Though known later in life for his political activism and dedication to independent film through his Sundance Film Festival, actor Robert Redford was a major box office star in the 1960s and 1970s. Whether in lighthearted romantic comedies or paranoid thrillers, Redford starred in a string of hits that twice featured collaborations with friend Paul Newman. He was nominated for an Academy Award only once in this period, but that mattered little for Redford whose all-American looks and subtle humor made him one of Hollywood’s top leading men.
In the second of three on-screen pairings with Jane Fonda, Redford reprised his Broadway role in this adaptation of Neil Simon’s hit play. Redford played Paul, a newly married man who happens to be a hard-working stuffed shirt, while Fonda played his spontaneous and free-spirited new bride. Both adjust to marriage and each other while contending with their tiny Greenwich Village apartment and the eclectic neighbors that come with it. A charming film, Barefoot in the Park showed a lighter side to Redford’s persona before his string of dark thrillers the following decade. The title refers to Redford’s character finally cutting loose by getting drunk, skipping work and running shoeless in Washington Square Park.
An all-time classic Western directed by George Roy Hill, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the first collaboration between Redford and Paul Newman, resulting in two of the greatest films of the New Hollywood era. Redford was the Sundance Kid to Newman’s Butch Cassidy, two outlaws who stay one step ahead of the law while fleeing to Bolivia after robbing the Union Pacific one too many times. Redford and Newman were in fine display as the bickering duo that tries to outrun a relentless posse hired by the railroad company, particularly when Butch plans a desperate escape by jumping off a cliff into a raging river, only to discover Kid doesn’t know how to swim. The film was the top-grossing film in 1969 and went on to earn six Academy Award nominations, winning three including Best Screenplay for William Goldman.
One of the great movies about politics to be released in any era, The Candidate was a classic satire that skewed the idea of media-manipulated campaigns while adhering to the standard line that power corrupts. Released during the re-election of the slithering Richard Nixon, the film starred Redford as Bill McKay, an idealistic liberal attorney and the son of a former governor handpicked by a campaign operative (Peter Boyle) to challenge an incumbent Republican senator (Don Porter) for his seat. McKay agrees, but only if he’s allowed to speak honestly to the people. But as he climbs in the polls, McKay comes to realize that truth in politics often gives way to expediency and eventually becomes to type of candidate he first spoke out against. With an Oscar-winning script by Eugene McCarthy speechwriter, Jeremy Lerner, The Candidate was a hit with audiences and critics while remaining as relevant today as it was in 1972.
A poignant, albeit weepy romance tinged with politics, The Way We Were was a hugely popular film that helped cement Redford’s place as a major star. The film starred Barbra Streisand as a fiery leftist activist who falls in love with Redford’s struggling writer following a brief encounter in 1937. Eight years later, the pair meet again and resume their passionate affair, moving to Hollywood so he can work as a screenwriter after penning a failed novel. But the two are torn apart by the Communist witch hunt of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, leading both to go their separate way. They meet up once more in the 1960s, only this time both wonder whether or not it’s worth getting together again. Largely a Streisand vehicle – she won the Oscar for her popular title song – Redford nonetheless was the beneficiary of the film’s massive success.
The second and final pairing between Redford and Newman, this blockbuster caper comedy directed by George Roy Hill was undoubtedly the most successful film of the actor’s career. Redford was a young grifter who enlists the help of a washed-up con man (Newman) to avenge the murder of an old friend by the hand of a ruthless Irish mobster (Robert Shaw). The two embark on an elaborate confidence game involving dozens of players in order to take the mobster for all he’s worth. Full of twists and turns every step of the way, The Sting was a huge box office hit that received a whopping 10 Academy Award nominations, including one for Redford as Best Supporting Actor. Though he went home empty handed, the film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.
The second of three paranoid thrillers directed by Alan J. Pakula in the decade, Three Days of the Condor was an unconventional spy movie that featured a reluctant hero thrown into a web of intrigue without really knowing what he’s up against. Redford played Joe Turner, a bookish CIA analyst who scours written material from around the world for hidden meanings who steps out of the office to get lunch, only to return and find everyone dead. On the run and targeted by assassins, Turner tries to stay one step ahead while unearthing a conspiracy that involves the very people he works for while enlisting the help of a stranger (Faye Dunaway) who happens to be the only person he can trust. Directed by Sydney Pollack, Three Days of the Condor was a tense thriller that served as a precursor to the techno-thrillers of the 1990s and beyond.
The third and best of Pakula’s paranoid thrillers, All the President’s Men starred Redford as fresh-faced Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, who partners with veteran journalist Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to investigate the arrest of five burglars at the Democratic National Committee headquarters inside the Watergate hotel. The seemingly innocuous break-in leads the reporters to stumble upon a possible connection to the White House, as both dig deeper into a story that would eventually bring down a sitting president in one of the most notorious political scandals in American history. Redford was excellent as the intrepid Woodward, who uses his connection to the mysterious Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) to “follow the money” and unravel a convoluted conspiracy. Once again, the film was a box office hit and earned several Academy Award nominations.