Robert Redford has been thrust into the awards-season storm courtesy of All Is Lost, and with good reason. As the lone actor in J.C. Chandor’s one-man stranded-at-sea drama (out in limited release today), Redford gives an almost completely silent turn as an anonymous sailor who finds himself in a life-or-death battle with the elements. It’s a commanding and arresting performance by the actor, whose quiet countenance and deliberate physicality express his protagonist’s resourcefulness, resolve, and anguish with powerful directness. (Vulture’s David Edelstein calls it a career-best performance.) The film rests on Redford’s shoulders, and he bears that burden magnificently. Which is no surprise — he’s a great movie star, and movie stars are referred to as such because they’re great at commanding the screen.
But when it comes to handing out golden statuettes, the Academy doesn’t really like movie stars; it likes “actors.” And specifically, it likes actors — especially older ones — who at least feign an interest in seriousness. Just like the widely held misconception that comedies are frivolous fluff and dramas are oh-so-very important — thereby compelling the likes of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey to chase Oscar glory through humor-free performances — there remains a common notion that seriousness often comes with age. That idea is coloring the current hoopla around Redford, as the huzzahs thrown his way seem to have less to do with the actual work at hand (impressive as it is) than with the wrinkles on his face — not to mention his dearth of acting Oscars (he won for directing 1981’s Ordinary People, and got a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002) and his former reputation as a beloved leading man.
In other words, it’s time to make up for prior mistakes and celebrate one of Hollywood’s all-time greats, now that he’s 77 years old and, therefore, somehow more dignified, wise, and substantial. That’s not an uncommon modus operandi; Hollywood loves to tout “comeback” performances by stars previously ignored by awards bodies, even if said stars had been working consistently for decades, and often to considerable artistic success. Creeping around the Redford–All Is Lost buzz is the nagging sense of wanting to atone for having never given him an acting Oscar — a desire that’s previously helped nab belated trophies for greats such as Paul Newman (The Color of Money), John Wayne (True Grit), Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman), Christopher Plummer (Beginners), and the most egregious example of them all, Henry Fonda (On Golden Pond).
In all those cases, the celebrated work was good, if not great. And yet where were the prizes for those stars when they were at the zenith of their — usually far younger, and more macho — stardom? What of Newman’s work in Hud and Cool Hand Luke, of Wayne’s in The Searchers, of Fonda’s in Grapes of Wrath or My Darling Clementine, or Pacino’s in The Godfather Part II and Serpico? Those stars’ eventual Oscars weren’t for their finest achievements; they were de facto career-capping honors, sentimental corrections for past oversights.
The reason Hollywood frequently finds itself in these remedial situations is that it takes its movie stars for granted. Not in terms of box office, naturally — regardless of recent talk about a dawning post-movie-star age, there’s little the industry adores more than A-listers capable of carrying franchises both domestically and internationally. But in terms of the work and skill that goes into being a movie star, Hollywood too often sees little artistic merit. It’s why Tom Cruise has only been nominated for an Oscar three times, Will Smith twice, and Harrison Ford once. And it’s why Cary Grant never won an Oscar, even though he spent an entire career being Cary Grant.
This isn’t to argue that Cruise or Smith, Ford or Clint Eastwood (or Bruce Willis, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Robert Downey Jr.) are thespians on par with the likes of Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis, artists with a gift for providing complex, nuanced portraits of the human condition. Rather, it’s to point out that what these stars do is not only incredibly difficult and largely inimitable (Tom Cruises don’t exactly materialize out of thin air every few years), but also of relatively equal cinematic value to their more feted brethren. Being a larger-than-life superstar requires outsize and empathetic charisma, confidence, poise, and sincerity, and that combination of qualities is rare in any actor, no matter the number of miles they might have on their personal odometer.
Which brings us back to Redford, now the recipient of renewed adulation because he’s aged to a point that he somehow seems statelier, graver, and more vulnerable than he did in those sixties and seventies films — Barefoot in the Park, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jeremiah Johnson, The Candidate, The Sting, Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men — that first established his greatness. Redford, of course, doesn’t have anywhere to truly come back from, since he never went anywhere, having stayed consistently busy for decades both in front of and behind the camera, to the point that he just appeared in April opposite Shia LaBeouf in his own The Company You Keep. To be sure, Redford (like any actor) has had ups and downs owing in part to uneven project selection. Yet when the term comeback is thrown about in this context, it’s code for “finally acceptable” as a potential award winner — meaning, more gray, grizzled, and dour, more actorly — than he was all those years ago when he was just a really handsome, endearing “movie star.”
The irony is that Redford is great in All Is Lost precisely because he’s a movie star _ his magnetic presence is what carries the film, in a way that a less iconic actor (young or old) could never adequately accomplish. If honored on Oscar night, it’ll be both for a distinguished career and a particularly sterling turn. But more than that, and in spite of award-season voters and pundits’ motives, it’ll also be a validation of movie stardom as a — if not the — vital force in cinema, age be damned.