By Owen Gleiberman
November 30, 2013 at 07:00 PM EST
Evans/Everett Collection

Robert Redford is one of the movie stars of our time, yet I would contend that he’s always been an underrated actor. There are a host of reasons for that, and they feed into each other in subtle, at times mythic ways. You could say, on the one hand, that Redford was too golden-boy pretty (always a surefire way to not get nearly the respect you deserve), or that he was too understated as a screen presence, or that he was too openly skeptical of the Hollywood game. Redford had his first major big-screen role in 1965, in Inside Daisy Clover, and by 1969, when he starred in the independently financed Downhill Racer, he was already seeking ways to work outside the system, and that echoed his dynamic as an actor: He played men who stood apart, who created their own private space of action and wary observation. That was the Redford mystique, and it’s what attracted audiences to him and, at the same time, allowed him to come off on screen as self-contained and even aloof. From Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) onward, Redford had the glow of a larger-than-life star, but as the 1970s rolled forward, it was his special karma to be the last WASP god in a Hollywood that was busy leaving the world he stood for — the world of WASP gods — behind.

Redford was nearly cast as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate (1967), and, in fact, had he played that role, the character would have been much closer to the fallen preppie it was originally written as. But Mike Nichols, the director of The Graduate, cast Dustin Hoffman instead, and in doing so he created a one-man, one-movie cultural revolution. Hoffman, addled and slightly gawky, with that nervous, quickened voice, was attractive in a bold new way, and by using an actor like Hoffman to represent the new youth culture, The Graduate could hardly have made it more explicit how much the world was changing. We’d never had an American movie star who looked or sounded like a noodge before, and in The Graduate, though he was technically playing a WASP, Hoffman, in spirit, made Jewish insecurity and fervor both charismatic and heroic.

His performance kicked open the door to a new kind of screen star. He was dark and ethnic, he was volatile and explosive (or sometimes just subversively funny), he was very post-Brando, he was acting out his interior turmoil right up on screen. He stood for a whole new way of thinking and being. He was Hoffman in The Graduate, he was Elliott Gould in M*A*S*H, he was Al Pacino in The Godfather and Serpico, he was Robert De Niro in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and he was Jack Nicholson in every film he made from Five Easy Pieces through One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Viewed against that backdrop, Robert Redford, though his career was still young, already seemed like the old guard. Granted, he was the hip version of the old guard; for a moment there, when he wore that mustache in Butch Cassidy, he was the coolest sex symbol on earth. (Just ask every woman who saw the movie.) Yet his pairing with Paul Newman was telling: Newman, who himself was once the coolest sex symbol on earth, was now old guard too. Unlike the other rising stars of the time, Robert Redford wasn’t dark, wasn’t ethnic, and he wasn’t volatile either. He was crisp, wry, contained, maybe even a little diffident, and as presentable as an Arrow shirt; he didn’t get ruffled, at least on the outside. He was grace under pressure, but the movie era he was now part of was one in which actors triumphed by letting you see the pressure. In the passionate, faltering, hurly-burly ’70s, grace now seemed an unaffordable luxury.

The result of all this, I think, is that Redford, though one of the central presences in our movies, was largely taken for granted as far as his acting artistry went. And yet what he did, in its quieter way, was extraordinary. Take a Redford film like The Candidate (1972), an early example of a movie he not only starred in but shepherded, paving the way for a new breed of star who would take creative control of his career in a way that movie actors prior to the ’70s simply weren’t allowed to. In The Candidate, Redford plays a youthful, charismatic, untested idealist who is tapped by the Democratic power structure to run against the establishment Republican candidate in a race for the U.S. Senate seat in California. Seen now, the film is almost shockingly prophetic: It’s about how, in the media-advertising era, the manipulative strategic gamesmanship of politics — that is, the marketing — was already starting to take over the content. Redford’s Bill McKay is trying to fight his way through that process, and the beauty of Redford’s performance is that he builds the character not simply as a white-knight hero trapped in the muck of a corrupt campaign but as an opportunist fatally caught between saying what he believes and saying what he’s told will get him elected. He becomes a vaguely liberal hollow man who wants to stand apart from the media madness but is also part of it, because he starts to forget what he stood for. The performance draws on Redford’s hidden doubts, on the pensive awareness that he’s somehow falling short — inside — of living up to the image that draws us to him. It’s like his deconstruction not just of politics but of movie stardom.

Or take Redford in Three Days of the Condor (that’s him, pictured above), the 1975 thriller in which he’s a CIA desk jockey who finds himself up to his white collar in a conspiracy he must untangle. Made in the midst of Watergate, the movie isn’t art; it’s entertaining furrowed-brow pulp. But it’s a perfect example of what I love about Redford’s acting: Peeling away layer upon layer of government duplicity, he is one of the screen’s great listeners, who acts not by erupting but with the deep-focus intensity of his intelligence. Throughout Three Days of the Condor, he acts by reacting. Even when he’s standing still, not saying a word, his presence vibrates — it has a silently edged hum. He make WASP containment electrifying.

