SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Friday night ended up providing one of the most emotional moments I’ve seen in all my years of attending the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. It came at the end of a very long evening saluting the career of actor Robert Redford, one that wasn’t even long enough, actually, as the timeline had to top out at “Ordinary People” lest the celebration spill over far too much. And it was a grace note representative of the heart of this festival.
To get the disclosure out of the way, I count SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling as a friend. He attended my wedding. We’ve made time to enjoy each other’s company when we’ve both found ourselves in New York, in Telluride, what have you. He is easily one of the classiest, most giving and passionate individuals I’ve ever met and he curates this festival with all of that grace.
I love the Santa Barbara tribute apparatus because it reads so much less as an attempt to capitalize on the awards season than it does a seized opportunity to sit down with accomplished artists for two, sometimes three hours and just marinate in their careers. You don’t get that anywhere else, certainly not at this volume and consistency.
Roger broke down a bit last night. He took to the stage, his voice breaking as he recounted the waterfall jump scene from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” one he frequently discusses with his students in a film class he’s been teaching locally for years. You know it well: Butch sees leaping into the water below as his and Sundance’s only escape. But, the Kid finally screams, Sundance can’t swim. “The fall will probably kill you,” Cassidy howls.
Roger drew a parallel, noting that as a gay Latino man in Panama with no opportunity there, he took his own plunge and came to America. And in 1991, he was introduced to the Sundance Film Festival.
“I jumped into this amazing culture where a person could spend all day watching and talking about films,” he said. “There’s such a sense of purity in film festivals.”
He had found his calling and when he took up his duty as director of the Santa Barbara fest, he embarked on what he said was the most fulfilling experience of his life…until Friday night, when he could honor Redford personally. And it was the spotlight-eschewing Redford who requested Durling, not some star from his past, to present the American Riviera Award to him, festival director to festival director. You could tell that touched Roger deeply.
“To the man who has taught me how to jump,” Roger said, the words catching in his throat. “I can proudly say to you I’ve learned how to swim.”
It was really quite wonderful and in acceptance, Redford spoke to something Roger had noted about community. Film festivals are very much about community, he said, and being here for this honor was a bit of a homecoming as Redford knows these shores well. He’s a child of Southern California where he spent plenty of his days surfing and soaking up the sun. This community, he said, was special.
It was just a brilliant close to the evening, which dived as deep as it could given the late start and time allotment. This sort of thing is not Redford’s bag, you see. “I’ve always been shy around celebrations of myself,” he told moderator Leonard Maltin. “I don’t know why that is, but I’m glad I’m getting it…I don’t look back. I never have. One day you look at your rear view mirror and suddenly there’s history. It’s weird.”
From a “Perry Mason” episode called “The Case of the Treacherous Toupee” to a stunning near-silent portrayal in “All is Lost,” Redford’s history is clearly significant. But his journey was troubled, he admitted. As a minority Anglo in a largely Latino Los Angeles neighborhood growing up after World War II, his life turned violent and his family had to move. Art was presented to him as a “trivial pursuit.” He always had an outlaw sensibility, one of the reasons he liked making “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” – he was comfortable being outside the box.
He told stories of his time on the stage, how performing in a comedy two days after the assassination of President Kennedy, he could tell the laughter had changed in the room, and maybe in America, “because our belief system had been shattered,” he said. He consistently deferred credit for some of his most revered work to his filmmaker collaborators, whether Sydney Pollack on “The Way We Were,” George Roy Hill (who Redford said didn’t get enough credit as a storyteller) on “Butch Cassidy” and “The Sting” or, indeed, J.C. Chandor on “All is Lost.”
He spoke of Paul Newman’s generosity, not just in life but as a fellow actor, never hoarding, always providing a platform for his co-stars to sing. He told the long but compelling story of “All the President’s Men’s” four-year journey to the screen, beginning on the set of 1972’s “The Candidate.” And he spoke of his “insatiable curiosity about everything,” the driving force of his creative life.
When talk turned to “All is Lost,” he told again the story of how a 30-page script from a Sundance alumnus intrigued him from the outset. “With all that film has become, it’s taken it further away from pure cinematic experience,” he said. “This was pure.”
When a clip of 1974’s “The Great Gatsby” was shown, his Jay Gatsby sparring with Bruce Dern’s Tom Buchanan over Mia Farrow’s Daisy Buchanan, Maltin noted that it was a bit of a trailer for Saturday night’s Modern Master tribute to Dern. “Ask him when you see him if he remembers me,” Redford said.
That seemed to sum up Redford’s disposition well. Consistent deferment, shyness of the spotlight, curious of others. He is more concerned with discussing, at length, the ideas behind all of his work than the glitzy movie star elements therein or puffing up his accomplishments. He’s an easy talker, a thoughtful talker, and you could set up a whole other two hours to run from “Ordinary People” through his work in the 1980s and 1990s that wasn’t even touched due to time.
But it all boiled down, for me, to that lovely little ode by Roger. I’m probably most happy for him, that he could finally look a personal hero, a man whose life course changed his own, in the eye and say, “Thank you.”
“All is Lost’ arrives on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday, Feb. 11. For more on Redford’s experience working on the film, check out the exclusive clip embedded at the top of this post.