Even when Robert Redford was a new-style superstar, he was old-school in the way he maintained his privacy. He brought a cool, laconic electricity to American movie acting and maintained a public reticence to match. He espoused causes without bullying his listeners or inserting his life too far into the national conversation.
He has always advocated for the arts straight from the heart. But as he displayed in a recent interview with The Baltimore Sun, he's now willing to reveal more of himself to help an aesthetic crusade. He is an impresario and a visionary. When he talks art, it's personal.
On Friday, he will speak to the Half-Century Summit of Americans for the Arts in Baltimore (June 25-27). This group considers itself and Redford's Sundance Preserve "the two pre-eminent national organizations dedicated to advancing the arts and creative industries in the United States." Redford is the summit's honorary chairman. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will open the event. Arianna Huffington will deliver the keynote address. Prior to opening day, John Waters will present a special performance of his one-man show, "This Filthy World," Thursday night at Center Stage. And that's all before the weekend.
To promote the event, Redford calls from Napa Valley while driving to a granddaughter's middle-school graduation. He says he doesn't mind bringing up personal stories when they illustrate art's ability to improve lives. He fervently believes art saved his own. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the fringes of Santa Monica, Calif. He would go to a theater that served as a social hub and offered "all the cinematic forms in one bill: a double-feature, one or two cartoons, documentaries in the form of newsreels, a Pete Smith comedy short."
He learned more there than he did at school."We were one of the few Anglo families in a district that didn't get the right kind of attention because it was Mexican. And because World War II was on, a lot of the regular teachers had gone, anyway. The substitute teachers were quite poor. I was never inspired in the classroom. I got hooked at a very young age into doodling during class."
Disaster struck when his third-grade teacher caught him cartooning at his desk. She planned to humiliate young Redford by having him display to his peers whatever it was he thought was more interesting than her class. Redford figured, "I was done for. My grades were poor, and to be a discipline problem on top of that — I thought it was the end of my life!"
Instead, the class found his drawings fascinating. And who wouldn't? "I had cowboys riding full-tilt on horses, chasing Indians off a cliff, and right over the cowboys were these B-52 bombers, bombing the cowboys." It was a spectacle of destruction. "A nihilist from the beginning," he says with a chuckle — or maybe a future art student and filmmaker.
The teacher, who was smarter and more sensitive than he thought, made a deal with Redford. He could stay in her class. In return, every Wednesday he would stand at an easel in front of the room and take 15 minutes to sketch out a story. "It made me feel not like a failure and a bum, but like somebody that had something to offer, even though it might be narrow."
Redford tells this story "as an example of how kids can be misdiagnosed because they are drawn to art, and art isn't taken as a substantial category in a school system. It has led me to promote teaching art at an early age and giving it much more of a role in the curriculum."
Redford summarizes, bluntly: "It was athletics and art that got me through school."
At the Sundance Institute, which sponsors film and performing-arts labs as well as the renowned film festival, Redford has tried to synthesize diverse ideas and experiences. As a moviemaker, Redford says, "You're always pulling different things together." He has just finished directing "The Conspirator," starring Robin Wright and James McAvoy. It centers on the trial of Mary Surratt, who was convicted as a co-conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln — and became the first woman hanged by the U.S. government. Redford says he believes "she was railroaded. There was always a question of her innocence or guilt. One thing was certain. They tried her with a military tribunal rather than a civic trial, which was her right by law."
"The Conspirator" makes him think of movies' musical qualities — and the way they bond in his head with art and athletics. "Making a film, you have a rhythm in your head ….it goes underneath everything. You want the film to flow a certain way. You may want it to have a vortex! And that rhythm is tied to music and athletics, because athletics requires its own kind of timing. When I was growing up, music and art and sports were kept separate. As I grew older, I learned that together, they can create a greater impact."