A King with Feet of Clay


The 74th Venice Film Festival opens this week, at which Robert Redford is being honoured with a special Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement, alongside his co-star of their new film Our Souls At Night, Jane Fonda, also screening at the festival. Here, Paul Joyce reminisces about the time he interviewed the Hollywood veteran, and offered a little assistance with some casting…

Robert Redford is the classic eternal untouched-by-time all-American boy. Even now in his eighties he still has the capacity to stir the juices of men and women alike. How could he be so blessed? Film star, sportsman, champion skier, environmentalist, espouser of causes, instigator of The Sundance Film Festival, the list runs as long as the Mississippi River.

In 1993 Redford had extended a courtesy to myself and my film crew to attend the Sundance Festival as part of a survey we were doing on American Independent Cinema, Made in the USA. (It was the year that launched Stephen Soderbergh’s career with Sex, Lies and Videotape). He had the astonishing ability of being around quite a lot at the screenings and greetings, but also being curiously absent in his demeanour and body language. Was he tired of all the attention, because in a room full of people all eyes would be on him? Later that day, the one in question I shall return to, I saw him leap onto the ski lift bound for the upper slopes where he would be able float his skis on the powdery snow and have the wind in his hair without unwanted perlustration. No wonder he was late for our eventual interview.

He would then have been only about 57, but already his face was showing signs of the state just beyond middle age where lines are etching themselves with no prospect of amelioration. This was something he was very conscious of, both in the filmed interview and the portrait I took of him subsequently. It was, now I come to think of it, unmistakably the face of a smoker (it takes one to know one) and as I came to know him just a bit, it was clear he enjoyed a maximum of two Marlboro Lights a day, evenings only. I tried to tempt him with English cigarettes but he was adamant, not in the afternoons!

This brought to mind one of his reminiscences of love in the afternoon – not by himself, but the famous author of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck. As a teenager Redford fell in love with the daughter of a well-known Hollywood actor of the time, Zachary Scott. They would play teenage sex games around the family house, and one afternoon, hearing noises from upstairs, crept up to discover Steinbeck making violent love to Scott’s wife, Elaine, the beginning of a long-running affaire du cour. So this was a lived-in face, this icon before my camera and me, but also a watchful face, that of an experienced actor and now director. How much would I be able to get away with?

I tried a measure of distraction. “I’m a director of drama, too” I said. “Oh, yes,” came back the somewhat bored reply, “what kind?” “Well,” I replied, “I just finished a story by Turgenev for Channel Four which I re-set in Ireland during the famine.”

No response.

Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, ‘Our Souls at Night’ (2017)

“It starred Paul Scofield.” Redford’s chair scraped violently on the ground as he half rose from it.” “Paul Scofield?” he almost shouted, “you mean the English actor, the real Paul Scofield?!” “Well, yes”, I replied, startled by his outburst, “I can’t think there is another. Although he takes a somewhat proprietorial attitude towards even the name ‘Paul’. He seems to resent any other Paul being on set….” Here I trailed off as he was staring at me with great intent. “How well do you know him?” he asked.

“Oh, quite well. We exchange Christmas cards and have another project together.” He gathered his breath, ignoring the camera that threatened by now to remove a chunk of his nose, and said as nonchalantly as he could, “I’ve been trying to contact him for days, do you know how I might reach him?”. “Certainly”, I said, and rattled off the address in Balcombe, Sussex, which I knew by heart as we corresponded frequently. He waved to his English assistant who scribbled it down in her permanently chained-to-the-waist notebook.

Meanwhile, I had edged the camera gently towards him. I was experimenting with a close-up attachment screwed to my f2.8 Rolliflex that I keep aside for only the very best subjects. And he could see what I was doing. He flinched back in his chair, I edged even closer, and we continued to engage in a delicate dance around each other for a minute or two more. Finally, he turned to his assistant, a delightful lady in her mid-twenties and said, “Get a release form ready. I don’t want this photograph to be seen unless I approve it!” She scurried from the room and, seeing him momentarily distracted, I tilted the camera towards him and triggered the shutter. He scowled, got up, metaphorically wagging his finger at me and threw back over his shoulder “make sure you sign that form!”, and was gone.

Paul’s contact sheet from the shoot

His abrupt departure literally left a hole in the room. I looked at the space where he had been, momentarily in the doorway, and a curious sensation overtook me; it was as if I had been watching him in a pre-CGI film with unobtrusive but quietly arresting special effects. For now his absence from the room left a vacuum he had just occupied, which he alone could inhabit. Then his shadow on the room’s threshold folded in on itself, leaving just a darkened doorway. That kind of intensity of presence I have only encountered a handful of times in my life and, once experienced, cannot easily be erased. (Just for the record, those other occasions were with Sam Beckett, Cesar Chavez, Clint Eastwood, and Sophia Loren.)

In the mists of time and the foggy atmosphere of Sundance, I honestly can’t remember if I did sign his bloody form or not. I rather suspect I did as his attractive assistant used her wiles on me, although in doing so I had no intention of keeping to its dictates and, as far as I know, he has never seen the image in question. However, I would rather like him to object, and sue me for invasion of privacy or whatever; it might increase the print sales from a steady trickle to a more healthy minor stream.

Subsequently Paul Scofield was offered a leading role in Redford’s ‘Quiz Show’, and his performance amongst a stellar cast, garnered the majority of almost universally complimentary reviews.

The 74th Venice Film Festival runs from 30th August to 9th September 2017. For more information, visit www.labiennale.org.