Killers”, “From Here To Eternity”, “Gunfight at the OK Corral”, “Separate Tables”, “Elmer Gantry”, “Judgment at Nuremburg”, “Atlantic City” and “Local Hero”.
He worked with the Europeans making foreign language films. There were many forgettable films but his achievements were extraordinary. He never won the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. Robert Redford, whose musical equivalent is Bob Geldof, won in 2002.
Redford turned down the role of playing drunkard lawyer Frank Galvin in “The Verdict”, because he said he didn’t want to play “such a loser”. It doesn’t say much for the depth by which Redford approaches his craft, but it says much about how he wants himself to be seen.
His longtime accomplice, Paul Newman, took the Frank Galvin role and won an Oscar nomination.
And who, out of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, starring in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, could have swapped to the other actor’s role and made it work?
The answer is not Robert Redford.
Redford launched the 34th Sundance Festival this week saying: “We show stories of what people in America are really dealing with, and really living with, against a consequence of having a government that’s let them down.
“People can come and say, ‘God, at least we’re seeing how people are really living in America, and what they’re up against.’ We square away on the 99 percent.”
Starbucks is the official coffee supplier of Sundance.
The LA Times reported that amid this year’s numerous films, which are generally shortlisted for their depictions of American hardship, Sundance corporate sponsors provided special guests with free snow boots and iPads, canapés, Grey Goose vodka, Sugar lip exfoliations (whatever that is), hair touch ups, fancy exclusive dinners and “gifting suites”, where celebrities line up to be showered with free clothes and gadgets.
Sundance is a time for sponsors, such as Natrol, which set up a lounge offering Vitamin B-12 5000mcg Fast Dissolve drinks, to issue media releases which tend never to see the light of day. Except here.
“It was exciting to see B-12 become the energizing hit of Sundance among actors, musicians, filmmakers and filmgoers alike,” states Lisa Sheppard, Sr, Director of Marketing at Natrol, Inc. “The streets of Sundance were buzzing with people not only familiar with our product’s ability to provide energy and focus, but also the convenience of taking an easily dissolvable, and tasty pill on the run.”
Such is Redford’s annual celebration of himself.
Male actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, George Clooney and Brad Pitt years ago overtook Redford and left him in their dust. He can teach them nothing. But those actors are still trailing Lancaster.
In 1986, Lancaster appeared in an advertisement advocating AIDS awareness, at a time when it was considered unwise to do so. He joined Martin Luther King Jr’s March on Washington in 1963. But he remained a private and enigmatic man who let his films do the talking. As a true star should.
Lancaster’s gravestone simply reads: “Burt Lancaster, 1913—1994”. As a true star’s should.
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