The actors who became the new giants of Hollywood in the ’70s — Hoffman, Pacino, De Niro — were all, in different ways, acting out a kind of aftermath-of-the-counterculture psychodrama. It was their special karma to be rebels in a post-rebellion world. Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon (1975),  for instance, is playing a loser and a petty sociopath, a guy who doesn’t really stand for anything (though one of the movie’s dark jokes is that he thinks he does when he gets up in front of the bank he wanted to rob and shouts “Attica! Attica!”). Yet even in his absence of morality, his utter sweaty desperation, he taps the audience’s underlying, turbulent distrust of authority and institutions: This, the movie is saying, is what our world can now drive a person to do.

Redford, by contrast, was too straight, too composed, to ever toss a bomb at the culture. Yet he was the representative of the establishment who saw through its lies. One of the reasons that All the President’s Men (1976) works so brilliantly not just as an intricate true-life newspaper thriller, but as a myth of muckraking you can watch over and over again, is that it unites the yin and yang of ’70s acting — Hoffman with his anxious, jittery Method obsessiveness, Redford with his no-sweat, pragmatic awareness — and it doesn’t just pair them but fuses them. During rehearsals, the two actors learned each other’s lines, so that it would seem like Woodward and Bernstein were finishing each other’s sentences. It remains one of Redford’s two or three most commanding performances, because it’s like a side-by-side demonstration that he could be every bit as intense as the actors who were revered, more than he was, as artists of explosive personality.

Redford, early on, got a lot of mileage out of proving that he could clown around in Butch Cassidy, but he was not, deep down, a clown; he was deeply serious and a kind of crusader, and he made his own reticence into something stirring. In at least one movie, The Way We Were (1973), he also made it deeply romantic. The pairing of Redford, as a WASP hunk who could almost be one the Kennedy brothers, and Barbra Streisand, as the lefty Jewish girl who yammers her affection so passionately that she wins him over, had an Astaire-and-Rogers, he-gives-her-class-she-gives-him-sex perfection about it; it’s not a great movie — more like a great piece of schlock — but in its way it’s wistfully timeless. The same dynamic worked, in a more stiff-upper-lip fashion, in Out of Africa (1985), which came on at the time as a “prestige” biopic but is Redford’s other most swooned-over love story.

Through all these performances, in movies that a lot of people still watch with fervor, Redford was nominated for an Academy Award….exactly once. It was for his performance in The Sting (1973), which was basically one of Hollywood’s first franchise sequels. In essence, it was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Con Man, and one of the last truly carefree larks that Redford ever made. The fact that he never got any Oscar love has always been treated as the footnote in his career that it probably deserves to be. Yet it’s revealing: How could Hollywood, year after year, not nominate such a quintessential movie star? It may have had to do with the fact that Redford, the man who would launch the Sundance Film Festival as a way to re-energize and even reinvent movies, looked askance at a lot of what Hollywood was, and he wasn’t shy about letting that be known. He probably wasn’t much of an Oscar politician. But I also think that the lack of Academy Awards recognition reflects the persistent underrating of his achievements. It became a kind of reflex to think that Redford got by on “presence,” unlike an actor such as Pacino, who acted the hell out of every scene.

And that’s what makes his performance this year in All Is Lost such a deliverance. Playing a man stranded at sea in his small, cramped, damaged yacht, with no radio and about 10 days’ rations left, Redford has no other actors to play off, and virtually no dialogue, and that allows him to deliver a one-man acting tour de force. Yet a major part of what I love about All Is Lost is the way that writer-director J.C. Chandor has conceived the movie to tap into the mythology of Robert Redford, into who he always was as a screen star. In this movie, he’s portrayed, almost literally, as the last WASP, a golden old man stuck on a sailboat, isolated and self-sufficient, so much so that he is now cut off from civilization; the movie’s poetic suggestion is that civilization has left him behind. And the qualities that have always defined Redford as an actor define the character as well. He is terse, hardy, quietly resourceful, nearly detective-like, controlled, reticent, maybe withholding. The movie opens with him reading, in voice-over, a letter of apology to his family, and since what he’s apologizing for remains vague, the subtext we’re left with is that he’s apologizing for being Robert Redford: for having so much beauty, and incarnating so much establishment privilege, and for somehow failing to give back everything that he thought he owed.

Chandor has said that he wanted to see what Redford would become as an actor if a movie took away his voice, and All Is Lost made me realize, in its very absence, what a marvelous instrument Redford’s voice has always been: so light yet intense, so dartingly expressive in its precision. Since he hardly gets a word to speak in All Is Lost, the movie forces us, instead, to focus on his face, and what comes through is a slow, roiling ocean of feeling, a faith in his own know-how that gives way, slowly, to a terror that dares not speak its name and, beneath that, to a yearning that echoes the one that Chiwetel Ejiofor expresses with his eyes in 12 Years a Slave: a desire not just to survive but to live. All Is Lost may finally win Robert Redford the recognition as an actor that he has too often been denied. But if that happens, it will not be because he has given the most accomplished performance of his career. It will be because he acts in All Is Lost with a stoic and disarming greatness that is so beautifully of a piece with what made him great before.

So what’s your all-time favorite Robert Redford performance? Do you agree with me that he is, in some essential way, underrated as an actor? And how do you think All Is Lost stacks up in the Redford canon?