In his latest movie, 'A River Runs Through It,' director Robert Redford aims for the eloquence of silence, seeming still, running deep

TROUBLED WATERS

October 18, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

He is haunted by silences.

It's a WASP thing, so don't ask: the reticence, the sense of shyness, the careful control, the unwillingness ever to put things into words or ever to confront those messy hormonal squalls called emotions and instead the channeling of every last rogue mote of emotional energy into either work or play but never life its own self.

The silence of the WASPs.

"I know," says Robert Redford. "I was raised in silence. I'm comfortable with silence. My screenwriter was a Jew and he kept saying, 'Why don't you guys just talk about things?' But we don't."

And so it is that Redford, who as a movie star stands for WASP beauty, as a director has become the poet laureate of WASP silence. And so it is that the man himself is an icon of his own most favorite subject: He's pleasant, slightly aloof, very much in control, yearning to be taken seriously, yet somehow ensnared in silence, even when he speaks. One senses his bone-deep reluctance to open up the can.

A little shorter than the American average, but not so you'd notice if you weren't looking for flaws, the 55-year-old movie star is trim and rumpled in a Washington hotel room, his blue eyes as direct and unevasive as rifle scope lenses. He's in pleated chinos and a black T-shirt and some kind ofdepressingly chic mahogany Italian loafers, though happily a battered pair of cowboy boots has been spotted in an anteroom. His blond hair, thicker than amber waves of wheat, sprawls across his skull, crowning that very square-jawed face, now ever-so-gently creased with age.

An unlikely subject

The subject at hand isn't, however, his leathery face but "A River Runs Through It," which opens at the Senator Friday and is the third film Redford has directed. It is possibly the least likely project ever taken by a major Hollywood player -- an epiphany of WASP silences as a proud family watches its brightest star simply destroy himself, derived from a novella by a 77-year-old man.

The book is by Norman Maclean, a University of Chicago professor. It recalls his youth in a Montana of sparkling rivers and dysfunctional families, primarily his own. Barely 100 pages long, the story recounts the adventures of the Maclean men from 1910 through 1935, men who were only really fluent and relaxed and centered when they were thigh-deep in the cold rush of the Blackfoot, flicking a concoction of knot and feather called a "fly". The trick is to snap this ersatz-insect at the end of 50 yards of nylon line just above the surface, hoping that its trompe l'oeil flight will swindle a trout into believing it's the real McCoy. The Maclean men were exquisite at this art; otherwise, they were disintegrating.

"Tom McGuane sent me the book in 1980," says Redford. "I read the first sentence and I knew I was lost."

First sentence: "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing."

"I knew two things right away," Redford recalls 12 years later. "First, how tough, how impossible it would be to make, because it was so 'literary.' It was a story that existed entirely in words, and its power was the power of the lyricism in the words. And second, I knew I had to try, because it reached into what was important as history, but also personal history. So I had to try to make it happen."

Redford also knew such a movie could not be made within the American studio system -- thus he endeavored to make it independently.

The first obstacle

But his first obstacle was Maclean himself, probably one of no more than three or four grown-up American males who had . . . never heard of Robert Redford.

"I visited him three times in Chicago. He was not impressed with me, not a bit of it. He thought I just exemplified Hollywood, which he called the place of the grease and weasel. Grease for how your hands felt when you shook hands with someone from Hollywood, and weasel for the way they tried to weasel out of their financial obligations."

It's kind of an amusing image: one of the most handsome, most famous, most vigorous men in the world at the apex of his career pitching woo to a crusty octogenarian who only wants to go fly-fishing and hasn't the faintest idea who this guy is.

Finally, Redford made an offer. He said he'd show Maclean the first draft of a screenplay.

"If you don't like it, pull the plug. If not, let me make the damned movie."

Maclean ultimately said yes but died in 1990 at age 87, before the film was complete enough to see.

"I'm not quite prepared to say that's a tragedy," says Redford, brutally candid. "You have to know it was basically a no-win deal. There was no way he could let it go. On top of that, he was basically an unsophisticated man, for an intellectual. He cared about three things -- baseball, fly-fishing and Shakespeare. . . . I'm not sure he would have been satisfied with my version of his story."

He recalls that when he showed a rough cut of his first film, "Ordinary People" to Judith Guest, author of the novel on which the movie was based, he warned her to "be prepared."

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